Sunday, March 6, 2016

John Wesley

March 3rd was the feast day of John Wesley and his brother Charles.  For some mysterious reason, I've been thinking a lot about John Wesley lately.  I can't help but compare his generosity of spirit in his life and in his preaching with the angry dogmatism that prevails now.  Today, it's all about patrolling the borders between who's in and who's out, between who is correct and who is wickedly wrong, between the Elect and the doomed.  That Wesley would build his entire preaching and his mission around that great commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself" seems sadly alien to our fundamentalist dominated religious discourse.  While Wesley was certainly a man of his time, I have a hard time imagining him obsessing with everyone else's sex lives as seems to be the case with most religious leaders today.

In our age of mega-church autocrats, later day prince bishops, prosperity gospelers with lavish palatial mansions, and any number of gold plated messiahs with business empires and international political clout, reading about John Wesley doing without so that he could have something to give to the poor and destitute is like finding water in the desert.  Wesley was not at all particular about who his neighbors were when contemplating Christ's great commandment to love our neighbors.  Instead of congratulating and blessing the already rich and powerful, Wesley happily lived among the poor, downtrodden, and outcast.  The destitute, like all people, had a God-given freedom and dignity according to Wesley, that is completely at odds with the shame, servile obedience, and childish dependence on divinely appointed autocrats and hierarchs preached by too many these days.

Long before the cause was taken up in the USA (even before the USA was founded) Wesley took up the cause of abolitionism, joining forces with William Wilberforce in the long campaign that eventually succeeded in abolishing the slave trade throughout the British Empire.
"Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air," Wesley said, " and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature."
Wesley's neighborhood of brothers and sisters created in God's image included African slaves; a position even more radically egalitarian than that of  all American and most later French revolutionaries.  I can't imagine anything that would break Wesley's heart more than people in the USA who claimed to be his followers, using the Bible to defend slavery.
Wesley's neighborhood included the lowest of the low, even convicted criminals.  He campaigned tirelessly for prison reform in an age that made liberal use of the death penalty for any number of offenses (including pickpocketing) and where debtors and murderers were regularly thrown in together in very brutal conditions (and charged for their lodgings in the jail).

Wesley rode horseback through all kinds of weather and countryside, always at risk of being waylaid by bandits, to serve and preach to all communities no matter how poor.  It's hard to square that image with some TV apostle with his own private jet.

John Wesley died poor because of his generosity.  "The best of all, God is with us," he supposedly said as he lay dying.

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