01.24.21 | Leader Development, Advocacy and Action, Discipleship Formation, Racial Justice
A Lenten Experience of Scripture, UMC Social Principles and Antiracist Action to Build Beloved Community
By Jen Kidwell & Neal Christie
We are grateful that you have chosen to explore this opportunity to deepen and grow your faith during this holy season of preparation. We begin each week's lesson with Scripture followed by exploring United Methodist Social Principles, learning from the witness of United Methodist ministries around the world, and reflecting on how God is calling each of us to faithful action in the face of evil forces that seek to divide and demean the human family. While this evil has many names, we name racism as one of these manifestations. This study is full of invitations to draw on each of the above resources as you navigate God’s calling to address the brokenness forged by racism.
On Covenant On Lent Social Principles Book of Resolutions How to Use This Study Appendix A: Group Covenant Appendix B: Going Deeper Appendix C: Glossary of Terms Attributions Youth Supplement Printable PDF Interactive PDF
God’s covenant with us; our covenants with each other
Throughout Scripture, covenants play a powerful role in how we understand relationships. Covenants establish norms and boundaries; they help us understand how we should act, what we can expect from others, and how to prioritize values. Covenants tell us who we are. Covenants are lived. The Scripture in the lectionary for the season of Lent repeatedly returns to the theme of covenant. We are asked to remember how we are called into covenant with God over and over again, with one another (John 13:34-35), and even with all of God’s creation (Genesis 9:9). These covenants create a web of relationships, and we come to see that how we treat each other and the earth directly relates to how we worship and pray (Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6).
This web of relationships, and how God uses covenant to bring us hope and promise in the midst of our wilderness wandering (Exodus, Numbers 21:4-9), are also themes that will run through this study. May we continue to look towards the reminder that we mark during Holy Week: that we are bound in covenant with God and with each other through the ministry, life, and death of Jesus. May God’s invitation to renew that covenant and reinforce our commitment to our shared life together refresh our commitment to bold discipleship this season.
On the practices and purpose of Lent
While each day presents us with the opportunity to repent, to turn, to re-turn, and reorient ourselves towards God’s covenant vision for our participation in a holy and just society,
Lent is a particularly appropriate liturgical season for this sacred and timely work. During Lent, we search our souls, confess our sin, and prepare our hearts for the events of Holy Week. We do this holy work personally and in a covenanted community. We consider the ministry of Jesus, who is God’s revelation to us and our path to liberation from unconscious and deliberate participation in personal and social sin. We walk the path of liberation with Jesus toward the events that will unfold in Jerusalem at the cross.
Lent is a time to renew our commitment to the practices of our faith that help us to receive God’s grace -- what John Wesley called the “means of grace.” You can find a longer list of these practices here, but this study will be focusing on reading and studying Scripture, exploring ways we are equipped to seek justice, learning about the experiences of other United Methodists engaged in the work of ending oppression, and creating accountability to and with each other. One of the ways that United Methodists express our commitment to creating a world that conforms with the witness of Scripture and God’s expression of justice is through the Social Principles.
While these topics are always part of our life as Christians and are expressed differently in responses to different needs in society, in recent years, more and more light has been shed on the legacies of racist policies and racist ideas in the United States and in nations around the world. As members of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the world-wide United Methodist Church, we continue to reckon with this living legacy and our institutional complicity in maintaining it. Bishop LaTrelle Easterling has shared some powerful calls to action in support of justice for all people. We hope this study will draw us into both acts of sincere repentance and tangible reparation as we prepare our hearts to rejoice on Easter Sunday as “Earth and heaven ring with the harmonies of liberty.”
The United Methodist Social Principles
If you’ve never heard of the Social Principles before, you are not alone. While not considered church law, the Social Principles are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions. They are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit. The Social Principles are a call to all members of The United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice (cf. ¶ 509 UM Book of Discipline.)
You’ll discuss the history and tradition of the Social Principles in Session 1 of this study. However, it’s important to know that the Social Principles referenced here have been entirely revised over the past eight years. They will be reviewed and acted on by the postponed 2020 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which is scheduled to meet in August 2021. We encourage you to use the proposed 2021 Social Principles, but if you’d like to see the ones currently “in effect,” you can find them in the 2016 Book of Discipline, available online here. We have included the Preface and Preamble below to frame our United Methodist understanding of justice as a part of our discipleship. See the overview video here.
CLICK TO SEE PREFACE & PREAMBLE TO PROPOSED 2021 SOCIAL PRINCIPLES
PREFACE TO PROPOSED 2021 SOCIAL PRINCIPLES
The United Methodist Church, including its predecessor bodies, has a long and rich history of concern for social justice. Its members have often taken forthright positions on controversial issues involving Christian principles. In addition to carrying out acts of mercy, Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, spoke out against the abuse of animals, the exploitation of poor people, and the treatment of human beings as chattel. Following in Wesley’s footsteps, some early Methodists expressed their opposition to the slave trade, to smuggling, and to the cruel treatment of prisoners. Similarly, the United Brethren strongly condemned slavery.
In 1908, The Methodist Episcopal Church (North) was the first denomination to adopt a Social Creed, which called for “equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.” Within the next decade similar statements were adopted by The Methodist Episcopal Church (South) and by The Methodist Protestant Church. The Evangelical United Brethren Church adopted a statement of Social Principles in 1946 at the time of the uniting of The United Brethren and The Evangelical Church. In 1972, four years after the uniting in 1968 of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church adopted a new statement of Social Principles, which was revised in 1976 and by each successive General Conference. In 2008, the General Conference added a Social Creed companion litany.
The Social Principles are not church law. Instead, they represent the prayerful and earnest efforts of the General Conference to speak to issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation that is in keeping with the best of our United Methodist traditions. The Social Principles are thus a call to faithfulness and to social engagement and intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit. Moreover, they challenge all members of The United Methodist Church to engage in deliberative reflection and encourage intentional dialogue between faith and practice. (See ¶ 509.)
The Social Principles are also a living document. In recognition of the important changes that have taken place in The United Methodist Church over the past 50 years, including significant developments in Africa, Europe and the Philippines, the 2012 General Conference mandated that the Social Principles be revised to increase their theological grounding, succinctness and global relevance. To accomplish this task, the General Board of Church and Society initially sought input and advice through consultations held in each of the five U.S. Jurisdictions and a majority of the Central Conferences. The initial draft of the revised Social Principles was developed by six writing teams, whose members reflected the broad diversity of the church. Following this, an Editorial Revision Team perfected additional drafts, based on feedback received via online surveys, extensive consultations with central and annual conferences, and comments solicited from United Methodist scholars, bishops, church bodies and leaders across the denomination.
Special Editorial Notes
Throughout the Social Principles, the term “we” refers specifically to the General Conference and more broadly to members of The United Methodist Church. Unless otherwise stated, the term “church” refers specifically to The United Methodist Church rather than, for example, the Church Universal.
PREAMBLE TO PROPOSED 2021 SOCIAL PRINCIPLES
We, the people called United Methodists, affirm our faith in the living God, who created everything that is and called it good, and created human beings in God’s own image. We give thanks for Jesus Christ, incarnation of God’s love and our Savior, who redeems and heals our relationship with God. We trust in the movements of the Holy Spirit, transforming human lives and the whole creation. Further, we declare our faith that God’s grace is available to all and “nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created” (Rom. 8:38–39).
From the beginning, God called us into covenant, bound with God, with one another, and with God’s wonderfully diverse creation. God called us, further, to live lovingly in those relationships and to be stewards of God’s created world, to tend God’s garden. As we do our part in caring for creation, we allow all other parts of creation to fulfill their distinctive roles in the covenantal relationship with God (Gen. 2:7–15). According to Jesus’ commandment, we are to love one another: “Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (John 13:34–35).
Created in God’s image to live in covenant with God and the world, we honor the dignity of all beings and affirm the goodness of life. Knowing that we are held in God’s grace, we are able to confess our sins. We have failed to love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have participated in unjust and life-destroying social systems. We have not been faithful stewards of God’s creation, nor have we valued the role that every part of creation plays in the flourishing of God’s world. Further, we have not followed Jesus Christ in sharing God’s extravagant love and ministering with “the least of these” (Matt. 25:45) We have closed ourselves to God’s guiding Spirit in our daily interactions with the human family and the earth. We have fallen short, and yet God loves us still.
We are grateful for God’s forgiving and sanctifying love, given to us and to all and drawing us toward perfect love. By God’s grace, we are called to be more Christ-like, and thus to be merciful, just and compassionate. Responding to that call, we seek to follow Jesus, who gave boundless love to all—the children, the outcast, the condemned and the confused. Jesus calls every generation to wholehearted discipleship: opening our hearts to the people we encounter daily; practicing compassion with our families and neighbors; honoring the dignity and worth of all people near and far; recognizing the systems that destroy human lives through poverty, war and exclusion; and advocating justice and care in our churches, communities and social structures. God calls us further to be stewards of creation, caring for the skies and waters, soil and plants, and all beings.
We give thanks for God’s good gift of the Church Universal and for the Christian values embodied in the Wesleyan tradition and in The United Methodist Church. We recognize that the Body of Christ has many parts, and all are valuable. Thus, we respect differences within Christ’s Body, including differences in understanding and expressing faith, in gifts and practices of ministry, and in life experiences, as shaped by ethnicities, cultures, communities, abilities, age, sexual orientation and gender. We affirm our belief in the inestimable worth of each individual to whom God gives unique gifts. We renew our commitment to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel in our daily lives and work and to magnify our witness as the church.
Differences are a precious gift and daunting challenge. They can stretch the church’s capacity to live and minister faithfully. Yet God calls our church to difficult discipleship, with Jesus as our guide and the Spirit as our daily strength. With God’s help, we accept the challenge to follow the high calling “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Mic. 6:8, NRSV) John Wesley’s General Rules continue to inspire United Methodists to faithful practices that will do no harm, do good, and follow the ordinances of God.1 We recognize the challenges before the church to engage with honesty and compassion through deep listening, hard conversations and shared ministry, even when we do not agree on all matters.
We acknowledge that the church is a living body gathered from the many and diverse parts of the human community. Thus, unanimity of beliefs, opinion, and practice have never been characteristic of the church from the beginning. From its earliest times, as witnessed in the Gospels, Paul’s letters, the Acts of the Apostles, and other New Testament texts, diverse understandings and controversies on many matters have been the reality. Therefore, whenever significant differences of opinion occur among Christians, some of which continue to divide the church deeply today, faithful Christians need to face their disagreements and even their despair, and not cover differences with false claims of consensus or unanimity. On the contrary, the church needs to embrace conflicts with courage and perseverance as we seek together to discern God’s will. With that understanding and commitment, we pledge ourselves to acknowledge and to embrace with courage, trust, and hope those controversies that arise among us, accepting them as evidence that God is not yet finished in sculpting us to be God’s people.
Recognizing that God is our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, we seek to center our lives and witness on God. We are confident that nothing can separate us from the grace of God, and that the social witness of the church is a testimony to that grace. With God’s help, we pledge to share ministry and honor everyone’s dignity, even when we disagree, to seek the mind of Christ, and to follow God’s will in all things.
In addition to the Social Principles, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church also reviews, debates, and acts on many other resolutions. These resolutions are collected into the Book of Resolutions, and reflect more detailed expressions of theological positions and descriptions of contextualized responses to our social, economic, natural, and political world. While they are the official positions of the Church, they are also not church law, but provide a starting place and offer guidance for how United Methodists can reflect on and navigate complex issues. It is okay to disagree with them and with each other, but we do ask that you commit to consider these discussions prayerfully and thoughtfully.
How to use this study
Each week, we invite you to engage “core preparation” materials. These include:
- Scripture from Lenten lectionary texts (with devotion/journaling exercise)
- Excerpts from the Social Principles
- Selected Resolutions
- Additional videos, news articles, and web-based resources
We’ve also compiled additional preparation materials for those who want to learn more or who would like to use this study as a daily devotional. You will find these resources in Appendix B: Going Deeper. You will also find a Group Covenant in Appendix A and we invite you to begin the first session by reviewing this suggested Covenant and considering if by consensus this can help hold your conversation.
Note that the suggested videos and articles are meant to be starting points and to fuel discussion; their inclusion does not represent a blanket endorsement of everything the author or speaker claims and teaches. On several of the videos, you will have to fast forward to a specific “mark,” or minute, in the video. To do that, simply click on the solid white line at the bottom of the video, and drag it to the correct time.
Sessions will include suggested prayers, reflection, additional Scripture study, group exercises, video selections from the “Living our Principles” video series based on the Social Principles, and invitations to action.
Each week, we encourage you to think broadly about what kinds of actions are most appropriate for your community. Is there a ministry that relates to that week’s discussion? Great! Explore how you can teach other congregations about how and why that ministry is effective and worth building on. Are there ministries of compassion and mercy that meet essential needs in your community? Wonderful! Can you apply an antiracist lens to that work, or build on it to include public policy changes and acts of advocacy?
We expect that some of the terms and concepts may be new to you, and if that’s the case, we are glad you’re willing to spend time with these ideas in the context of your faith. Take time to learn about the work already being done in your community, town, or county, and discover opportunities for partnership. Sometimes God calls us to invent new things, and sometimes God calls us to support and lift up work others are already doing. We pray for your ongoing discernment as you continue to invest in doing this work.
We hope you will grow increasingly comfortable asking some of the following questions:
- How does racism directly and indirectly affect you and those who are close to you?
- Where do the Social Principles reflect sound biblical and theological teaching on what we experience as racism?
- In what way do the Social Principles and United Methodist resolutions guide and call you to a deeper commitment working against racism in yourself and in your community?
- What is racial bias, how does racial privilege work, and what is systemic and structural racism?
- How can you engage in bold and faithful acts of antiracism, even if you are still absorbing or questioning some of what you’re discovering here?
We hope you come away from this study celebrating how the Scriptures and Social Principles articulate the covenant of God’s people with everyone in the human family and with our shared planet. We pray also that you come away, full of a renewed imagination for how you and your church community can take action together to loosen the bonds of racism so that all may flourish.
Neal Christie and Jen Kidwell
Rev. Neal Christie served as Assistant General Secretary with the General Board of Church and Society, where he led the global revision of the United Methodist Social Principles and Social Creed. A member of Dumbarton UMC in Georgetown, he has pastored in rural and urban settings and served as a hospital trauma chaplain. He holds degrees from the New School for Social Research, Yale University Divinity School and Princeton Theological Seminary.
Jen Kidwell is the Director of Youth and Adult Discipleship at Silver Spring UMC. She loves exploring Bible and theology with people of all ages and connecting the transformative power of faith to the challenges in the world. She holds a J.D. and an M.Div. from Emory University, and blogs at www.jenkidwell.com.
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