We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These words penned by the United States’ “Declaration of Independence” authors attempt to point toward a foundation by which good and justice can be established. But what is good?

According to God, proclaimed through the prophet Micah, good is found not in our condition as humans but in our interactions with God and others. God requires this good foundation: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b).

This good foundation inspired our founding Wesleyans to live as God required while negotiating the critical issues that were facing America in the 1800s.

We are not American Christians. We are Christians living in America. It sounds subtle but the second sentence properly aligns the believer’s ultimate allegiance and citizenship. Throughout history, the church has had to navigate its role as a citizen of God’s kingdom and a citizen of an earthly kingdom (nation). This was exactly what Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America (The Wesleyan Church) was negotiating at its founding.

Luther Lee, one of The Wesleyan Church’s founders and leading writers, grappled with issues of freedom and justice. Wesleyans found themselves on the radical side of reform. They weren’t just abolitionists, but abolitionists advocating for the immediate emancipation of slaves.

Wesleyans were also on the radical end of reform in their approach to the law. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was signed into law, essentially requiring runaway slaves to be returned to their owners. Publicly, Lee declared Wesleyans would not be obeying that law; moreover, Wesleyans broke the law by their active involvement in the Underground Railroad. While we applaud their actions today, it is worth appreciating the criticisms they faced.

One of the questions Lee and others had to answer was, “How can you encourage your people to disobey the law?” Within the American context, there is the idea that good Christians don’t disobey the law. In his book “Elements of Theology,” Lee addresses this by reminding his readers, “Law is based upon the right … law springs from the right, not right upon the law. Laws are enacted to secure what is already right, and to prevent what is already wrong, not to create right and wrong …”

Lee believed law exists to secure the right and just thing. When it fails to do so, it does not release us from pursuing justice. He also taught that moral law flowed from God’s character; therefore, issues of freedom and justice start there, not with the established laws of the land. Believers are called to follow God’s character first and foremost.

Lee worked to establish a vision for what God wanted for humanity. In “Reciprocal Rights and Obligations Between Man and Man,” Lee said, “Life is not the gift of man, nor is it self-originated on the part of those who live. Under God it has its origin in nature, and hence, the right to live is a natural right, and belongs equally to all men.” For Lee, “the right to live” carried with it the right to freedom and just treatment within society. It was not lost on Lee that parts of the Constitution echo the same sentiments and challenged the United States to live up to its own ideals!

There are certain duties believers have; and Lee expressed that one duty is to love. He believed that Matthew 22:36-40 had two commandments: “Those two commandments contain principles, which, if applied, reach to the entire law. It is on the same principle that is affirmed that all the law is fulfilled in love.” Wesleyans were called agitators, but they were following love’s principles.

As Wesleyans pursue acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God, Lee gives us things to keep in mind.

Our starting point is scripture. Lee is refreshing in reminding us that justice and human freedom are biblically rooted, God’s kingdom ideals. The believer’s starting point is not the political arena where phrases and terms are often highjacked and redefined for partisan or personal gain. Christians begin with scriptural ideals flowing from the Almighty’s character.

In all our dealings, treat others as we would want to be treated. Freedom comes with responsibility. Within the context of God’s kingdom, one responsibility is to love. Lee and Wesleyan founders loved their neighbors as themselves.

Look to the Lord for affirmation. One sad truth is our Wesleyan founders were not highly acclaimed or lauded for their positions. Not one gained financial benefit because of their stands. Each were content to be obedient to God’s calling.

I love it when I see churches reflecting the biblical ideals The Wesleyan Church’s founders embraced. We are a beacon for others when our humble walk with God overflows in expressions of justice and mercy, conveying an understanding that women and men are bearers of the imago Dei (God’s image), even our enemies. We serve America best when we are first and foremost good citizens of God’s kingdom.

Rev. Anthony Casey is the assistant general secretary of The Wesleyan Church.


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