To review-- I am trying to make the case for adding the spiritual discipline of advocacy to the list of Wesleyan means of grace. I think that a persuasive argument can be made for classifying advocacy as a work of mercy. John Wesley did not make this claim in any of his definitions of works of mercy, so my position is an addendum.
An earlier post identified reproving sinners as a work of mercy and as such a means of grace according to Wesley. This post describes what this work involves from Wesley’s perspective, and then shares a personal example of a time when I tried to put his suggestions into practice.
Wesley based his method for admonishing sinners on Matthew 18:15. Sermon 49 discusses Wesley’s method in detail; a long commentary in the Notes for Matthew 18:15 provides a summary of the method. According to these UM Doctrinal Standards, if admonishing someone is to be a work of mercy and potentially a means of grace, certain criteria must be met and specific steps followed.
Criterion One-- You may speak up if you saw or heard the sin committed.
Criterion Two-- You may speak up if you have the correct attitude. (Sermon 65, which is not part of the UM Doctrinal Standards, also describes this attitude.)
Step 1-- When you are in the right frame of mind then start the admonishment, which can take several forms-- a simple sentence, a long exhortation, a sigh or a silent look of disapproval.
Step 2-- If you feel prompted by God to speak up, begin with a frank expression of goodwill taking care to avoid effusive flattery. In addition to being loving, humble and meek, the tone of voice used at this point should also be serious and earnest. Wesley recommended including some words of scripture in the admonishment in order to achieve this end unless you are speaking to a non-Christian, in which case some gentle teasing may be the best approach.
Step 3-- The goal of admonishing is two-fold and includes both convincing someone of the sinful nature of their actions and also showing them how to correct the harmful behavior. If someone initially refuses to be convinced and resists correction and that person is a member of your church, then pursue the goal of admonishing by approaching that person a second time with another member of the church, someone whom the other trusts and respects. If after this second attempt the person continues to resist correction, then bring the matter before the church.
Wesley’s conception of admonishing as convincing and correcting is consistent with the meaning of the Greek term ἐπιτιμάω. The literal translation is “on (ἐπι) + esteem (τιμάω)” and is taken to imply that a situation is being built upon in order to correct it.
The word occurs in situations where someone or something is out of line and must be put back into their proper place. For example, Jesus put the demons, the wind and water, the disciples and other followers in their place when they were out of line (Mt 8:26; 12:16; 17:18; Mk 1:25; 3:12; 4:39; 8:30, 33; 9:25; Lk 4: 35, 39, 41; 8:24; 9:21, 42, 55).
As a work that acts out love of neighbor, admonishing is appropriate no matter who the sinner might be. It is a Christian duty we are to fulfill first to our parents, spouse and children, second to other family members, third to employees, and finally to fellow citizens. (A Charles Wesley poem based on Mark 12:14, makes the point that even kings must be fearlessly admonished when necessary.)
All of which leads to my point that advocacy, when it is done with a loving attitude, when it seeks to convince a fellow citizen or institutional official that their actions are oppressive, and when it includes constructive criticism regarding how to amend these actions, then such advocacy is potentially a work of mercy and a means of grace.
I tried to follow Wesley’s method after an unsettling lecture at Nebraska Wesleyan University prompted me to speak out.
The speaker, Ben Gotschall a staff member of BOLD Nebraska and a graduate of and adjunct instructor at NWU, talked about his opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. As part of his presentation, Ben showed powerpoint slides that detailed changes made to a map on the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality website. Previously, the map that depicts the various environmental regions in the State labeled one of the regions “Sandhills”. At some point the map was altered, the Sandhills designation was removed and replaced by the label “North-Central Nebraska”.
Out of all the reasons Ben gave to explain his advocacy efforts against the pipeline, I found this one the most provoking. I considered it both outrageous and ridiculous that the Sandhills would be erased from the DEQ map. Outrageous because such an action suggested that the company behind the pipeline construction had undue influence on a public official. Ridiculous because the revised map lacked consistency.
A Sesame Street song kept going through my head, “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong.” Short Grass Prairie, Mixed Grass Prairie, and Tall Grass Prairie make sense together. North-Central is a direction not a type of microclimate and as such it does not belong with the other three.
My brain hates the illogical and inconsistent. It craves the rational and expected outcome. I wanted to know who was responsible for this deception. Who in the Nebraska State government thought changing the map would be a good idea? Who thought the citizens of Nebraska were too dumb to catch the incongruity? Who assumed that Nebraskans would not be able to connect the dots from the altered map to those with the most to gain from wiping the Sandhills off the map?
I stewed over the perceived insult all night. My journal entry for the next morning is full of actions that I could take to get the Sandhills returned to the map. Imagining forms of activism in response to an injustice is a relatively new response for me. Going the next step and acting on those hypothetical ideas is very new.
I’ve been known to donate money to an organization that is addressing an area of social concern, and I’ve taken part in a letter-writing campaign and a call-your-representative campaign a time or two. Rarely do I take the initiative to contact an official on my own.
This occasion was different. A donation was not going to assuage my temper. Consoling myself with the promise to take part in a group action (if one was ever organized) would not pacify my indignation. If I wanted my peace of mind restored, I would have to speak up for myself.
Before lodging my complaint, I decided to check the accuracy of the speaker’s claims. At that point, I had not seen or heard the sin for myself (Criterion One). By using a Google image search, I discovered that the map had indeed been altered. Now that I had seen the sin for myself, I could move on to Criterion Two, admonish when I had the proper attitude.
I was so not in the proper attitude. I was not feeling the love. The adrenaline-fueled outrage pumping through my system made it difficult to be humble and meek. This was not the correct attitude for admonishing according to the method set out by Wesley. It was, however the perfect attitude for prayerful confession.
I don’t remember the words of the confession. Something about lacking love and that God would have to supply the love if I was supposed to have it. The prayer also contained a few questions about how to proceed, who should I contact, what did God think of the options?
Step One: The Form of Reproof-- I was trying to decide between two options-- sending my complaint to the governor or sending my complaint to the executive in charge of the Nebraska environmental department. If I sent my complaint to the director, I might be complaining to someone who didn't have the power to make the changes I wanted to the website map. If I sent my complaint to the governor, I might be throwing the director under the bus. What was the loving thing to do?
God did not give a direct answer to my prayer. I did not receive a sign that told me what to do. In the end I decided to send my complaint to the governor because I could not find a way to send the director an email, at least one which I was confident would not end up in a spam folder. Once I felt certain that I wasn't going over the hand of the director in an attempt to get him into trouble, I wrote to the governor using the contact form provided on his website.
Step Two: The Tone of Reproof-- As I wrote I tried to be respectful, keep to the facts, and not make unsubstantiated accusations. I reported where I was when I heard the lecture, who spoke, what he said, how what he said motivated me to write to the governor and to ask for the website to be reverted back to the way it had been. I did not accuse the governor of being corrupt. I did use the phrase "exercising undue influence on public officials" because in my opinion the change to the map did create the impression that a foreign corporation had prompted the government’s decision to make the Sandhills disappear.
Step Three: Convincing and Correcting-- My goal was to convince the governor that the decision to change the environmental map had been out of line and to persuade him to restore the original map to its proper place. I received a reply from the governor a few weeks later that made it clear my message had not convinced him. The form letter explained the steps that the governor had taken in the review process of the Keystone XL pipeline. The letter did not mention my concerns about the changes made to the DEQ map.
Step Four: Patience and Hope-- Wesley had seen this coming. In Sermon 65 he encouraged the Methodists to stay hopeful in spite of outward appearances to the contrary because admonishment is like a seed that may take root and produce results at some future point. Wesley wrote, “Lastly: You that are diligent in this labour of love, see that you be not discouraged, although after you have used your best endeavours, you should see no present fruit. You have need of patience, and then, ‘after ye have done the will of God’ herein, the harvest will come. Never be ‘weary of well-doing; in due time ye shall reap, if ye faint not.’”
I had not made an impact on the governor; speaking up had however, made an impression on me. Soon after I hit the Send button, my mood started to change for the better. Eventually, my peace of mind was restored as my anger diminished. From my perspective, that shift from outrage to calm counts as a work of grace. God used my advocacy on behalf of the environment as a channel through which grace could flow. Grace is evident in my confession before I wrote the reproof, in my improved attitude when I sent it, and in my faith since having sent it.
This is an experience that I hope to draw upon the next time something evokes my sense of moral indignation. Knowing that speaking up can make a difference, even if the difference is only evident to me, is knowledge that I find comforting. It gives me a way to cope with injustice when I am feeling powerless and despised. It provides me with a method for approaching social concerns out of a faith perspective.
Have you found methods for addressing oppression and injustice that increase your faith and give you hope?