Wednesday, June 23, 2021

John Wesley and Understanding Racial Inequality

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

I was reminded of a John Wesley quote the other day while reading a FiveThirtyEight piece on (mis)perceptions of the racial wealth gap.

For those who don't know, the wealth gap between White and non-white Americans is striking: one federal government survey found that "the typical White family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family." Yet, as the FiveThirtyEight article points out, Americans consistently and dramatically underestimate that racial wealth gap.

The article, entitled "Why Many Americans Can't See the Wealth Gap Between White and Black America" and written by Neil Lewis Jr., argues that one of the major reasons why Americans do not have an accurate sense of the racial wealth gap is because of de facto residential and social segregation. Lewis argues:

"The nature of segregation in the U.S. means that we only end up seeing and learning about what our own groups experience, making it hard to understand the lives of people outside of our own group. This explains, in part, why Americans have such a hard time understanding just how unequal our nation is, and moreover, the racialized nature of that inequality."

It struck me that Lewis' assessment of the situation mirrors perfectly John Wesley's assessment of the failure of the rich to understand the plight of the poor in 18th century England. In his sermon, "On Visiting the Sick," Wesley wrote:

"One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart."

One could easily substitute "Whites" for "the rich" and "Blacks" for "the poor," and this quote could describe the problems with making progress on racial justice in the 2020s United States just as well as it did class injustice in Wesley's England. It captures the separation of social networks and the ways in which the privileged are quite comfortable in maintaining that separation, lest their privilege be threatened in some way.

The importance of connection to understanding of racial injustice and motivation to address it is also a major conclusion in Michael Emerson and Christian Smith's landmark study Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Emerson and Smith argue that one significant reason why white evangelicals fail to understand the systemic nature of racial disadvantage in the United States is because they are not sufficiently connected to networks of people of color from whom white evangelicals could learn about the experiences of their lives.

Emerson and Smith are not optimistic about the power of religion to address this form of racial misunderstanding driven by social distance. Indeed, they write that "religion, as structured in America, is unable to make a great impact on the racialized society. In fact, far from knocking down racial barriers, religion generally serves to maintain these historical divides, and helps to develop new ones." (p. 18) By "structured," Emerson and Smith are referring to the racialized nature of most congregations and denominations in the United States.

Emerson and Smith do not examine in depth the role of Christian mission in addressing this problem. But Wesley was convinced that the practice of mission could help build understanding and empathy across differences. That was the point of his sermon. And many missiologists have emphasized that point since Wesley: mission can be a force for building understanding across racial boundaries, understanding that can then be used to work for greater racial justice.

Nevertheless, for mission to be successful in this regard, that increase in understanding must be an explicit goal, and those engaging in mission must have the right spiritual attitude. Wesley preached, "Whenever, therefore, you are about to enter upon the work, seek his help by earnest prayer. Cry to him for the whole spirit of humility, lest if pride steal into your heart, if you ascribe anything to yourself, while you strive to save others you destroy your own soul."

If White people practice mission as charity to Black people in a way that reinforces their own sense of racial pride, not only will it fail to produce greater understanding, it will destroy their own souls! Humility and openness, then, are requisite to this process of learning about and from other perspectives.

There is much in American society that conspires to prevent this type of cross-racial learning, and missiology as a practice and a discipline has not been without blame in this regard, as David Evans and Otto Harris have demonstrated on this blog.

Yet for those who believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of equality for all persons, there are additional resources and practices in the faith to be used to advance that understanding of the gospel. Building cross-racial compassion through webs of relationships is one such important resource.


  1. When we assume a causal relationship (e.g., racism causes Blacks to have less cumulative wealth), we don't probe other possibilities. That is why theories are constantly probed in the academe. While I affirm that systemic racism and failed interventions have shaped patterns of Black poverty, fatalism, and the lack of wealth accumulation, I believe that we must seek deeper explanations related to cultural determinism. 

    Let me offer an example that pertains to David’s original post. When I worked in the Philippines, American Filipinos who visited their families in the Philippines had to throw a big party for everyone. The lavish parties were like gift giving and served as a form of wealth distribution.

    By and large, the people where I worked did not save money. Rather, they valued sharing it. A person who withheld money from the family or the group by saving it was greedy. Cultural attitudes about wealth accumulation should be considered. For example, is saving money more important to Anglo Americans than to other populations?

    To the point; even though the median income for American Blacks increased two percent faster than for whites last year (7.9 vs 5.9), the median income of Blacks still lags behind other races: Whites 72,204, Black 45,438, Asian, 98,174, Hispanic 56,113 ( Gay couples had a median income of 114,182 (

    By contrast, the median income for households in Appalachia (99% white) was 27,554, 40 percent less than Blacks. In terms of every poverty indicator, the people of Appalachia are poor (

    That poverty is felt by rural America in general. That is, the median income for 2019 for rural America was 42,993. That is less than the median income for Blacks. As such, when we talk about white income, we should distinguish between white populations. The white population is not monolithic. Which part of white America is thriving and which part is suffering? You guessed it. White urbanites are the wealthiest white people.

    The issue is not as simple as Black and white. For example, Asian immigrants make a lot more than whites, African immigrants make more than blacks, and gays are the wealthiest category. However, the current race narrative conditions us to see this and every national issue in a very specific white vs Black approach.

    Are there other compelling theories that can help us better understand wealth accumulation and income inequality in America, explanations that embrace the totality of the American experience? For example, I note that the inner city poor and the Appalachian poor have many cultural similarities.

    In addition to racism, a cluster of negative contextual factors influence Black poverty in the inner cities: super high crime rates (e.g., black males between 16 and 25 account for 53.6% of all US murders), high incarceration rates (40% of US prisoners are Black), 76% of Blacks are born out of wedlock (in some urban centers, the rate is 85%), low high school graduation rates (53%), and the highest unemployment rates in America. How do the above factors influence wealth accumulation in Black America?

    Back to David's point about Wesley. Even if the UMC can’t solve the income inequality problem, John Wesley shows us that the gospel does change individuals and the culture (redemption and lift). Interestingly, Wesley did not know what to do with prosperous Methodists. He lamented that we get them when they are poor, they change how they live, then they become well-off. Wesley preferred poor Methodists. In fact, he ensured that he and all of his preachers lived meager lives. When he died, he was extremely poor. How should UMs think about wealth accumulation? David's blog assumes that wealth accumulation is a positive thing. Would Jesus echo that assumption?

    1. The rhetorical function of your comment is to downplay Black poverty as a problem and to suggest that, to the extent it is a problem, it is at least partly Blacks' own fault because of their culture. Thus, the rhetorical intent of this comment seems to be to absolve White people of any responsibility for the problems of racism that they have caused.

    2. This response ignores the actual content of what I said and defaults to language that ignores or refuses to explore the deeper issues associated with the issues that was raised and assumed by David's blog. Editorial privilege allows you to state the intent and purpose of my comment and the facts associated with it without even engaging me or the content. It also enables you to cancel or silence any voice that appeals to critical thinking and wants to probe the assumptions of the original blog. No narrative is 100 percent correct. Some would argue that people like me should be able to speak to this issue. You may be in that category. Instead of critiquing my "rhetorical function," make the case for your blog by speaking to what I actually said. Dismissing a fellow UM Professor of Missions and a UM elder without engaging what he or she actually said goes against the purpose of our shared blog.