Faith Lived Out: The value of knowing value

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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.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

Join the conversation....

  1. I have always considered the Social Principles important statements that give life to many of our congregational small group discussions. I don’t always agree that these statements reflect my theology, but I appreciate the opportunities they open for soul-searching discussion on important issues. Putting our beliefs into action is not always easy, but our mission to be disciples of Christ requires firm beliefs, discussion and action. Thank you Chris Momany for your article.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 

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