God is Love
Cross is Love
Optimistic about Love
The Wesleyan tradition would not be unique in believing that love of our neighbors must go beyond an invitation to believe on Christ and reach to the needs of others in every area of their lives. The idea of reaching out to those in need--the poor, the widow, the orphan--is a dominant theme of the Bible, and cannot legitimately be placed in competition with the call to evangelism. The Bible from the Old Testament to Jesus to the letters pushes us to do both. Indeed, few will respond or consider the good news to be good news, if it comes as mere words without any demonstration of real love.
The idea of "social justice" originates in the Bible. When Job is describing his righteousness before God he describes it this way: "I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper. The blessing of the wretched came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger" (Job 29:12-17, NRSV). Job describes his righteousness, his justice in terms of reaching out to the material needs of others.
This core value of Israel reaches from the Law to the Prophets to the Writings. In the Law, Israel is to leave food in its fields for the poor and the immigrant (Lev. 19:1-2). When we look to the Prophets, we find that the theme of social injustice is a dominant concern, as much as any indictment of Israel for breaking its covenant with God. Isaiah 10 condemns a government that makes "iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey" (10:1-2, NRSV).
In the Gospel of Luke, the theme of Jesus' earthly ministry is to "bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor" (4:18-19, NRSV). Jesus is quoting Isaiah 61 as a kind of inaugural address for his ministry, and concern for the disempowered is a dominant theme of Jesus' ministry. In Matthew 25, helping those with material needs is the only criteria mentioned by which God assigns individuals their eternal destiny.
Certainly when we apply this core biblical value to today we must take into account our differing circumstances. The situation of the poor today is not the same as the situation of the biblical poor. As with all application of Scripture, we must take the general principles and apply them with a view to the points of continuity and discontinuity. But there is no denying the principle. Concern for those who are economically disempowered and loving one's neighbor in every dimension of his or her life is a core biblical and Christian value. Indeed, these sorts of things stand at the very heart of what it means to love our neighbor. As 1 John 3:17 says, "How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" (NRSV), and this love extends beyond the Christian family (e.g., Gal. 6:10).
Again, the Wesleyan tradition is not unique in recognizing this core Christian value. John Wesley himself left the normal confines of the church to preach to coal-miners and others who were disempowered in the English society of the day. Many believe that the love he showed to the lower classes of British society was one of the reasons England did not have the bloody revolution that France did at the end of the 1700s. He was part of the wave of empowerment that ended with the abolition of slavery and the enactment of child-labor laws in England.
The Wesleyan tradition at its best has followed Wesley's example. For example, it is no coincidence that the Salvation Army is a church in the Wesleyan tradition. It is a church whose concern for the material needs of others is so clear that many do not even realize that it is a denomination. Wesleyans have almost always kept a food pantry in their parsonages for the needy who might stop by. Concern for those in need is thus a core Wesleyan value, just as it is a core Christian value.
It is unfortunate that the early twentieth century pushed so many grass roots Christians away from this core Christian value. At that time, conservative Christians distinguished themselves from what was called the "social gospel." Those who advocated a social gospel at that time did not believe in things like the deity or resurrection of Christ.
But the fundamentalists who reacted to them threw out half of the gospel in their reaction. The modernists' concern for the poor and needy was all that was left of their Christianity, not a sign of their opposition to historic Christian values. It was perfectly appropriate for the fundamentalists to reject their disbelief of core items of Christian faith. But in rejecting their concern for the poor, the fundamentalists themselves rejected core items of Christian faith. The Wesleyan tradition in its core values rejects this aspect of American conservatism.