Wesley the Liberationist

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu..

This is one of a series of five lectures delivered at Point Loma University, San Diego, February 2,000. Published by permission of the author.


The author believes that Wesley would have supported the Social Gospel. However, for Wesley it would be very important that every effort to formulate new theologies remain centered in Christ. With all the diversity of historical and cultural experience, Wesley would want attention given to what is also common to believers. Loving one another across differences would be part of that commonality.

Calling Wesley an evangelical and a liberal is not particularly anachronistic. These terms have well-established meaning in relation to eighteenth-century figures, and both clearly apply to him. I have of course gone on to speculate about how Wesley would have responded to issues he did not face, and there I may be accused of anachronism. Certainly, I tend to project my own preferences back on to him, but I hope I do not do so without reasonable justification.

When we turn to liberation theology, however, everything we say will have an anachronistic character. Prior to the 1960s liberation theology did not exist. It was a way of thinking that had occurred to noone earlier. Of course, once it came into being, one might trace some ancestry or anticipation of its themes, but that is another matter. Wesley was not, and could not have been, a liberationist.

Given this situation, the question here will be exclusively that of whether contemporary Wesleyan liberationists can claim support from Wesley for the new position they have adopted. Here, the claim can be taken seriously. Although as I have several times acknowledged, it is not possible to say how Wesley would have responded when confronted by the contemporary scene, there are enough parallels with his response to his own scene to require that we take the argument seriously.

Actually, there is an intermediate question that is more accessible to our inquiry. Would Wesley have supported the Social Gospel that played so large a role in the United Methodist Church in the first decades of this century? I will devote the first part of this lecture to that question. We can then consider the differences between the social gospel and liberation theology to pursue the relation of Wesley to the current scene.

In the preceding lecture I dealt with liberalism without discussing its relation to social issues. One branch of liberalism is highly individualistic, as is much of evangelicalism. But both liberalism and evangelicalism can be deeply concerned about those who are exploited or excluded by the social and economic orders. Although the Social Gospel developed chiefly in the more liberal branches of the Wesleyan movement, its concern for the poor has been widely shared by evangelicals.

The greatest gulf I identified between Wesley and twentieth-century liberal Wesleyans was the loss of strong conviction on the part of the latter. This criticism does not apply to the advocates of the social gospel. That gospel revitalized the church, giving it a strong sense of mission. Clearly Wesley shared and would have supported the deep concerns for justice and fair treatment of the poor. In these respects, the adherents of the social gospel could claim with full justification to be faithful to Wesley in a way that much of the Wesleyan movement in the nineteenth century was not.

But there are differences. The fullest articulation of the social gospel identifies the salvation Christians seek with a transformed society. Individual life is fulfilled in the service of that new order, and life in that order will participate in the social salvation. We cannot find that idea in Wesley,. He focused on individuals.

On the other hand, his understanding of salvation was not individualistic in the way much of it had become in the nineteenth century. To oversimplify, conservative views of salvation focused on the details of how individuals lived, the acts they performed or failed to perform, the beliefs they held or failed to hold, and the emotions they felt or did not feel. Liberals celebrated their freedom to think freely, shape their lives responsibly, and be confident in God’s love and acceptance.

Neither understood, or at least neither vigorously pursued Wesley’s understanding of the Christian life as growth in love. Love turns one immediately away from preoccupation with oneself to concern for the neighbor who is in need. Its expression is, therefore, immediately social. Individual salvation is a matter of growing social concern and acting on that concern.

The shift from understanding Christian life as directly expressed in the service of the neighbor to understanding that the salvation sought is that of the whole society is an easy one, and those who made it can claim to be faithful to Wesley even if he did not take that step. Whether they are right in their claim depends on how Wesley would have responded to two developments in the nineteenth century.

One of these developments was in biblical studies. Wesley appealed extensively to Jesus’ teaching, especially the Sermon on the Mount. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the basileia theou, the Realm of God. Wesley understood this as personal salvation. But scholars of many stripes now recognize that it is a vision of the world in which God’s purposes are fulfilled. Had Wesley understood Jesus in this way, would he have accepted a social understanding of the gospel? To claim that he would is not an unreasonable guess.

The other development began in Wesley’s own lifetime but did not influence him. Prior to the American and French Revolutions, especially the latter, there was little thought that the organization of society was something human beings could decide on. It seemed to be a given situation, allowing some room for human decisions, especially by rulers, but basically decided for all. The French Revolutionaries engaged in massive social experiment that invited a new kind of reflections about what kind of society is desirable.

There were so many terrible results of these social experiments that most people reacted against them. But the fact that people could make basic choices about the social order was historically established. To support continuance of the existing order itself became a choice. As the nineteenth century advanced this fact dominated much of its politics. The authors of the American Social Gospel took for granted that a society quite different from the one in which they lived was possible.

Actually, most of them saw the society that would embody God’s purposed for humankind and as a relatively minor modification of the one that already existed in the United States. They were not radical revolutionaries like the French Revolutionists or the Marxists. They believed in democracy and supported extension of suffrage to the disfranchised. They pushed for numerous reforms that would allow workers to have a good life, reduce inequalities in society, ensure peaceful relations among nations, and end the vicious treatment of minorities, especially Afro-Americans. They wanted everyone to have a good education and adequate health care. They thought that government could institute these reforms, and in many cases it did. They also wanted to extend the work of social justice throughout the world and were among the strongest supporters of Christian missions. They found personal fulfillment in working for Christ’s Kingdom.

My own judgment is that Wesley would have supported the Social Gospel. His own work included some rudimentary analysis of social policies in light of their effects on the poor and some effort to change them. I believe he would have accepted the shift of biblical scholarship with respect to Jesus' teaching. He could hardly have failed to be influenced by the greatly increased sense of human responsibility for the basic structures of society.

He would no doubt have been troubled by any tendency to minimize the importance of the motive of action. Apart from the growth and purification of love in the believer’s heart he would see little true progress. He would be concerned about any lessening of the effort to bring individuals to Christ while all worked for a society in which God’s purposes were fulfilled. In this connection he would have been skeptical of the idea that individuals can be deeply transformed by social changes, or any supposition that a society will truly fulfill God’s purposes if its individual members are not filled with love for one another. This would lead him to criticize some adherents of the social gospel but to side with others. Certainly, if the movement as a whole had been more fully faithful to Wesley’s passion for the inner transformation of each person, it would have had a greater capacity to achieve its purposes and to survive the disappointment of World War I.

This does not mean that Wesley would have discouraged actions to benefit the poor even when they were disconnected from Christianizing them. He never doubted that we should give a cup of cold water to the thirsty simply to help them quench their thirst. The danger in the Social Gospel was that Christians would forget that the greatest gift they could give was Christ. Not all forgot, but enough did to weaken the movement and to carry it in a direction the Wesley could not have supported. Unfortunately, those Wesleyans who recognized the weakness of the social gospel in this respect tended to react against its passion for social righteousness as a whole and to interpret Wesley falsely as an individualistic thinker. We still suffer from this polarization within the Wesleyan movement.

The influence of the Social Gospel lasted longer among Wesleyans, at least in the United Methodist Church, than in most other American denominations. Elsewhere the Neo-Orthodox critique of its exaggerated hopes for human action won out more quickly. The coming of God’s basileia, they affirmed, would be by God’s act, not ours. Neo-Orthodoxy was also called Neo-Reformation theology and even Neo-Calvinism. On the whole Wesleyans felt uncomfortable with it, despite our recognition of valid elements in its critique of the Social Gospel.

Something of the spirit of the Social Gospel was revived by the Civil Rights movement and especially by Martin Luther King’s leadership. Here was a cause around which the leadership of the old-line denominations could unite. Sadly, conservatives, who defined themselves in part by their reaction against the social gospel, were slow to give their support to this effort. Their resistance deepened the division between liberals and conservatives. On this score, I have no doubt that Wesley’s mantle fell on the liberals, and today most conservatives would agree.

Within the Civil Rights movement many were impatient with the moderateness of King’s leadership. King simply asked the dominant society to fulfill its own commitments and ideals. His aim was integration of African-Americans into the existing form of American society. These were easy goals for liberal Wesleyans, informed by the Social Gospel, to support.

Other leaders of the Black community, however, found this program unsatisfying. They believed that there were deep pathologies in the dominant Euro-American community that had enabled it to affirm slavery and segregation for centuries. Racism was not, in their view, an aberration from the values and ideals of that society but a central expression of its real nature. They did not want integration into that society.

Many of those who took this position also rejected Christianity. Some created Black Muslim churches. Others became secularists. But among them were also some who remained Christian and undertook to formulate a new theological style and movement. James Cone is the best know example, and his contribution to the formation of liberation theology has been enormous. To be a liberationist involves sharing many of his teachings.

As a professional theologian who lived through the late sixties and early seventies, I can assure you that understanding and assimilating what was being said was not easy. It required a deep transformation of the understanding of theology shared by virtually all American Protestant professionals. We supposed that theology was a movement of thought among Christians articulated effectively by leading thinkers. We traced its history from the second century through the present with considerable consensus about who were the theologians worthy of greatest attention. This history was understood to have been developed chiefly in northern Europe, and in the past two centuries, chiefly in the German-language nations. We might offer special courses in British or American theology, but they did not belong to the central stream. We might be interested in how Christianity was indigenized in Asia or Africa or Latin America, but the assumption was that to become participants in the theological discussion, their representatives would have to interact with the mainstream theological development.

Liberation theologians pointed out that we were identifying Christian theology with white, male, European theology. Whereas we had been immensely impressed by the scholarly gifts and intellectual genius of its major practitioners, liberationists told us that we should view them chiefly in terms of their social location. This location rendered them blind to the evils of European colonialism and American racism as well as to the oppression of women in their own society. Since the Christian faith is more genuinely bound up with resisting these evils than with responding to scholarly German critics, this theology cannot be viewed as in any way inclusively normative for Christians. Male Europeans cannot speak for all Christians.

The liberationists went on to point out that the angle of vision from which European scholars had interpreted the Bible differs from the angle of vision of its writers. Most biblical authors viewed the world from the perspective of the oppressed. European scholars viewed it from the point of view of the oppressors. This difference is so great that we need a whole new form of biblical scholarship.

Black liberationist theology was reinforced on its main points by that of Latin America. Of course, there were differences. Latin American liberation theology was more influenced by Marx and therefore emphasized the class structure of society instead of race. It also dealt with international oppression. But it shared the view that the Bible is a book that properly belongs to, and is best understood by, the oppressed, and that the theology we need should come from them.

Initially those of us who were influenced by the Social Gospel supposed that we were hearing this same message in a new and more radical form. But liberation theologians pointed out that this was not the case. Social Gospellers were members of the oppressing group who sympathized with the oppressed and wanted to extend to them the benefits of the oppressor’s society. They did not really take the views of the oppressed seriously. They thought they already knew what the oppressed needed. Their relation to the oppressed was primarily paternalistic.

Further, Black liberation theologians pointed out how little the Social Gospel dealt with the oppression of African-Americans. Its preoccupation was with factory workers and other European immigrants who were exploited by U.S capitalists and denied full participation in American society. The deep-seated character of American racism expressed itself in the policies of the labor unions that Social Gospel thinkers supported so strongly. This was little criticized. The Euro-centric understanding of history and of the present world remained unquestioned. In short, the Social Gospel did not free its practitioners from their own social location in the dominant white culture.

The third form of liberation theology that broke upon us in the early seventies was feminism. Like Black theology this emerged chiefly in this country. It struck many of us with even greater surprise. We had, at least, been aware that Blacks in the United States and peasants in Latin America suffered acute injustices. That they would protest did not surprise us. But many middle class males in the United States thought that their wives had a somewhat favored place in society. It seemed that they had greater leisure than we did and less responsibility and pressure. We did not think of them as systematically exploited and oppressed. We had difficulty at first understanding their complaints.

That situation has changed. Feminists have taught us to read our history in a way that shows how even the more favored women have been treated as male property, excluded from the possibility of developing and expressing their independent capacities, identified chiefly by their relations to men, and expected to shape their lives for the sake of husbands and children. We now see that many other women have been grossly abused, raped, forced into prostitution, and brutalized by their husbands. We have learned that religious traditions, including Christianity, have supported male dominance in many ways, including depicting God as male and denying women a place in religious leadership.

Whereas Blacks and Latin Americans could claim that the Bible is written from a point of view more like their own, this claim is not open to women. On the contrary, they point out that the Bible is written by men to support their own dominance. Male dominance characterizes oppressed groups as much as, perhaps more than, privileged ones. In many respects, the Bible is part of the problem. Certainly, Christian tradition has harmed women both by justifying their exploitation by men and by encouraging their psychological dependence on men. Many feminists turned against Christianity altogether.

Some women liberationists, nevertheless, have remained Christian. They find in the Bible a prophetic tradition calling for justice. They find themes that support the application of that call to the relation between the sexes. They find in Jesus one who was attentive to women and took them seriously as full human beings. They find indications of relative equality in early Christian communities. And they believe that the Christian tradition can be redeemed from its patriarchal character and transformed into a support for inclusion and justice.

They know that this transformation requires a great deal of repentance for past teaching and practice. Hence they have exposed the patriarchal character of every aspect of the church’s life as well as its traditions. They have made clear the radical character of the change that is needed.

Clearly these three early forms of liberation theology were not in full agreement. Those who wanted to preserve the status quo were, accordingly, in position to play them off against one another. During the seventies the Maryknoll Fathers, sympathetic to all these movements, held a series of conferences to enable each group to understand the others better. They were successful. Blacks agreed to the importance of class and gender analysis of oppression. Latin Americans agreed that they had erroneously neglected issues of race and gender. And feminists acknowledged the importance of race and class as well as gender. Thereafter, while emphases continued to be different, there was far less mutual denunciation. One could begin to speak meaningful of liberation theology in general as well as of its specific forms.

Once the idea of liberation theology was established, it became clear that it could take, even needed to take, many more forms. If the Christian faith needed to be appropriated in a distinctive manner by Latin American peasants, the same must be true of Korean workers, of Asian immigrants into the United States, of black Africans in South Africa, of low caste Indians. Also Black women needed to clarify their point of view over against both Black me and white women. Homosexuals have needed to find their voice. Persons with disabilities have done so also. The list is endless.

The general point is that whereas in the past it has been supposed that Christian theology is a work of scholars and thinkers belonging to the establishment and thus supposed to be free of special bias, now it is assumed that theology needs to be formulated in each social location to give expression to the meaning of faith in that location. Those locations that result from a history of suffering under oppression are seen as privileged in comparison with the social locations of the oppressors.

Now what would Wesley think of all this? To answer this is to stretch speculation farther that we have done thus far. Clearly Wesley was aware of the poor and oppressed and concerned for them. He also recognized a certain positive relation between poverty and Christian faith. That is, he saw that whereas the poor seemed to find it possible to fulfill Biblical expectations of mutual support and generosity with worldly goods, once people began to amass such goods, they changed. Protection of their assets became a significant factor in their decisions. They did not give themselves wholeheartedly to the Christian way. They divided their loyalties between God and wealth.

It would not be much of a stretch to go from this to saying that the Bible is better understood by the oppressed than by their oppressors, by the poor than by the rich. Given other statements by Wesley on such matters as slavery, it would not be hard to claim that he would agree that the slaves have a better chance of understanding the gospel than their masters. Although race was not a major category for Wesley, in a society that defined people’s place along racial lines, he might well have agreed that those races who were oppressed had better access to the true meaning of scripture that those that oppressed them.

From here it would not be much of a stretch to propose that the understanding of faith of the poor and oppressed is superior to that of the rich and the oppressors. Since theology for Wesley is essentially the understanding of faith, one could well argue that the poor and the oppressed should be encouraged to formulate their theology. Since there are many forms of oppression, this could result in a variety of theologies.

Although all this is quite reasonable, we must also recognize that Wesley made no moves in this direction. Within the Methodist movement he held the reigns tightly in his own hands. Although he was remarkably open to individuals who held divergent views, he certainly did not encourage them to articulate and proclaim these divergences. Despite the implications that the poor might have a better understanding of the gospel, there is no indication that he listened attentively to them or encouraged them to think independently. By temperament Wesley was far more paternalistic than liberationist.

In dealing with evangelicals and liberals and Social Gospellers, I have treated their differences from Wesley as negative. To have stayed closer to Wesley would have improved their work and thought. But in the case of liberation theologians, this is not obviously the case. It may be that here they have taken a step that Wesley should have taken but failed to take. That is they have not undertaken to do good for the poor. They have undertaken to help the poor take control of their own thinking and living. This seems to be an advance whether or not Wesley would have made this advance had he been aware of the possibility.

. I noted that in the 1970s the three main branches came to acknowledge that they could learn from one another. There continues to be much mutual support among liberation theologians representing different groups. They share an opposition to the dominant culture and its institutions and thus are often able to work together in their efforts to overcome its hegemony.

Nevertheless, the dominant tendency is fragmentation. Each oppressed community needs to find its own voice and speak out of its particular experience. The authenticity of expression is prized far more than its roots in the Christian faith. One often gets the impression that formulating this experience as a Christian liberation theology is more for political or institutional reasons than out of any deep commitment to Christ. In other words, there sometimes seems to be a shift of primary concern from faithfulness to Christ to liberations from a particular oppression.

It is not my view that there needs to be a conflict. In a particular situation I am fully open to the idea that faithfulness to Christ demands wholehearted commitment to liberation from a particular oppression. What arouses anxiety on my part is that this connection is sometimes not articulated as central. Having had one’s consciousness raised as to how Christ in the past has been appealed to in support of oppression, it sometimes seems that liberationists are as open to liberation from Christ as to Christ the liberator.

I have discussed this under the heading of fragmentation. When a particular form of liberation becomes ultimate for a group, then its unity with other branches of the Christian family, even other liberationist branches, becomes one of alliances and networking. Christian unity in any deep sense is lost.

This tendency is heightened, at least in academic circles, by the close connection between liberation thinking and critical theory and deconstructive postmodernism. These emphasize difference over commonality. They stress that responsible thinking must stay close to life experience and oppose the effort to find a common history or a comprehensive vision. Their influence works against the deep Christian passion to find a common center in Christ that binds us together despite our differences. They typically see this effort as a hegemonic one, in principle opposed to liberation.

Finally, there are problems with focusing on understanding oneself and one’s community primarily in terms of the way others have oppressed. One’s personal passion to free one’s community from oppression is a deeply unselfish one that has, or can have rich rootage in the Christian faith. But it can also pass over into taking a certain pride in having endured oppression and even into competition with others as to the degree of suffering one’s groups has endured. Instead of unselfish concern for other members of one’s group, it can become a demand for power for oneself as representative of that group. Here, too, one can become competitive with others who have been oppressed.

In this process, there is a danger that the analysis of sin will apply only to others and that one’s own sinfulness and the sinfulness of one’s own group will be forgotten. This is not to say that the victim should be blamed! There is far too much of that. But it is to say that we live in a very complex world in which no individual and no group has entirely clean hands. If any of us cease to be sensitive to our own capacities for evil, we can become dangerous to others.

I am saying nothing of which many liberationists have not spoke more eloquently. But the fact that many are sensitive to the problems and seeking to avoid them does not mean that there are no remaining weaknesses in the movement. They are not easy to remove. Awakening people to how their problems are due to the sins of others leads very easily to some form of self-righteousness. Recognition of the importance of hearing each group, and each individual, into speech, leads almost inevitably to fragmentation. The truths uncovered by critical thinking and deconstructive postmodernism lead almost inescapably to relativistic conclusions.

It will not surprise you to learn that I believe that Wesley would share my concerns. For him it would be very important that every effort to formulate new theologies remain centered in Christ. With all the diversity of historical and cultural experience, Wesley would want attention given to what is also common to believers. Loving one another across differences would be part of that commonality.

It would also be very important that those who seek liberation from oppression seek also to grow in love for all. Love of the oppressor need not prevent confrontation, but it does change its character. Just as with the Social Gospel, efforts at liberation that are not also efforts to deepen love of neighbor will ultimately fail.