Speaking in the Public Square: A Review of Exploring a Wesleyan Political Theology

The following review was originally published on The Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley.

In October 2017 Wesley Theological Seminary hosted the Wesleyan Political Theology Project, a conference which brought together the scholars represented in Exploring a Wesleyan Political Theology  [Ryan Nicholas Danker, General Ed., Wesley’s Foundery Books, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2020] to explore what it means as Wesleyan Christians to speak in the public square. In the online promotional video for the conference, Michael McCurry, a professor at Wesley, spoke of the bitterness, polarization, and division in our country, and said, “We want people to come away from this conference knowing how to have gentle, loving conversations within their ministry settings.” Hopefully the participants did that, but this book falls short of such a practical concern.

In his introduction, editor Ryan Nicholas Danker, who teaches Methodist studies at Wesley, acknowledges Methodism’s history of political engagement and raises the question that the essays in this book seek to address: Is it possible to identify “a distinct Wesleyan political theology or political characteristics informed by its mission to ‘spread scriptural holiness across the land’” (8). If so, it must take into account Wesley’s “overwhelmingly optimistic view of Grace,” the accountability at the heart of the early Methodist movement, and Wesley’s concern for the poor (3).

The opening essay from McCurry, former press secretary in the Clinton administration, offers a partly autobiographical “practitioner’s view” on Wesleyan political theology. Of all the writers in this volume, he appears to have the most on-the-job credibility to address the polarization in our society and the inability of many churches “to maintain membership and relevance.” He also has the courage to say, “I believe that part of the dilemma is the failure of the church to connect the good news of the gospel to the very matters that the congregation sees playing out in the controversies that swirl in the public square” (25-26).

In “Big Appetites and No Teeth,” William J. Abraham, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology, confesses that “like most United Methodists when it comes to politics, I have a big appetite and no teeth. I want to see the world transformed, but when it comes to getting my teeth into the details and into the causal stories involved, then it’s another story.” That is my favorite quote in the whole collection, but Abrabam bites off more than he can chew when he uses his 15 pages to commend Theodore Weber’s Politics in the Order of Salvation: Transforming Wesleyan Political Ethics as a way to understand the thought of Edmund Burke “refracted through a Wesleyan lens” (43).

Ryan Nicholas Danker’s chapter, “Early Methodist Societies as an Embodied Politic,” makes the case for discerning a Wesleyan political theology through studying “the political context in which early Methodism arose and the place of Methodist societies within that context . . . .”(48). They are “the key to early Methodist political engagement” and “the means by which both holiness of heart and life and concern for the other were combined in holistic, relational community” (51). He contends that politics ”was never the focus of the Wesleyan movement, but rather of Methodist politics was an aftershock of the overwhelming emphasis of early Methodists on the experience of holiness” (61). In other words, “[a] Wesleyan political vision depends on the power of transformed human hearts engaged in community”(10).

In her essay, “Salvation and Social Engagement,” Laceye Warner of Duke Divinity School describes the contributions of three Southern Methodist women –Mary McCloud Bethune, Belle Harris Bennett, and Dorothy Ripley–who exhibited an expansive view of evangelism in their ministries. Warner writes, “Evangelism at times suffers from a disconnect between its personal and social components because of too-narrow biblical interpretations and the ideological lines drawn by the Fundamentalist-Modernist split of the early twentieth century”(70). She concludes, “ The representative evangelistic practices of these women resemble the integration of ministries of word and deed commissioned by Jesus Christ in the Gospels” (95).

James Thobaben, who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary, draws the attention of contemporary Methodists to Wesley’s main mission, the conversion of souls. Granting that the early Wesleyan-Methodist movement in England and the American colonies did result in social and economic change, he argues that “to prioritize social justice over evangelism or above the immediate faith community is to misorder Wesley’s priorities” (100). Contending that since mission of early Methodism was not “to change society but to convert people, and that would, consequently, change the culture” (115), Thobaben wants modern Methodists to practice an “engaged sectarianism,” one that is “marked by personal and local practices of purity, mercy, and justice” (123).

The last section of the book treats “Methodism and Other Traditions.” In his essay the “The Word of Reconciliation,” Edgardo Colón-Emeric, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, writes that the church’s divine vocation is to speak the word of reconciliation and engage in acts of reconciliation. As an example of one who lived out the ministry of reconciliation, Colón-Emeric lifts up Oscar Romero as “an exemplar of the practical divinity Methodists aspire to embody” (135) and comments that “like Wesley’s, Romero’s theology is grounded in the life of the church and has a popular orientation” (136). Both had a theological approach that allowed them to communicate to the academy and to non-academic people. In describing Romero’s ministry of reconciliation in El Salvador, Colón-Emeric practices the practical divinity he so admires in Wesley.

In the final and most practical, thought-provoking chapter of the book, “The Meaning of Pentecost,” Luther Oconer critiques a form of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity in the U.S. that has “espoused an uncritical form of nationalism” (156) steming from “dominion theology,” which “teaches that Christians need to exercise full authority or ‘dominion’ in all areas of life, including politics” (169). Oconer’s critique of “dominion” theology and its drive toward “restoration of a Christian hegemony” (169) in the U.S. sheds much light on the Christian right’s support of President Trump. Oconer notes that half of the presidential evangelical advisory council is made up of people with ties to Pentecostalism, a movement with strong historical and theological links to the Wesleyan movement. Not only does Oconer critique Pentecostal/Charismatic politics, but provides an understanding of Wesley’s political theology, one in which Jesus’ incarnation as “the ultimate expression of God’s love” (169) is the motivation.

This book was written and edited before the COVID-19 pandemic, before growing awareness of the depth of our nation’s racism, and before the rancor and polarization of the 2020 election reached fever pitch. From the perspective of now, many of these essays lack passion and connection with the public square. Wesley was a practical theologian. I wish that some of these seminary professors had tried harder to expand their potential audience by following his lead.

1 thought on “Speaking in the Public Square: A Review of Exploring a Wesleyan Political Theology

  1. I am unlikely to read the book, but I appreciated the way you approached the review. You seem to point out that practical advise is slim. Given Methodism’s beginnings, it is odd to find such a scholarly approach which ignores on the ground application.

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