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Zooming with the Social Principles

Social Principles connect us

An Oklahoma pastor says that a study of the United Methodist Social Principles is healing during “a time of deconstruction and destabilization” caused by COVID-19.

TREY WITZEL
For General Board of Church & Society

Much of the schedule and structure of church has been disrupted and upended during COVID-19. One way my church, First United Methodist Church of Edmond, OK, has greeted this occasion is similar to many of you—the embracing of Zoom. This means more opportunities to visit more Sunday Schools and more small groups than would be normally afforded on a “normal” Sunday Morning.

Our staff decided that we would all make three to five-week studies that, after a full rotation, would help reorient our members and reinterpret how we understand and respond to our current moment in time. Many people in this moment are scared, anxious, and yearning for some alternative to the status quo.

In response to the impact that the General Board of Church and Society and our Social Principles have had on my call to ministry, I decided to take the 2021 Revised Social Principles “on the road” to our various Zoom Sunday Schools and small groups, where I’ve found that more people are open to new ways of understanding how our world might begin to better reflect the idea of “On Earth as it is in Heaven.”

I was first introduced to our Social Principles in 2009 as a high school junior. At that time, the Oklahoma Annual Conference gathered high school students from across the Conference to spend Spring Break in Washington D.C. with Church and Society, learning about The United Methodist Church’s expansive vision and work for justice.

It was here that my moral imagination was expanded, growing from understanding the Church’s mission simply as mission trips and canned food drives to something deeper and more expansive than my still developing worldview had ever dreamed.

I feel blessed that my worldview was directly developed by our Social Principles, centering my faith as a United Methodist as that which would be the jumping-off point for the rest of my life. The Seminar Program helped set the course for my undergraduate work, seminary education, and eventual ordination as an Elder in the Oklahoma Annual Conference.

In January of 2020, before our nation and the world was turned upside down, I was again blessed by the Oklahoma Annual Conference and Church and Society to attend the annual Young Clergy Forum in Washington D.C. Here, a cohort of young clergy from across the denomination networked and shared our hopes and struggles, dreams, and roadblocks, learning necessary organizing and advocacy skills. It was in this context I was first introduced to the 2021 Revised Social Principles.

Here, I found a condensed articulation of our global Wesleyan work of living faith, seeking justice, and pursuing peace.

One lawyer in my congregation commented, “I’ve read a lot of great documents. I’ve read The Declaration of Independence, The Gettysburg Address, and JFK’s Inauguration Address. This document deserves to be on the shelf alongside all of them.”

The world has been shaken with the devastation of COVID-19, and the United States is reeling from the deep-seated racism and white supremacy of our founding. COVID-19 has been like the dye used for MRI scans, enhancing our understanding of internal and structural problems unseen by untrained eyes.

The brokenness of society is more obvious for many in our pews and neighborhoods than ever before. While Jesus healed all who were ill (Matthew 8:16), our health care system has proven too cumbersome financially and geographically to meet this moment, with far too many people choosing to accept a life-threatening illness rather than succumbing to disastrous medical debt. People are forced to work in unhealthy and dangerous environments instead of being able to prioritize the family and life Jesus promises (John 8:12). Protests across our country are continuing the century-long fight for civil rights and racial justice, while every Christian reads that in Christ there is no longer Gentile or Jew (Galatians 3:28). We are in a time of deconstruction and destabilization.

And people are searching for answers. Where did we go wrong and why have we been let down? In these times of uncertainty and chaos, this breaking open of cracks can provide time and space for us to reimagine what healing and wholeness look like, to understand anew the biblical hope and call of Isaiah 58:12 that, “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

Teaching The 2021 Revised Social Principles, I have had many members say that this study has helped provide a new framework to meet this moment of reimagining and rebuilding. We can rally around shared values centered on doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8) because if we do not, other ideologies and conspiracy theories will claim our attention. The Social Principles carry with it the religious authority to challenge and worldviews for us to dream again.

One of the members of our congregation reflected on how her class has taken the posture of not talking about politics—both secular and ecclesial. In many ways, this has been helpful to unite around what we have in common rather than what divides. She said, “If we can’t talk about these things here, where and when can we? Maybe if the Social Principles had been a part of Methodism 101, Confirmation, Sunday School curriculum, etc. from the beginning, the church might be in a different place, a better place, today.”

I think she’s right, and so did another member of her class, telling me, “Learning about the Social Principles is a way for me to understand more completely the ideals within The United Methodist Church. It allows me to remain grounded in what my faith is all about and how I as an individual can assist the church in upholding those principles.”

With so much hate and fear guiding conversations inside and outside the church, I invite you to allow the 2021 revised Social Principles to be that which guides our conversation and guides the moment. They offer a shared vision that another world is possible, on Earth as it is in Heaven. I want to encourage all of you to go to read, share, and teach the 2021 Revised Social Principles.