Activism is one of David Bebbington's 4 pillars of evangelicalism. Of course, as a Wesleyan, I'm not too bothered whether we are "properly" evangelical or not. We are what we are. If the (neo)evangelicals want to call us evangelicals, fine. I'm not going to sweat too much if they don't want us in the club.
Ideas have a tendency to simmer in my mind for a while. Then, something happens to coalesce them, and I have my position or decision. That happened a few minutes ago doing my homework from Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self, in particular, his chapter titled, "God Loveth Adverbs." This chapter talks about some of the forces that have led the Western world to consider all "callings" in life to be of the same value to God. God is only interested in the "adverbs" of your work in life--how you do it and why you do it--not what you do. This is a post-Reformation perspective.
If you have followed my thought on what we might call, for lack of a better word, moral activism, you have seen my sense that Wesleyan activism, properly so called, would seem to focus on activism for others rather than activism against sin. To be sure, the legalistic phase of the Wesleyan Church in particular (second half of the twentieth century) focused on activism against sin, with the image of "Achan in the camp" a characteristic theme.
Since this approach has enjoyed the better part of a century within the Wesleyan movement, I can hardly say it is unWesleyan. I do today, however, wish to categorize it as what I call "Calvino-Wesleyan." By this I mean to say that it represents more the influence of the Calvinist tradition on us than an intrinsically Wesleyan-Arminian approach.
These excerpts from Taylor solidified my thinking here:
"Calvinist activism is not really paradoxical or even hard to understand. It would indeed be paradoxical if activism were meant to bring about the salvation of those whose lives were thus reordered...
"... while humans can do nothing to bring about reconciliation, the reconciled person feels the imperative need to repair the disorder of things, to put them right again in God's plan... To the Calvinist, it seemed self-evident that the properly regenerate person would above all be appalled at the offence done to God in a sinful, disordered world; and that therefore one of his foremost aims would be to put this right, to clean up the human mess of at least to mitigate the tremendous continuing insult done to God.
"That is why there is no contradiction in a Calvinist church order seeking to control the behaviour even of the unregenerate. If the aim were to effect their salvation, this would of course be senseless. Nothing can save these foreknown to damnation. But this is not the goal. The purpose is rather to combat a disorder which continuously stinks in God's nostrils" (228).
From a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective, however, the Calvinist has a defective understanding both of God's sovereignty and God's love. God has allowed humans to defy and disobey Him in the meantime. There will be a judgment, a final reckoning to be sure. But God is "big enough" to handle disobedience in the meantime (unlike the immature God of some forms of Calvinism who throws a hissy fit at the smallest sign of disobedience--a model that has had immensely ill effect on the parenting of those within its influence).
Some forms of this model have a defective theology of the OT, one that takes some of God's actions without consideration of the place of some of its teaching in the flow of salvation history. It also ignores the distinction even then between God's wrath toward impurity (which is certainly there is certain parts) and God's wrath toward oppression.
All of this is to say that a properly Wesleyan activism is overwhelmingly directed toward stopping oppression and promoting righteousness. It is an activism that is for slaves, for women, for the unborn, for the disempowered in all their forms. It is for economic health It is for moving the sinner toward righteousness. This is something quite different from trying to make sure that the sinner is punished or even that sin is stopped when that sin does not clearly harm others.
The application of this activism can certainly become tricky. For example, properly Wesleyan activism is not oriented around making sure an illegal immigrant is caught and punished. The properly Wesleyan concern is for the basic health and welfare of the illegal and their family, and the law of the land can handle the question of justice. Systemic consequences are difficult to predict. It may certainly be the case some times that maintaining the system will do more benefit for others than helping a specific individual case. But we get the suspicion that those who oppose helping individuals for this reason are often only using such answers as an excuse.
I'll largely leave it at that for now.