100 years ago, the Methodist Episcopal Church put forth a Social Creed. It was a statement of solidarity with the millions of victims of the industrial revolution. During a time of unchecked capitalism, the industrial revolution had created a system of enormous oppression. Workers were forced into labor conditions that were dangerous, grueling, oftentimes cruel, and usually for little pay.
In the face of this injustice, the Church found its prophetic voice, and ushered in the era of the Social Gospel. Reading the creed of 1908 is like reading a summary of modern labor laws. Among the items covered by the creed was the abolition of child labor, the six-day work week and the right of workers to have a safe working environment.
Some decried the creed as Socialist, and many thought that the Church was overstepping its bounds. Critics wanted the Church to stay out of politics and policy. They felt that the Church should just have worship on Sunday, a few Bible studies on Wednesday night, and a pot-luck from time to time. If the Church wanted to get involved, these critics felt, then open up a food pantry or give money to a missionary in Africa.
I like a good green bean caserole or deviled egg as much as the next guy, and I love sitting around a table to talk about Scripture, but the Church is about more than pot-lucks and Bible studies. Read Isaiah 58, and you will find these words:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Isaiah demands that we do more. Isaiah demands that the Church act when it sees injustice. In the New Testament, James agrees:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
I, for one, am proud that the Social Creed of 1908 is a part of the legacy and history of the Church I love. In this, the one hundredth anniversary of the Social Creed, the United Methodist Church has created a new creed. It is more universal and timeless. Instead of being directed at specific injustice, it speaks of the nature of God in hope that believing in a God of justice will lead people to act for justice. It is more liturgical in nature, and is written to be read responsively with a beautiful musical response.
There are many injustices in this world. There is economic turmoil, a growing disparity between the rich and the poor; there are preventable epidemics, growing extremism, environmental disasters, and wars being fought that could have been avoided. The writing of creeds and social principles will not solve the problems of our world. The idea of a creed though, is to set a standard – to give people a place to fall back on when the work of justice becomes difficult. It is a reminder of the God to whom we belong, and it holds out hope that in time the world in which we live can reflect God’s goodness more perfectly.