Methodists Mum on Race

It is Black History Month, and The United Methodist Church still has a lot of work to do. The current Social Principles document includes a robust statement against racism. The section, “Rights of Racial and Ethnic Persons,” clearly defines personal and systemic racism, “recognize[s] racism as sin,” encourages “oppressed people . . . to demand their just and equal rights as members of society,” and supports affirmative action (UMC, Book of Discipline 2016, ¶162.A). However, the proposed Revised Social Principles to be voted on at General Conference in April 2024 does not even mention race!

Methodism has a checkered history on race. As a White male, I must reckon with this churchly inheritance. White Methodists have supported slavery and fought for the abolition of slavery. My forebearers fought on both sides of the US Civil War. They established racially segregated structures within church and society. Some of my ancestors fought for civil rights and racial integration; others were comfortable with the status quo in which whites benefitted from institutional structures of racism. The following reckoning is adapted from my chapter in the new book, Methodism and American Empire.

Darryl W. Stephens, “A Global Ethic for a Divided Church.” In Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church. Edited by David W. Scott and Filipe Maia, 111–33. Abingdon, 2024.

The concept of human rights is a central aspect of Methodist social witness. Not only were Methodists heavily involved in creating and supporting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the UMC and its predecessors have displayed an unwavering public commitment to human rights. As a matter of doctrine, the UMC asserts within its Confession of Faith, “We believe . . . governments should be based on, and be responsible for, the recognition of human rights under God” (¶ 104). Furthermore, the current Social Principles document shares substantive commitments with much of the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Thus, it is no surprise that the proposed Revised Social Principles also voices support for a wide variety of individual human rights.

Assertions of rights in the proposed Revised Social Principles are based on seeing others as bearers of the image of God—an equalizing premise amid differences of power. Consistent with prior editions of the Social Principles, proposed document “affirm[s] the important work of the United Nations” and upholds the UDHR as a definitive explication of basic rights. The document grounds “basic human rights and freedoms” in “God’s gracious act in creation” and pledges “to protect these rights and freedoms within the church” and society.

The “dignity and worth” of every person is mentioned eleven times in the proposed Revised Social Principles, functioning as a shorthand for the UMC’s commitment to human rights grounded in God’s good creation. This connection is made explicit in the section on Basic Rights and Freedoms: “We condemn all attempts to deny individuals their basic rights or freedoms or to strip human beings of their inherent dignity and worth.” Ten subsections in this draft document assert rights pertaining to various groups and contexts, including women and girls, men and boys, “indigenous, native, and aboriginal communities,” and “sexual orientations and gender identities.” However, the proposed Revised Social Principles fails to guide the reader in understanding when or if the language of rights applies to race.

The proposed document upholds basic rights and freedoms for all individuals but does not employ the language of rights to address race specifically. The document condemns “racism, ethnocentrism, and tribalism” and rejects laws and practices that discriminate on these bases, but it does not use the word race at all. How is one to understand the proposed stance against environmental racism, for example, in the absence of any definition or discussion of race? Admittedly, the label “racial and ethnic persons” does not translate well from the United States to a global context. However, eliminating any mention of race leaves the problem of racism inadequately addressed.

Given Methodism’s past complicities with empire in the form of White supremacy, particularly by condoning slavery and supporting racially segregated structures in church and society, a steadfast commitment to the rights of persons regardless of race cannot be taken as a given. The draft statement on Basic Rights and Freedoms asserts, “in the face of historic wrongs perpetrated against indigenous peoples, enslaved African peoples and other marginalized groups, we call for forthright confession and repentance as well as concrete acts of reparation to redress past and present forms of social injustice.” However, this call raises more questions than it answers.

Why is the called-for “forthright confession” left unstated in the proposed draft of Social Principles, particularly when it was so elaborately stated in the 2016 Social Principles? How does this call to repentance differ from the UMC’s prior act of repentance for racism? Which current resolutions support reparations, as envisioned here? Why are the “past and present forms of social injustice” against “enslaved African peoples” not named as racism?

Antiracist commitments could have been communicated with references to the UMC’s constitutional commitment to racial justice (¶ 5), its Act of Repentance for Racism (adopted in 2000 and renewed in 2008), and its numerous resolutions on race relations and racial justice. Speaking out against discrimination is not a sufficient substitute for asserting human rights.

The struggle for racial equality is not over. Racism continues to plague our church and US society. This is why it is so important that the UMC promote equal rights regardless of race or ethnicity and maintain a clear, public stance against racism.