Wesleyan Social Justice

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Social justice is an incendiary term these days. In some circles, it is no less than an expectation, a way of life. In others, it is a vile concept that leeches away resources from those who barely have enough to those too lazy to take care of themselves. Of course, it really depends on who you ask and where they fall on the socio-political spectrum. A dictionary definition (straight from dictionary.com) says, social justice is “fair treatment of all people in a society, including respect for the rights of minorities and equitable distribution of resources among members of a community.”[1] Another definition is “The objective of creating a fair and equal society in which each individual matters, their rights are recognized and protected, and decisions are made in ways that are fair and honest.”[2] One other definition I found was, “The goal of social justice is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable, and all members are psychologically and physically safe and secure.”[3] In any case, it has to do with recognizing the inequalities of a society and trying to balance those inequalities for the betterment of the entire society. 

The term social justice dates to the early nineteenth century but the concept goes back to the ancient world. It can be found in the writings of Aristotle and later Aquinas, but more importantly, they were a part of the fabric of Israelite culture. The prophets of the Old Testament regularly railed against the Israelite elite for their treatment of the poor, the widow, and the needy, [4]  a cause Jesus takes up in the Gospels.[5] The first conceptual framework for modern social justice comes from Adam Smith in his work, The Wealth of Nations. “…this conception of the poor, as those condemned to be poor in the earth and to be hierarchically inferior and disdained by their behavior, began to change because Smith suggested a change of attitude towards the poor by saying that they also possessed the same intellectual capacities, virtues, and ambitions like any human being.”[6] By the early 1800s, this concept of social justice began to be seen, especially as a response to the abuses of the Industrial revolution in Britain and the United States. 

While he didn’t use the term, John Wesley was a champion of the major ideals of social justice—care for the poor, the need for education, fair wages—with his ideals taken from Jesus own words in the New Testament. The best way to understand this is to let Wesley speak from his own journals.

Thursday May 7 (1741)

I reminded the United Society that many of our brethren and sisters had not needful food; many were destitute of convenient clothing; many were out of business, and that without their own fault; and many sick and ready to perish: that I had done what in me lay to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to employ the poor, and to visit the sick; but was not, alone, sufficient for these things; and therefore desired all whose hearts were as my heart: 

1. To bring what clothes each could spare to be distributed among those that wanted most. 

2. To give weekly a penny, or what they could afford, for the relief of the poor and sick. 

My design, I told them, is to employ for the present all the women who are out of business, and desire it, in knitting. 

To these we will first give the common price for what work they do; and then add, according as they need. 

Twelve persons are appointed to inspect these and to visit and provide things needful for the sick. 

Each of these is to visit all the sick within her district every other day and to meet on Tuesday evening, to give an account of what she has done and consult what can be done further.

October 15, 1759

l walked up to Knowle, a mile from Bristol, to see the French prisoners. About eleven hundred of them, we are informed, were confined in that little place, without anything to lie on but a little dirty straw, or anything to cover them but a few foul thin rags, either by day or night, so that they died like rotten sheep. I was much affected and preached in the evening on (Exodus 23:9), “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Eighteen pounds were contributed immediately, which were made up four-and-twenty the next day. With this we bought linen and woolen cloth, which were made up into shirts, waistcoats, and breeches. Some dozen of stockings were added; all which were carefully distributed where there was the greatest want. Soon after, the Corporation of Bristol sent a large quantity of mattresses and blankets. And it was not long before contributions were set on foot at London and in various parts of the kingdom; so that I believe from this time they were pretty well provided with all the necessaries of life.

The journals of John Wesley are a good place to go if one would understand Wesley’s social justice. The pages are filled with his own words, bringing light to the expectations he placed on the societies he began. These expectations are nothing less than the literal expectations of Jesus taken from the gospels. Wesley is advocating caring for the poor, the needy, the hurting, and even the enemy, as seen with the French prisoners, and his justification is scripture itself. 

Many have come to fear the idea of social justice because certain influential talking heads, naysayers, and powerbrokers see this kind of thinking as undermining their bottom line or diminishing their control over society. It has been turned into a political game, likely due to the governmental response to the Great Depression and the aftermath of its social programs.[7] Yet, the bible speaks plainly of social justice, many if not most of our church forebearers practiced social justice, and for the Methodist, Wesley made it a regular part of his ministry and his expectation for the ministry societies. We need to divorce the idea of social justice from the political games people play with it and embrace the practice for the poor, the hurting, the marginalized, and anyone else in need of ministry. Otherwise, we have failed to live into the very gospel we claim to believe.

[1] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/social-justice

[2] https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100515279

[3] https://www.brandeis.edu/diversity/resources/definitions.html

[4] Isaiah 1, 9, 10; Jeremiah 7, 22; Ezekiel 22; Zechariah 7; Malachi 3

[5] Matthew 5-7, 25; Luke 4, 6, 14

[6] https://web.archive.org/web/20190430080123/https://revistas.juridicas.unam.mx/index.php/mexican-law-review/article/download/11892/13684

[7] I would contend that Roosevelt’s Great Deal and the social programs it created, allowed many churches an out from having to be the principal distributors of social care programs. This led, at least in some circles, to a disdain of those who were in need and being funded by the ‘tax-dollars of hard-working people’. It is a systemic failing needing to be addressed by the Church and state, though likely, it will never be addressed to sufficiently fix the problem. Too many politicians need the ‘problem’ as part of their election platform.