Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ronald Stone, "Wesley’s demand for mercy and justice in the economic world"

I adopted Arminian Theology after leaving Calvinism because it provided the most compelling explanations of those texts which had once drawn me to Calvinism.  It is only recently that I have begun to discover the rich social ethic and social justice emphasis within the Wesleyan-Arminian theological stream.

This emphasis makes perfect sense. In Calvinist circles, I could see clearly God’s call to justice, but this call was always at odds with Calvinist Soteriology.  We would invite people to follow a God of compassion, justice and mercy, yet at the same time believed this God provided only superficially for the larger part of humanity; that is, while God provides for their physical needs he withholds from them the only thing that really matters: reconciliation.

On the other hand, if you believe that God desires the salvation of all people, and has done everything necessary to provide His salvation for them, even going so far as to die to offer them reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19), then imitating His pursuit of justice and mercy in our world makes sense.  As Walter Brueggemann commented in his commentary on Jeremiah:

…one takes on the character of the god one follows…. Loyalty one has toward any god is decisive for the shaping of human life. We become like the god we serve. Pursue a bubble and become a bubble. The object of love determines the quality of love. [1]

Over the summer I am planning to dive into Wesleyan writings on ethics and justice. I’m hoping along the way to find a popularly written book that does a good job of grounding the Christian call to justice in the character of God, and which carries that over consistently in the area of soteriology (your recommendations are welcome!). [2

I’ve picked up a number of books on this topic; one is John Wesley’s Life & Ethics by Ronald H Stone.  Dr Stone makes a few interesting remarks on the relationship between Wesley's ethic and his theology. One, for example, is in his discussion of Wesley’s essay Thoughts Upon Slavery where he suggests, “The motivation for the essay was in his closing prayer: it was his own love for God, who loved all and desired all to be loved by one another" (p 196).  Another comes in the opening paragraph of his last chapter where he writes:

Against the predestinarians and other determinists, he [Wesley] argued for human freedom or liberty as a necessary precondition of the gospel and of ethical discourse.  His insistence on human freedom in theology had ethical consequences for his passion for the abolition of slavery and his toleration of other religious opinions and systems. (p 208, emphasis in original)

And later, "The second [theological controversy of Wesley’s life] is over predestination, which in its more stark Calvinist forms doomed both ethics and evangelization in his view" (p 216).

What I really enjoyed reading was the way in which Wesley recognized and responded to the injustice he saw in the 18th century world around him. To illustrate, here is an excerpt from Dr Stone's closing chapter, "Ethics" [3]:
Evangelical Economics

John Wesley’s passion rang through his writing on economics.  Whether he was describing the inexcusable suffering of Africans forced into slavery by Europeans or the vile conditions of the English poor imposed by government and establishment, he was never temperate.  His language, syntax, and argument called for fundamental economic changes.  Some of his writing was descriptive, but with his eye on the kingdom of God, he saw clearly and described the squalor of human life.  Africans were thrown off slave ships to the depths of the Atlantic and English were forced to find their food among the dung heaps because of sin expressed in greed.


Wesley’s demand for mercy and justice in the economic world followed from his observations, study, and work with the despised of the world. There was an immediacy to his pleas for justice that in the contemporary world has resonated in the theologies of liberation.  Yet most of his pleas were for reform.  He did not expect king and Parliament to be overthrown; in fact, he dreaded revolution, whether in America or France. His specific recommendations were for reform, and in most cases they could be achieved without revolution.  Historically, most of them have been approximated, even if not sustained, without revolution.

His advocacy of the abolition of slavery was the most far-reaching of his reforms as some of the prosperity of England rested upon the wretched practice of the triangular trade. Whether wealth would be served or not, slavery was wrong, and all were admonished to end it.  Europeans were guilty of worse practices than any of the pagan empires Wesley knew about, and economic necessity was not a valid argument for maintaining slavery.  The fact that it was supported by human law was irrelevant in the confrontation with God’s law.  As with Bartolomé de las Casas and Pope Paul III in the sixteenth century, those subject to slavery were potentially subject to Christ, and they had to be freed for their evangelization.  For Wesley and the best of sixteenth-century Spanish Catholicism, humanity was free by nature, and freedom was sought out of the evangelical thrust of the gospel. The arguments of the establishment for keeping slaves were arguments in terms of economic necessity; in fact, slavery stemmed from greed, not need.

Monopolies in agriculture and consumption of grain by horses desired by the wealthy as a sign of luxury drove food prices for the poor to formidable heights in Wesley’s analysis. The monopolies in agriculture needed to be broken up and the luxurious keeping of horses ended by legislation to restore small agriculture and fair food prices. In Wesley’s eyes, unnecessary military expenses, especially unneeded fortifications, had pushed up the national debt, raising interest rates. The wasteful military expenditures needed to be curtailed and the national debt retired. Hence, he recommended policy changes for employment. His particular passion was to reduce the price for food, which consumed nearly everything the poor could earn. Taxes, prices of land, prices of food, and so forth, he reduced to governmental expenses and resultant government debt accrued in military expenditures.

Wesley wrote of thousands in England starving, and their starvation was rooted in unemployment. Without funds for anything but food, the poor could not buy the goods that the unemployed might have produced. Because he regarded all property as subject to the will of God for its wise stewardship, the luxuries of the rich were regarded as both unnecessary and a drag on the economy. He advocated steep taxation of luxuries. Believing in the wisdom of the day regarding supply and demand, he advocated getting resources into the hands of those whose demand would create more products. Thwarting the needs of the poor was the establishment's passion to live in luxury and the use of the government towards that end. He knew that certain practices (e.g., the overuse of grain in the overconsumption of alcohol) needed to be stopped, and other privileges of the rich (e.g., luxury, size of estates, and horse consumption of grain) limited to achieve a healthy economy. So he advocated for his own religious compatriots lives of economic discipline and effort with the goal of earning all one could without harming self or others, saving all one could without deprivation to family, and giving away through the church and then to the broader population all one could after family needs had been modestly met.

Wesley did not make contributions to economic theory.  He did not, at length, present any systematic perspective on economics.  But he had no reservations about relating faith and its consequences directly to contemporary economic practice.  His call for economic change toward justice and for the poor were very bold.  He knew that Christian economics was about getting scarce resources in an abundant land to those without economic power.  Furthermore, on each page of his economic writing one feels the dialectic of organization and self-help for the poor and the criticism of the powerful establishment for failing to practice just stewardship.

[1] As quoted by Craig L Adams, It Matters What God You Trust – Psalm 115:8, 9.
[2]  Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice does a good job of what I am looking for. However, knowing his personal position on soteriology is Calvinistic, I am not sure how to reconcile his soteriology with the character of God as Dr Keller rightly describes it in his book.
[3] Ronald H Stone, John Wesley’s Life & Ethics, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), p 223-226.

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