The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church did not appear as some spontaneous phenomenon. They have a history. In fact, their history is so storied that one might find it difficult to peel all of the layers away. The Social Principles themselves refer to the early Methodist opposition to slavery, smuggling, and the abuse of prisoners. Yet our contemporary document owes its existence to a later time. The closing decades of the nineteenth century witnessed both crushing social injustice and a rising conscience throughout the church. With the flowering of the industrial revolution and the complexity of corporate power, a more systemic criticism was born. This awareness did not dismiss personal responsibility, but it did suggest that an age of machines and big money demanded more sophisticated treatment.
By 1900, Frank Mason North challenged the tradition to get serious about social justice. In 1907, North, Worth M. Tippy, Harry F. Ward, Herbert Welch, and Elbert R. Zaring created the Methodist Federation for Social Service. The Methodist Episcopal Church (North) adopted a “social creed” in 1908, and this, in turn, informed the statement of the new Federal Council of Churches. Over the next several decades, other predecessor bodies of The United Methodist Church adopted social creeds.
The primary context for these founding statements was the great inequality of wealth and privilege existing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This, of course, does not mean that other pressing matters were not a factor. It is simply an observation regarding one extremely burdensome dynamic of modern industrial society. Some may conclude that this is no longer an issue. After all, recent political elections have tended to make a distinction between “social” and “economic” issues. “Social issues” are discussed as those things which divide our major political parties. However, we somehow assume that “economic” issues are simply challenges of strategy – as if they are not even “social.” Yet recent studies by prestigious universities both in America and elsewhere have documented the staggering degree of today’s economic inequality. Perhaps the insight of those who framed our original “creeds” has something to teach us.
When reading the Preface and Preamble to our Social Principles I am struck by the repeat presence of one word: “worth.” The text speaks of “the inestimable worth of each individual.” Near the end of the Preamble the language takes the form of a promise. We, as a people, commit “to honor the sacred worth of all persons.” Note that the concern for God’s social fabric is not framed as an excuse for dismissing the value of individuals. Rather, our witness embraces a vision of the kingdom that values each and every member.
Teachers of ethics describe such consideration as “axiology.” This term (from the Greek, axios, meaning “worth”) seeks to discern value, significance, and the importance of various realities. The early days of our social creeds suffered from untold predatory forces that assigned great “value” to things, often at the expense of people.
Perhaps we have entered an age that offers both opportunity and new threats to human dignity. I remember sitting through the address of a noted figure at the turn of our century. This savant claimed that the year 2000 opened an era when “globalization” and advances in technology would burst forth in sublime synergy for the common good. Following the speech, I bumped into a colleague of mine, an historian. “Well,” I asked, “what do you think of the twenty-first century?” Her piercing eyes narrowed, and in a low voice she responded, “Let’s just hope it’s better than the last one.”
As the assembly lines have left, the leveraging of new technologies can widen the gap between those with and without power. I do not intend this as a statement of condemnation or as a stubborn unwillingness to embrace technology’s promise. I am simply wondering if the way we reckon value and worth has changed much for the better. Automobiles (early twentieth century) and smart phones (early twenty-first century) are things – helpful things, often exceedingly helpful things. But they are, after all, things. They are not of “inestimable worth.” How we use them matters, and how we make sure that forces of exploitation do not wield them to use people matters. Our Social Principles remind us of these axiological truths.