Life together: The UM Social Principles

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The United Methodist Social Principles call us to faithful engagement with the world around us. They remind us of our connection to God, one another and the created world.

Living a life in service to God and others has been part of our United Methodist history since John Wesley in the 1700s who visited those in prison, preached against slavery, and led the first Methodists to help their communities with things like healthcare and education. All of this is in service to what Jesus lifted up as the greatest commandments: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, who was part of the team that worked on the revision of the Social Principles, talks about the importance of the Social Principles and the why they have been revised—although still waiting for General Conference approval.

The Social Principles

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This episode posted on May 6, 2021.

Transcript

Prologue

Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

On this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape, I’m speaking with Sharon Austin about The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles, a document that calls us to faithful engagement with the world around us.

You know, that part has been a cornerstone of Methodism since the days of John Wesley in the 1700s, when he was speaking against slavery, visiting those in prison and leading Methodists to help their communities with things like healthcare and education. It’s this call to serve God and neighbor in all that we do, that’s one of the things I love most about being United Methodist.

The Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin was part of the team that worked on a 2020 revision of the Social Principles, which has yet to approved by General Conference, simply because the 2020 General Conference was postponed until 2022, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In this conversation, Sharon and I talk about the 2020 revision, what the Social Principles are and why they matter. 

Conversation

Joe: Sharon, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

The Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin: Thank you, Joe.

Joe: We’re talking today about the Social Principles and specifically about the 2020 revision. But before we get into anything too detailed I want to start with some basics. So,basically can you tell me what are the Social Principles and maybe as a correlation, what aren’t the Social Principles? And then how did they come to be part of the United Methodist Church?

Sharon: Well, thank you for the question. First, let me say, I love the Social Principles as a way, a process, a method of communicating with folks about who we are as Methodists in terms of our belief and engagement in the conversations of which the church is involved at moments in time.

The Social Principles really take a part of their life from the social creed of 1908. Even prior to that John Wesley’s teachings and preachings and admonitions on the social issues of the day, child labor, slavery, and ultimately the opportunity for people to have access to education and healthcare. And so we can really track the Social Principles as a way of also appreciating our Wesleyan heritage over centuries.

Joe: So, we’ve had something on the books since like 1908. What prompted the revision? Why in 2012 did the church ask to have this revised for 2020?

Sharon: That’s a good question. I think I might want to preface it by adding that in 1968 a commission was formed to develop the Social Principles. So we had, of course, our Wesleyan tradition and theology and the 1908 social creed. The Social Principles were developed and we had what we now know as the Social Principles in 1972. So from ’68 to ’72 they worked to developed those and then we had them.

For all of the years since then, so 50 years leading up to 2012, the Social Principles had been updated. They’ve been amended. They’ve been tweaked, you might say, and I have thought of them a bit as a bit as a patchwork quilt by the time we came to the point of being commissioned to work on a revision. And so the process, the charge—if you will—of the General Conference in 2012 was to have the general Board of Church and Society develop a process for a revision. Hence, the listening sessions which took place in different places around the world, like Central Conferences as well as the participation of folks in the United States.

Joe: One of the goals was to make it more global and I understand more… Is concise the right word?

Sharon: Yes. So we’ve been using the word succinct. But yes, it was succinct, more theologically relevant and more global in nature. I will say that if you are from the United States in particular, and you’re charged with that work, it really becomes a growing, learning, stretching exercise and one of deep prayerfulness and collaboration.

Joe: Was there something you heard in the listening sessions that stuck with you throughout the process…that maybe surprised you?

Sharon: Yeah. I think maybe more the spirit of engagement. And so we would often find that among the writing teams people felt deeply about an issue or sometimes wondered how in the world did you get here from there? But the faithfulness to the process kept us engaged. And I really think in many ways we were at our best while working on the principles. I wish in many ways that the spirit of that work, the conferencing around that work, the deep prayer that went into the work, was more emulated both in the church and the larger society in this day and time. So, the world even feels somewhat different to me than it did when we began that work in 2016.

Joe: How so? What do you mean by that?

Sharon: There’s a lot of anger and the rancor and distrust. And it isn’t to say that those feelings and behaviors did not always exist, but it does seem in some ways that we’ve gone from bad to worse in some instances. One of my hopes and prayers for the church would be that the Social Principles would teach us and give us a way to consider how we navigate differences of opinion and theology instead of leaning more deeply into the winds of adversity as they blow in the church, but also the society around us.

Joe: When I was reading the Social Principles, which I think people may find more readable than they expect. You know, I hear about legislation and I get really…the best that it’s gonna be about ‘therefores’ and ‘whereas’s’ and ‘be-it-resolves’ and all that, just make my eyes gloss over. But they’re really readable. And one of the things I heard in the preamble really clearly was an acknowledgement that we don’t all have to agree on everything. We’re not going to agree on all of these things and we don’t have to. Why did you guys decide that that was an important piece to include in the document?

Sharon: Well, you’re absolutely right, Joe. We don’t have to agree, which is good, because we don’t tend to agree on all things. You asked me earlier and I don’t believe I addressed this more fully. But one of the things to remember that the Social Principles are not, is that they are not church law. And so persons are fine members of the United Methodist Church even when we don’t see eye to eye on every single principle. And it becomes an opportunity for conversation.

When I was the pastor of a local church, I took great delight and sometimes solace in the opportunity to engage the Social Principles for conversation. The longer I served in the local church the more useful I found the principles to be, whether for preaching or Bible study. But I began using them in new members’ classes. I would often say to folks, No one has ever come to me and said, if they were Christian, Well, you know, I have a real problem with the trinity. They may have said they didn’t understand it, but they didn’t say they have a problem with it, or just flat out disbelieved it. But they often had some pretty strong feelings about some of the Social Principles. And I really felt that I was probably going to do them a better service and the church if they were at least aware of where the United Methodist Church stands on a number of issues that often raise controversy.

Joe: Years ago I served a congregation where one of the adult Sunday school classes used to use the Social Principles kind of as their outline. The way I understand it is that the leader would just come in and read a portion and they would have a conversation about it. He was good enough to back it up with some research and Bible study and some of those things as well. But they’re great conversation starters.

Sharon: They are great conversation starters. And I think they help us to maybe pursue more deeply our theological stance, our scriptural foundations, and that’s a different conversation for people of faith than conversations that are often deeply felt, but may be relevant in a different way when people think that they’re just having a conversation about political differences.

Joe: Yeah, there’s a whole different grounding and understanding of it.

Sharon: Exactly.

Joe: I want to spend a few minutes talking about each of the sections. The Social Principles, the 2020 revision, is divided up into these 4 sections. And I just want to list the names: the community of all creation, the economic community, the social community, and the political community.

When I first saw that it leapt out at me that every title has the word community in it. Can you say more about that? Like, what was the decision to do that? And what are we supposed to kind of get from that?

Sharon: Yes. The word community is, I think, a wonderful expression of relationships. In every phase of our lives and in the life of the church, we’re in relationship with each other.

First, we have the blessing of being in relationship with God. The fact that we’re in relationship with a creator, a savior and a spirit that empowers us is a blessing to us each and every day. As a result of that we’re also invited to engage in relationships with one another.

 

So using words like ‘the political platform,’ or ‘the social viewpoint’ might lead us to believe that, you know, it’s fine for you to be a Christian and to be a member of the United Methodist Church and you can sort of do your own thing. I think community always brings us back to relationships and it helps us strive for a higher standard than we sometimes would if we just thought we were engaging in differences of opinion and not how we live shared lives.

Joe: I like that phrase of it being a higher standard because in a sense I think that’s what this is all about, right? It’s this idea that we as people of faith are held to a high standard in how we live in the world around us.

Sharon: Exactly. Exactly, Joe. And I think we fail to realize that sometimes… and to realize it as a value. And so it’s not limited to, ‘Well, this happens to be a reality. So what?’ It is…it’s a striving. It’s… And it’s expression of faithful living. And it actually enhances who we are as members of a community.

Joe:Let’s talk a little bit about the community of all creation. What’s the church’s role in caring for the created world?

Sharon: I have to be very careful to get this right because I have a strong creation care team in my annual conference. We live in Florida and so we just, you know, have a unique, not more or less than others, but certainly a unique way of appreciating the environment and the world around us.

I think if we hold to the fact that a gracious God created the world and everything in it, including each of us and all of us, then the opportunity to really ask ourselves, ‘What does that mean for our stewardship of creation each and every day?’ is a different way of appreciating our creation. It’s not limited to our surroundings where we have trees and grass and a sky and water. But how do we really use those resources in the ways that God intended, realize that we are stewards, but we’re not the owners. We’re not the creators. So, it is imperative that we share resources, other people share with us. We’re not in charge of the resources. And the opportunity to remember that the quality of the lives of other people are impacted by the way we use resources.

An example for me will always be a trip that I had opportunity to take with leaders from GBHEM [General Board of Higher Education and Ministry] and others about 5 years ago, to Peru. And the realization that the Amazon waterways and forests and people’s lives in the Southern Hemisphere are directly impacted by the ways in which we use water and air in the Northern Hemisphere. And so this, business of ‘as long as it works for me, you go and do the best you can,’ is certainly not the way in which God has called us to live and lead in just and respectful ways regarding creation.

Joe: In the 21st century it’s kind of hard even begin to imagine that we live isolated and we are so connected across the globe. And we’re learning more and more just how much. I remember asking that question of someone at Global Ministries. Like, how does the water use here affect people across the globe? And the answer was clear. It does. And we are…

Then the next section is called the economic community. And that includes topics like poverty and human trafficking, but also work and even Sabbath rest. What can we do as United Methodists to be better members of the economic community?

Sharon: I think we have come to a realization—we don’t always know what we’re going to do about it—but we’ve come to a realization, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, that there are inequalities both in our country and around the world. And we’re a global church. So we’re concerned about what happens in other parts of the world. And while all people are affected in one way or another by a global anything (in this case a pandemic) the ways in which people are affected often has a direct connection to where they were in life before. So pre-pandemic, we might say.

So if you were food challenged or nutrition changed or didn’t have access to healthcare, if you did not have what we call a living wage, any of the things that I mentioned had been worse during COVID and for communities of color they have provided a particular challenge. And the reckoning is just coming to bare and it will not end when the coronavirus is managed or eradicated (as the case may be—certainly hope for the latter). But what we’ve learned and more broadly acknowledged will remain with us and begs a response.

Joe: Wonderfully said. The next section is the social community and that also includes a wide variety of things. I just want to list a couple of the things that I saw, the subheads: family and sexuality and violence and gender equality and racial equality, and just a whole bunch more. And it’s, again, realizing that we are connected people and that what we do affects other people both positively and negatively. Was there a big takeaway from this section for you?

Sharon: Yes. So the takeaway was to have people articulate—so this is different from what you might read if you were doing some research on the Internet or reading a book—but to have people able to express what the Social Principles written too narrowly could mean for their lives. We might think if we were writing from a U.S. context only that some of the statements would make perfect sense to us, but might not make sense in another context. Hence, we were really challenged to think more broadly about how we represent a global church and the local laws of a variety of countries where persons might be accepted, ostracized or might be in fear for their lives, depending on certain practices.

Joe: Wow. I mean, that’s interesting that as you move into other areas of the globe, has it changed the way you think about some of those things?

Sharon: I think it helped me to both appreciate the incredible work led by missionaries through the centuries and also the ways in which missionaries imposed their cultures on others in ways that were not tantamount to the faith. So I have said, just as an example, and long before I began working with the Social Principles, you can believe in Jesus and not sit down with a fork and knife at a table. But for missionaries in too many instances, their own brand of colonialism, interwoven with the faith, really led to the disassembling and the eradication of peoples’ languages, their cultural dress, foods. Instead of expanding the world and thinking about the ways in which the church would be enriched, a judgment was often placed on those behaviors, having nothing to do with the faith and everything to do with culture. And they were disparaged.

So, to have siblings from other places in the world remind us, teach us as we work together, was just a reminder of a world that is much bigger than any of us might think. One example would be if you read the statement on racism, in the current Social Principles—not the revised Social Principles because we haven’t voted on those yet—it’s a good statement, but it’s limited to racism. In the revised Social Principles…and I specifically remember this discussion—we expanded it to racism and ethnocentrism and tribalism, because those are broader ways to have these important conversations.

Joe: …that include the other parts of the global. Just fascinating. The political community is the final section. And this one seems really, really appropriate and poignant today, at least here in the United States where we seem to be having regular conversations about the intersection of faith and politics.

The document talks about justice reform and the death penalty and war and healthcare, immigration, children and aging and all kinds of things in the political sphere. How do we understand our role as United Methodist Christians who are a part of the political community?

Sharon: I think we understand our role, or hopefully will understand our role, as a broader opportunity for dialog and learning and appreciation for different perspectives. I think when we see the word political…and we often hear that from family dinners to good friends…if you want to maintain friends you don’t talk about (what is it?) sports and politics or something like that. Well, everything in life is political if you want to look at it from the standpoint of there is a system, and the system often has tensions that are built within the system. And there are people who advocate for different expressions of whatever the issue might be within a system.

I have often reminded persons with whom I worked, that if political is a word that we use to prevent us from engaging in the significant issues of the day—so, if we just provide the handy excuse—then there are many things that we will not discuss. I mean, just will never discuss them. If, on the other hand we lean to what we have in common by virtue of our faith and not an understanding of political in terms of partisan politics, we will get much farther. So, we may not all have agreement about how we will address the healthcare crisis or how we will deal with…the term we use in the United States…mass incarceration. But we ought to be clear on what Jesus says to us in Matthew 25 about visiting those who are in prison and feeding those who are hungry and clothing those who are naked, and caring for the sick. That is the place where we find our synergy. That’s the place where we find the energy and the faithful commitment, and the words, the mandates of justice and the need for the advocacy which goes along with that. So, I just hope the United Methodists will, yes, remain engaged in civil discourse wherever they may live, but always lean to what we have in common and hold dear by virtue of the gospel and the prophets.

Joe: Sharon, we touched on this a little bit earlier. But I just want to ask again. Before we started to recording you mentioned that you volunteered for this project. You applied to be a part of this revision committee. Where did that passion come from? What drew you to the project?

Sharon: Well, that’s a great question, Joe. I appreciate it. I volunteered to participate in the…in one of the listening sessions between 2012 and 2016. And so before I was formally a part of that GBCS [General Board of Church & Society]. And I just have been a person whose life has taken many twists and turns. I’m honored that Bishop Carter has called me to lead the beloved community work in the conference and justice is a part of Connectional Ministries portfolio. In Florida, my life has been one and my personality where I just want to weigh into the difficult places, the dark spaces, and want to uplift people who live at the margins. And there is a bigger table that God has called us to set than the one that we are currently setting.

Prior to my transfer to the Florida Conference, I was a pastor on staff at Ebenezer Baptist Church. So, I really began my ministry as a Baptist and in a church which is, you know, world-renowned for the incredible ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sr. And it’s the way in which I began expressing my call to ministry. I would have to say maybe in many ways I really don’t know another way to do this work.

Joe: I like that because I find that so many of us do this split thing. Like, our faith and then there’s kind of life or even we split mission work from either the rest of everyday living. And I love how the Social Principles encourage us to be people of faith in our everyday living. It’s something we can do right here, right now. And there’s things that we can do individually to make a difference.

Sharon: They are integrated into our lives and integral to our faith. So I agree with you. They’re not compartmentalized. They are part and parcel of who we are as Christians living and serving in the Wesleyan tradition. Just as there are enough challenges to go around, Methodists celebrate the fact that God’s grace is sufficient for us. It just really makes the work, the business of striving and living and really never giving up. You know, every day is a new opportunity to try to do more and better as Christ has called us.

Joe: Well, Sharon, before I let you go I want to ask you the question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape. And that is, how do you keep your spirit in shape?

Sharon: Let’s see. Is there a pre-pandemic response to that or a post-pandemic response to that?

I will answer in this way. I thought about and often think about the sacrifices that my parents made for their children to expose us, to broaden our contacts and friends and the places where we lived and sometimes we were doing something very nontraditional and living in ways that were multi-cultural settings and at a time when it wasn’t particularly popular. Then my husband and I had kids and we tried to raise our kids in ways that invited them to be conversant and to explore and challenge the world around them.

We are grandparents now. We have a 16-month-old grandson who is just a delight. I look at him sometimes and then I think about the church and the world and my question is this: What kind of world, what kind of church do I want for Colin? So there are times when I feel like I’ve failed with my children. But I hope and pray for a world that will be a place of grace and love for him where he will have every opportunity. The joy of that and the hope in that is, for me, an inspiration. It is a discipline that keeps me praying. But it also keeps me working on behalf of the kingdom.

Joe: I love that. Thank you so much for that. And, Sharon, thank you for your work on the Social Principles and for your time with us today. It’s been a great conversation.

Sharon: Thank you for having me, Joe.

Epilogue

That was the Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, a member of the Florida Conference who served as part of the team that produced the 2020 revision of the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church.

We’ve put a link to download the Social Principles on the notes page of this episode at UMC.org/podcasts. Just look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape titled, “Life together: The Social Principles.” And you can download the document for free.

I hope our conversation today has motivated you to have these types of conversations with the people in your life. As United Methodists, it is important for us to know how connected we are to one another and to all of creation.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.