My heart is breaking for the growing number of black men and women killed by police: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and others whose names do not make into national news. I’m also troubled by what seems to me to be growing racial animosity expressed by fellow Americans who look like me: middle aged white men. In particular, I’m bothered by the pejorative response to the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement is one of the responses to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. I’ve always seen it as a constructive, sometimes boisterous, movement of black women and men to remind fellow Americans that their lives are just as valuable, meaningful, and full of potential as their other citizens. Unfortunately, many Americans are not aware of the nation’s long history of enslavement and oppression of black people. And, in spite of the advances of the Civil Rights movement of the 50s, 60s, & 70s, and the election of the first black President, racism continues to be a serious problem they must confront daily. As a white, middle-aged, man who is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, the Black Lives Matter movement has caused me to examine my own racism.
To help with this process I re-read one of the books that had a big impact on me during my M.Div. studies at Wesley Theological Seminary. Two books by Dr. James Cone helped me understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, my own racism, and the experience of my black sisters and brothers. I recently re-read his Black Theology & Black Power. The other book that proved to be very formational for me was Black Theology of Liberation. Reading Cone led me to the works of John Wesley. Both of whom are, of course, Methodists.
I am convinced that John Wesley would be a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. He would have been very pleased with the recent Racism Gathering hosted by the Division on Ministry with Young people in Dallas. A group of young black and white leaders from across The United Methodist Church met to develop resources aimed at helping the church address a problem endemic to nation’s culture.
How do I know Mr. Wesley would support the Black Lives Matter movement? Reading his powerful treatise, “Thoughts Upon Slavery” published in 1774 Wesley explicitly says and argues that black lives matter as much as white lives. He argues there is absolutely no justification for the practice of slavery or the slave trade. Throughout the essay Wesley makes clear that African women and men are equal to people of European descent and deserving of dignity, respect, and justice. He knocks down every “justification” for slavery. At one point he writes:
The inhabitants of Africa, where they have equal motives and equal means of improvement, are not inferior to the inhabitants of Europe; to some of them they are greatly superior. … Certainly the African is in no respect inferior to the European.
“Thoughts Upon Slavery” is Wesley’s unqualified condemnation of slavery and racism. He convincingly argues there can be no justification for the enslavement, oppression, and denigration of African people. All are created in God’s image. All are loved by God. All are saved by the blood of Jesus. All are welcome to live as citizens of God’s kingdom.
After reading “Thoughts Upon Slavery” I am convinced John Wesley would be an active supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a white man and leader he would condemn and work to organize people to resist the racism that is endemic in North American culture, churches, and institutions. To those who say “All lives matter!” he would say: “Certainly all lives matter. But in the United States, which for over three hundred years has enslaved, oppressed, beaten, and killed black bodies, you need to be reminded over and over and over again that black lives matter.
North American Christians, and United Methodists in particular, need to learn to read and interpret Scripture from the perspective of oppressed people. We need to remember that the God of Jesus Christ is the God of Moses who set his people free from slavery in Egypt. Wesley believed and preached that God loves all people and offers salvation for all. And the same God favors the oppressed, the poor, the refugees, widows, and orphans. The North American United Methodist church is a majority (over 95%) white denomination. This means Scripture and the gospel are interpreted from a perspective of privilege. “Whiteness” and privilege are the norm. White United Methodists are not reminded of the color of their skin every day. We don’t have to have “the talk” with our children about how to behave when confronted by a police officer. We don’t have to daily confront racism. This is why Mr. Wesley would insist that the majority of United Methodists need to be regularly reminded, Black Lives Matter.
More than being reminded, United Methodists who are striving toward holiness of heart and life need to join with Jesus Christ in the struggle against the evil of racism. Local congregations promise to equip members to keep the Baptismal Covenant by “accept[ing] the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” A simple and powerful way to keep this baptismal vow and to grow in holiness of heart and life is to “confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which he has opened to people of ALL ages, nations, and races.” When we obey and follow Jesus in the world we reject the evil of racism in all its forms and join him in the work of resisting it in the church, in your home, neighborhood, town, and nation.