Wesley on Racism
By Hal Knight
The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a white supremacist rally turned violent, is a distressing reminder that racism remains in 21st century America. While the more than a dozen groups attending the rally are a small but dangerous fringe, the problem of racial discrimination and attitudes is more widespread. Yes, much progress has been made, but there is also much more to do.
Some have pointed out that anti-fascist militants bent on violence were among the counter-demonstrators. There were indeed persons on both sides spoiling for a fight. But while violence by anyone is rightly condemned, that should not keep us from recognizing that white supremacy is itself evil and contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of the counter-demonstrators were non-violent, including the one who lost her life.
John Wesley lived at a time when many took white supremacy for granted. It was a view held by the highly educated as well as the uneducated, and was even thought self-evident by some who opposed slavery. Many Christians accepted this as a given—but not John Wesley.
Wesley believed the gospel of Jesus Christ clearly and unequivocally affirms human equality. It does so, first, by seeing all persons as created in God’s image. There are no gradations here—some are not more in God’s image than others. Also, all persons are fallen into sin. Despite the protests of some aristocrats that their sins could not be as bad as those of commoners, Wesley insisted God sees everyone the same.
Wesley also believed all persons had souls. While a widespread belief in the American colonies was that Africans lacked souls, Wesley vehemently insisted otherwise. In fact, he flatly denied white supremacy of any kind: “the African,” he said, “is in no respect inferior to the European.” (“Thoughts Upon Slavery,” IV. 8)
Secondly, Wesley understood salvation as God restoring persons to the image in which they were created. This salvation is offered to all, not some. If everyone can through grace reflect the divine image and love as God loves, then all are fundamentally equal.
Third, Christ died for all. Contrary to those who insisted Jesus only died for those predestined for salvation, Wesley proclaimed that Christ died for all because God loves all. As his brother Charles wrote, “For every man he tasted death, He suffered once for all. He calls as many souls as breathe, and all may hear the call.” (Hymn appended to “Free Grace”)
Fourth, grace is universal. God reaches out to all, and enables all to respond. Thus, as Charles says, “every soul” may “be Jesus guest;” “Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.” (UM Hymnal, 339) Everyone is equally valued by God.
Finally, if God created everyone in the divine image, reaches out to everyone, and loves everyone even to death on a cross, how then should we relate to others? Here there is no room for hatred, demeaning others, racism, or discrimination of any kind. Instead, our call is to love others as God has loved us. And how has God loved us? As Wesley says in “God’s Love to Fallen Man,” by becoming one of us, and suffering and dying for us. “If God SO loved us,” Wesley concludes, “how ought we to love one another!”