I take issue with certain aspects of our current Book of Discipline. I’m not apologizing for my position. However, on this Aldersgate Day, I thought I would take the opportunity to highlight what I do appreciate about our second sacred holy book. Like many United Methodist pastors, I collect Books of Discipline. The two post war editions (1922 and 1948) are forceful statements of progressive theology which have been since relegated to our Social Principles. In 1922 and 1948, bold announcements on issues of race, war, peace, and culture were at the heart of the Book of Discipline. Our grandmothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and great-grandfathers were far more attuned to the Gospel than we want to admit. They were outspoken witnesses in ways we don’t know or understand. I’m ashamed that I sometimes give them so little credit. Our ancestors were keeping covenants long before we thought we understood the meaning of the word.
In 1948, as Mahatma Gandhi was leading India to independence and most of Africa and the Caribbean was still under British and French colonial rule, the Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline said,
“We protest, therefore, against all forms of domination of subject peoples for the advantage of those more favorably situated. No nations should embark upon a policy of colonial expansion or the extension of imperialistic spheres of influence. “
The Methodist Church was against colonialism before being opposed to colonialism was cool. To make a statement of that significance at the height of the growing Cold War by a major Protestant denomination is nothing short of groundbreaking. Twenty years before the independence movements moved through the rest of the developing world, Methodism was ahead of the curve.
In 1948 America was the world’s sole nuclear power. Soviet Russia was America’s major geopolitical threat and the conflict over access to Berlin pushed the world to the brink of war. How did Methodism respond to the crisis? In a section entitled “Reduction and Control of Armaments” the church says:
“Fear and suspicion increase the danger of hostilities; the diversion of wealth to this channel withdraws it from the constructive pursuits of peace. The militarization of the public mind reduces the possibility of the free interplay of ideas. Ideas cannot be destroyed by military force. It is possible to destroy the cities of an enemy, to bring his armed forces to surrender, in a word, to defeat him as far as the physical power to resist is concerned. But an ideology cannot be suffocated by poison gas nor demolished by atomic bombs. Ideas are conquered by better ideas whose truth has been revealed in practices than enrich the personality.”
How dangerous was it for Methodists to take such a position in 1948? Post-war America was still a militarized country; we would remain so for most of the Cold War. The sentiment that “ideas are conquered by better ideas” is one we need to remember today as we fight a distorted ideology bent on death. Post-war Methodism knew fear and suspicion of our neighbors only made the world a more violent place. Talk about a tough sale in Joseph McCarthy’s America.
Segregation was still the law of the land in 1948. Listen to the Methodist Church’s position on racial discrimination:
“The principle of racial discrimination is in clear violation of the Christian belief in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the Kingdom of God, the proclamation of which in word and life is our gospel. We therefore have no choice but to denote it as unchristian and to renounce in as evil. This we do without equivocation. “
This we do without equivocation. There was no doubt as to where the Methodist Church stood on race, Jim Crow, segregation, and America’s future. The book goes on to say, “The practice of racial discrimination can be no better, morally and spiritually speaking, than the principle from which it stems.” That means slavery. Segregation, in Methodism’s eyes, was the same as slavery. Again, these words are all contained in our 1948 Book of Discipline. People threatened to leave the church, invoked the Almighty, and claimed God justified racism. Yet here we are today.
In these days we hear much talk of traditionalists. On this Aldersgate Day, I am proud to embrace the traditions of the 1948 Book of Discipline. If we were this brave, this counter-cultural once, why can we not be once more? Yes, let’s go back to our roots. We had it right! Where we endorsed the wall of separation between church and state, paid to support contentious objectors, and saw Christianity as a creative force in society. Sign me up for this tradition.
*paragraphs 2025-2029 Discipline of the Methodist Church, 1948