Paul Ramsey, a lifelong Methodist, used to say that Protestants made eminently better interpreters of papal documents because they did not read between the lines. They just read what was on the page. Reading the proposed redraft of the United Methodist Social Principles feels a bit like that. I am sure there will be much reading between the lines, but I am blissfully unaware of what such reading will find. Of particular importance to myself and Providence readers will be the issues that deal with social and political topics. United Methodists are the second largest Protestant denomination in the US, and how they approach these issues should concern all Christians.
As background, the 2016 United Methodist General Conference asked the denomination’s political advocacy agency, the General Board of Church and Society, to redraft the Social Principles for consideration by the 2020 General Conference. This redraft was to make them “more succinct, more theologically grounded, and more globally relevant.” They are perhaps more succinct but fail to achieve the other two objectives.
The word “community” guides the Social Principles’ structure. It’s a curious word which the document never defines. What is a community? What is the biblical, philosophical, or historical basis within the Christian tradition for the invocation of these communities? For instance, how does the social community differ from the political? Why should the social community rather than the political deal with healthcare issues? That would seem to be an issue addressed to the one entity that has charge for the common good of a particular group of people.
What are the governing principles that hold this document together? Traditional Catholic social teaching is grounded in three distinct societies—church, state, and family—and each society serves a specific end. The proliferation of communities under this Methodist document leaves one confused as to what fundamental principles shape Methodists’ convictions that these societies are in harmony with Christian doctrine.
There is the “Community of All Creation,” “Nurturing Community,” “Social Community,” “Political Community,” “Economic Community,” and “World Community.” Under each community is a serious of moral issues that supposedly fall under the purview of that community. Some issues seem obvious. The document discusses economic issues mostly under the economic community, but health care, which is surely an economic issue if it’s anything, falls under social issues. War and peace issues belong to the world community. This makes a certain amount of sense, but if politics is about anything it is first and foremost the security of a certain political community assigned to those who are responsible for that community.
The section on “Social Community” is basically a recitation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). While aspects of this declaration were surely Christian inspired—Jacques Maritain and Charles Malik were both Christians on the drafting committee—surely Methodists do not hold the declaration as inspired. From the Social Principles’ wording, it’s hard to tell. And surely there is more to say about social community than a document that was produced in the mid-twentieth century! The Christian church has been reflecting on these issues for two thousand years. There may be something else there to draw upon.
One of the guidelines for the principles is that they be succinct and theologically grounded. Often it seems the former, rather than the latter, trumps, but many of the positions are a laundry list of current liberal pieties rather than theological principles. Why does the UDHR have canonical status for Methodists? No argument is made, just assertion. The document assumes human rights are unproblematically Christian, but one wonders if the authors care about the non-existence of human rights in the Bible or the ways in which human rights language essentially offers cover for almost any political position imaginable.
If a document is going to guide a community in being faithful and obedient to the Gospel in the modern world’s complex terrain, spelling out how one arrives at a particular conclusion is as important as the conclusion to that train of thought. Medical ethics is an area fraught with moral landmines, but the section on “Organ Transplantation and Donation” reads more like a public service announcement favoring transplantation and donation than a theological discernment. Paul Ramsey, the most important Christian medical ethicist, had deep reservations about the practice of organ donation and transplantation, especially in the ways it can be abused, which we often see today. On more than one topic the principles come across as naïve, offering blanket generalization where nuance and subtlety are required.
The section on government is particularly confusing. As mentioned earlier, the Social Principles discusses war and peace in the world community section, but as far as I know wars are fought between nations, not the United Nations. The biblical basis for understanding the role of government as instituted by God in the New Testament throughout history has been Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17. Paul and Peter agree that government’s first duty is punishing injustice. For nearly two millennia, this was understood as the first, though not only, purpose of government. The document invokes neither passage. Instead, we are told Micah 6:8 means that government is “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” This is a favorite passage of Christians eager to affirm the importance of justice for the church. But as a grounding for the purposes of contemporary democratic government, it will take some argumentation.
As an aside, when talking about military service the authors claim there are differences of opinion among Christians. But under the section on war and peace it states, unequivocally, “war contradicts the teaching and example of Christ.” Of course, this statement stands in contradiction to Christian Just War teaching from Augustine up to present that war is an act of neighbor love to protect the innocent and stop the aggressor from committing injustice.
Drawing on biblical material takes some care. Secular government is not Israel, and only the most rabid theocrat would desire to make government accountable to biblical commands addressed to God’s people. How do we distinguish between Israel and secular government? One might draw upon Old Testament material, as many Christians have done in the past two thousand years, through distinctions among various uses of the law, as Calvin did, or among various types of law—eternal, divine, natural, positive—as Aquinas did. Augustine of Hippo famously made a distinction between two cities—one sojourning toward heaven, the other raging in opposition to God. But the Social Principles seems to assume it knows the right position without reference to the tradition since these distinctions are completely absent.
The one task the Social Principles name for government is the protection of “sojourners, widows, and orphans.” Apparently, the authors cannot imagine any other purpose. No doubt the Bible affirms the need for justice for these groups within society. God commanded Israel and the church to especially look after these vulnerable groups. What we do not find in the Old or New Testament is any conviction that the state is responsible to give “adequate resources needed to thrive.” That would be anachronistic since there was no state; there were only kings and emperors. The idea of a welfare state would have to wait 1,900 years before coming into existence. One may make a complex argument that the purpose of government is to care for a commonweal that includes a vast welfare state. But there is no argument in the Methodist document, just assertion with a sprinkling of scriptural citations.
If there is one recurring problem with this document, it is that it knows too much and explains too little. These statements assume what should not be assumed, namely, that we already know the right answers. We do not. Christians of good faith differ on many of these issues. But where there is a difference, especially on social and political issues, one must make an argument from within the tradition to demonstrate how he or she arrives at a conclusion from the authoritative sources of the faith.
Christian theology must give an account for itself, especially in complex matters of social and political ethics. Someone cannot merely point to a verse from the Bible to solve these questions. Historically, Christians have felt compelled by conviction and conscience to work from the scriptural text, though this is often blended with extra-biblical sources. We do not specifically find rights, dignity, or the common good in the Bible, but Christians through the ages have argued that these terms help to fully flesh out biblical concepts of justice and the human person that are central to political life. The United Methodist Social Principles fails to explain how the authors derive their conclusions from the authority of scripture, which should be the ultimate rule and guide for Christian social principles. And it fails even to reference the long and illustrious history of Christian reflection on these questions.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: By Steve Snodgrass, via Flickr.