Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990. 236 pp)
The current Professor of Biblical and Constructive Theology at Chicago Theology Seminary, Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. earned his A.B. from Duke University in 1964 and both his B.D. and Ph.D. from Emory University in 1967 and 1971 respectively. Jennings has served as a local pastor and taught for three years at the Methodist Seminary in Mexico City. He has served as a consultant with the United Methodist Church on issues related to commitment to the poor. His research interests include Christian doctrine, biblical theology, gay studies, contemporary late modern philosophy and deconstruction.
The Relationship between Wealth and Piety
Similar to ancient Israel, a dominant thread in current Christian thought is the belief that poverty is a result of sin, a doctrine known as prosperity theology. Whether a person possesses low socio-economic status due to slothfulness or an addiction to some vice such as alcohol, drugs, or gambling, Christians assume that growth in piety equals growth in the bank account. Although John Wesley’s followers fall into this problematic assumption, Theodore Jennings argues that Wesley’s theology denies this faulty premise.
Exploring Jennings’ book, Good News to the Poor, I will argue that Wesley opposes the increase of riches, proposes a preferential option for the poor, and suggests solidarity with the poor through wise stewardship. Then, I will question Wesley’s premises by asking if it is necessary to increase capital in order to optimally steward property for those in need.
The Danger of Wealth
Theodore Jennings’ appraisal of John Wesley’s evangelical economics begins with the premise that Wesley acutely understands the danger of wealth for a sanctified Christian life. In contrast to many Christians who believe that wealth and power signifies divine favor, Wesley finds that wealth and power possesses a corrosive force for individuals, institutions, and sovereign nations. Jennings notes,
“In sermon after sermon, Wesley hammers home the theme that the increase in possessions leads naturally to the death of religion” (35).
Combating the natural propensity for people to sensationalize the need for increased riches, Wesley demystifies the pursuit and warns Methodists that such quests lead to perilous eternal consequences for the soul.
A Preferential Option for the Poor
|Photo by Trey Ratcliff|
The demystification of wealth, then, couples with a preferential option for the poor (Jennings uses this language although Wesley would not). If the pursuit of wealth carries dangerous eternal ramifications, it follows that a life lived in relationship with the poor aligns with Wesley’s evangelical economics. More than a theoretical principle, the preferential option for the poor is a tangible deed for Wesley. Jennings writes,
“Wesley was, if nothing else, the theologian of experience. This did not mean for him a concentration upon isolated moments of interior religious excitement, but rather the immersion in lived experience, in the texture and duration of sensory involvement. If you want to know what love is, you live the life of love and reflect on the vicissitudes of this journey through time. Similarly, if one is to know something of poverty one must spend the time and energy to be with the poor and to appropriate what is encountered there” (53).
Aligning his theory with practice, Wesley actively participated in the lives of the poor. He visited the sick; he took a collection for the poor during his sermons; he developed a “lending stock” that functions similarly to modern-day micro-finance institutions; and he sold inexpensive versions of his writing targeting the poor specifically.
In all these ways, Wesley enlivened his critique of wealth and prosperity by acting with and on behalf of the poor.
A God-Given Right to Stewardship
Having bolstered his critique on wealth and power by acting in solidarity with the poor, Wesley confirms the stark contrast of his economic ethic from the status quo by affirming the notion of stewardship and the redistribution of wealth. Influenced heavily by the early Christian communities in Acts, Wesley rejects the popularized notion of private property developed by John Locke. Wesley believes that everything in creation is the sole property of God.
Wealth, then, is not a God-given product of labor, but a resource for stewardship. Jennings states,
“Wesley’s view of stewardship is a blow at the root of the economics of greed, which continues to dominate our planet. For Wesley, the only legitimate claim to the earth’s resources is based not on industry or capital or enterprise or labor, but on the needs of our neighbor. This is the heart of evangelical economics” (116-117).
Under this premise, gaining riches equates to stealing God’s property.
To summarize, Jennings arranges Wesley’s theology in order to clarify that Wesley vividly believed in the danger of wealth and power. Therefore, Wesley actively aligns his economic ethic with the plight of the poor. Lastly, his view on riches and the poor leads him to reject private property believing that ownership resides with God alone and that humans possess the obligation of stewarding God’s resources wisely.
Give a Fish or Teach to Fish
Despite Jennings’ clear and concise rendering of Wesley’s evangelical economics, I question the practicality of the pursuit. Even though I find the arguments compelling, I wonder whether or not they provide optimal results. More precisely, does Wesley’s evangelical economic theory represent a method that lifts the poor out of poverty or does it merely recognize the plight of the poor? Clearly, Wesley wanted to actively participate in works of mercy that benefit the poor but did these deeds result in actions of charity or actions that solved the root issues of poverty?
This question, essentially, asks whether it is better to give a person a fish or to teach a person how to fish. If Wesley believed in the former, then his system encounters the danger of continual needs for assistance. If Wesley believed in the latter, his system suffers from tension because it requires capital in order to successfully alleviate poverty.
In fact, Wesley’s “lending stock” offers an excellent example of a scenario where the scalability of its success relies on increasing riches. Clearly, wealth and power is a dangerous pursuit. Life is littered with stories of Godly people losing their way as they climb the socio-economic ladder.
|Photo by Esparta|
Capital is a necessary function of alleviating poverty; just look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But, Wesley would condemn the wealth and affluence of Gates (and I, too, would certainly condemn some of Gate’s practices at Microsoft) despite the clear example his foundation provides in poverty alleviation.
Given Wesley’s premises, it almost seems like Christians ought to thank God for providing society with damned souls capable of gaining prodigious amounts of capital and a concern for poverty alleviation. I’m not sure if I’m willing to accept that scenario.
Clearly, John Wesley vehemently rejects the notion that wealth equals piety and poverty equals sin. Wesley recognizes the danger in increasing riches; he promotes an active relationship that takes the side of the poor; and he suggests that Christians steward God’s resources with the poor in mind. Nevertheless, the success of stewardship and active relationships with the poor requires a certain amount of capital.
Either we praise God for those who increase riches at the expense of their soul for the sake of the poor, or we cut off the potential of alleviating poverty by merely resulting to charity from each family’s minimal surplus. Such a question, in my mind, points to tensions in Wesley’s premises. We ought to help the poor, but I contend that increasing riches could provide benefits for the poor.
Good News to the Poor provides ample food for thought for our current understanding of economics. I urge those interested in theology and economic theory to read this book despite its logical fallibilities.
Posted by: Donovan Richards