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A Future With Hope; General Conference 2008 - Fort Worth Texas

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More Life and Less Death: Methodism as a Positive Epidemic

by Gary R. Gunderson

Can we imagine the Methodist movement as a positive epidemic? Dare we say, an epidemic of life? Let's try.

For more than 260 years, Methodism has linked vital faith to health. Amid the hopeful clutter of programs that John Wesley initiated at the Foundery was a clinic for the poor, just as integral to a growing reform movement as were the publishing of sermons and training of laypeople. Like the founders of almost every such medical clinic since, Wesley quickly discovered that the deluge of poverty linked diseases would surely swamp the amount of free services offered. This is true because most medical problems do not begin that way, and they do not remain purely medical. Poverty and social brokenness breed disease more quickly than any medical institution can treat them.

The opportunity for faithfulness is more than a feeble, and eventually futile, witness. The opportunity is to focus on the gift of grace that allows us to participate in the creation of communities that are more in line with God's intentions forhealth and wholeness. The call is for more life and less death-a call to apply all of the relevant strengths of the Wesleyan movement.

More Life, Less Death

Wesley's vision of both more life and less death was a bit bolder than the vision of most public health institutions, which have realized for at least 150 years that most of the burden of disease individuals and communities suffer is preventable, based on the knowledge at hand. And, for themost part, that knowledge does not require extraordinarily complex websof stainless steel, pharmaceuticals, and computers. Rather, most diseases-even new ones like avian flu or HIV/AIDS-are best prevented byvery simple acts of hygiene and sanitation. We will all die from something eventually. But wearing seat belts, taking out the trash, keeping water clean, inspecting food, eating vegetables, washing hands, and practicing safe sex will go a very, very, long way toward lengthening the journey of life and improving it along the way.

Most of the virtues that lead to good health-like those that lead to good religions-are difficult because they depend on an infinite number of small, faithful, good decisions, any one of which seems almost uselessly mundane. The answer is not found in medical technology, but in a great movement of faith that gives meaning and purpose to the countless minor steps needed in the pursuit of what has God has made possible.

Great religious movements, as we have seen even in the best moments of our own Methodist life, are relentlessly hopeful about what God can do. Relentless hope can create many points of service, and we do have thousands today, including many of the best hospitals in the world. More importantly, hope can take on the truly fundamental work of attacking the large-scale causes of disease and injury in ways that only a great movement can do. The power of the health sciences since Wesley has been to underline the profound link between poverty, race, class pride, housing, nutrition, and the enormous power of grace, hope, and love set free.

While interventional technologies advance at the speed of light, the fundamental determinant of most human suffering is behavior at individual, family, community, and global levels. Good science increasingly joins good theology by linking social conditions to the causes of most disease and injury.1 This logic is important in order to understand why things go wrong with one person or a whole city. It is also crucial to understanding what might go right.

Thinking Like an Epidemiologist

It is helpful to think like an epidemiologist. Epidemiology is the root science behind most public health, and it looks for unexpected outbreaks of pathology, seeking the pattern behind the problem so strategies can be implemented to stop it. This science hinges on noticing surprises, looking for patterns that turn light on the causes. There are many kinds of epidemics; many kinds of patterns, each of which requires thoughtful analysis. For instance, there is the epidemic of cancer caused by smoking, another of diabetes linked to obesity, another of violence linked to hopelessness, and another of avian flu linked to as yet unknown risks. Each kind of epidemic has a different history of causes that offers up very different opportunities to interrupt the pattern.

Think of the Methodist movement as a positive epidemic. A Wesleyan virus would be very different from a single cell life form. A normal virusreproduces extremely rapidly, mutates easily, and travels quickly from host to host. It is very smart about its host, but totally unemotional and singleminded. A Wesleyan virus is equipped with lots of intelligence and emotion, and strengthened by powerful tools of ritual, song, and fellowship that allow it to survive amid great challenges and spread into communities where only the strong can go. It is capable of taking risks guided by deep confidence in God’s grace. It is not single-minded, but capable of holding complexity in the hands of hope, seeking life in all its varieties, and creating communities where diversity lives. Thus, it thrives in many situations and communities where less adaptive forms of life would die out.

Tools of Science, Power of Faith

The great opportunity of the 21st century is to prevent needless suffering by aligning the tools of science with the power of a faithful movement that hopes for the whole world; public health with public faith on a large scale. There are many ways to measure the suffering that could be prevented. Of the roughly 5,000 funerals being conducted just in the United States on a daily basis, about 2,000 will be attributed to tobacco, poor diet, and alcohol abuse. Globally, where diarrhea still kills more than all the better-known diseases, poverty leads the funeral procession. We can measure the years of life that are lost to disabling mental diseases and crippling injuries to refine our sense of what could be stopped.

What could be attained by moving toward God's vision of shalom-of wholeness and health? We have begun to think of complementing our knowledge of disease with knowledge of life; by seeking the causes of life as well as death and the patterns that enhance thriving as well as those that predict pathology. It turns out that we can organize around life strategies just as we can around prevention strategies. Indeed, the two reinforce each other.

Moral Urgency

There is a profound moral urgency in preventing suffering, especially in the face of catastrophic AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. But what does faith have to offer in meeting this urgency? When scholars in Lesotho were asked to identify the "religious health assets" that could be enlisted in the fight, they quickly went beyond the list of clinics and hospitals. They asked those in the villages how they understood their faith as an asset. However, when they tried to translate "faith" and "health" into the traditional language, Sesotho, the scholars discovered that there was no word for one that did not already mean the other. It was impossible to talk about faith and not mean health or vice versa. It was inconceivable to separate what we were trying to connect. We cannot give Wesley credit for such deeply rooted wisdom, but he would certainly agree with a hearty "amen." As health science begins to think about the large scale
implications of seeking to prevent suffering and advance life, Methodists should feel the tingle of a long-repressed memory. This connection is what Wesley was not just hoping for or dreaming about. The connection is what he built right into the very first building at Foundery! Less death; more life-pursued methodically. His early critics laughed at his obsessive attention to disciplined detail, calling his followers "Methodists."

There is at the heart of our global movement a viral idea that always looks for hosts to carry it into and around the world. God in his grace has not given up on anyone, so we cannot give up either. Wherever that idea finds a home, death is beaten back, life has a chance.


  1. Nancy Kreiger, “Why Epidemiologists Cannot Afford to Ignore Poverty,” Epidemiology 18, no. 6 (November 2007).

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