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Good News for the Poor

The essence of what Jennings has extracted from Wesley is that the Christian ethic revolves entirely around providing for the poor. Moreover, the “rich” who do this are not just people living in great plenty but also those who have attained only sufficient shelter, food, and clothing to sustain life at a reasonable level of comfort–in other words, anyone in the lower middle class. Even reaching this modest level of prosperity, one runs the risk of falling into spiritual pride; beyond it religious life inevitably dies as the cares of the world crowd out the spiritual fruit that once flourished in the midst of physical adversity. Possessing “wealth,” the formerly poor and faithful Christian now sets his heart on it and so chokes out his spiritual life. Jennings provides enough extracts from Wesley’s writings to convince the reader that such was indeed the founder’s conviction.

This book is not a systematic exposition of Wesley’s theology. Rather, Jennings mines the evangelist’s voluminous writings and brings to the surface whatever materials he can use to buttress his own economic convictions. He then subsumes the resulting complex of ideas under the rubric “evangelical ethics.” He gives us a convincing exposition of the thrust of Wesley’s economic ideas: The man did in fact think his economic ethic was a valid inference from the biblical message, and it took the form almost no modern Methodist (or anyone else) would accept. But with his subtitle Jennings begs the question. He provides nothing convincing to show that Wesley believed what Jennings believes, namely that the ethic can be conflated with the Gospel message. The Methodist movement had good reason for emphasizing personal salvation through faith in Christ as the true end of preaching the Gospel; in that at least it was faithful to the founder. Jennings says this sort of soteriology was a that would make such a view seem plausible.

This departure from the normal standards of evidentiary usage–and from his practice in showing the content of Wesley’s economic ethic–stems from Jennings’s avowed motive in writing the book. He wishes to highlight what he takes to be the cause of economic hardship–the capitalist ethic and its crushing of the poor. This practical issue is ever before him and leads him often to depart from his customary hardheadedness into a mushy sentimentality that is wholly out of keeping with the general tone of the book. Thus he falls into self-parody with his view that the Third World is the real world. The problems of this real world, in his opinion, have to do mainly with the hard hearts of those who are not poor and will not provide endless streams of benefits to those who are, and nothing to do with the fact that poor people are generally ruled by tyrants sucking up for their own use what productivity can be furnished by subjects who may be little disposed toward or capable of the creation of prosperity. This is the kind of cultural consideration completely absent from the book. So lopsided is the preoccupation with the poor that Jennings turns them from proper objects of our compassion into idols. His formula for church renewal, for a “new reformation,” as he puts it, requires that “every program, every policy, every board or agency will have to justify itself in terms of the welfare of the poor.” Missing from his vision of the church renewed, indeed from almost the whole book, is God. Zero-sum poverty analysis in this vein is another specimen flourishing in the verdant garden of victimology, full of ferocity and ressentiment, and therefore much in fashion in the midst of the selective outrage of the school with which Jennings has aligned himself.

Such selectivity is integral with the skewed vision that accompanies the analysis. Jennings is enraged at anyone who knows how to create economic productivity, but one of his favorite liberation theologians is José Míguez Bonino, a prime example of a Latin American Marxist intellectual, one who helped move the World Council of Churches toward becoming chief apologist for the Marxist-Leninist tyrannies. Considering the fate of those terrible regimes, it is worth mentioning in Jennings’s defense that he completed his manuscript before the collapse of most of the Marxist world. Some of his fellows in that school of thought are much abashed in the wake of the events attending the collapse, and it may be that Jennings is among them.

Good News to the Poor is bad news for the poor, since if its hard strictures could be carried out by the guilt-ridden, that is if productive people gave away all they had beyond the mere necessities, poor people would be transformed into little more than mouths into which others would stuff rice, reduced to the status of being grasping appetites unable and probably unwilling to do more than demand the fruits of other people’s labors. Thoroughly dehumanized, like so many of the wards of the American welfare system, most of them would be much worse off than they are now, and to the extent the church was responsive to Jennings’s tongue-lashing, it would be the source of their degradation.