Omaha is set to welcome Jim Wallis, author of "God's Politics" with the subtitle
"Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It." Wallis will be in town this Wednesday, speaking at Creighton University and later in the evening at Countryside Community Church. Missouri River Valley Presbytery, Creighton University and Countryside Church are the sponsors for this whirlwind tour and speaking engagement. Since last November I've been leading coffee shop discussions of "God's Politics". It's been a great learning experience for me.
Last Friday, I shared a cup of coffee with my friend Doug, a college professor and therapist here in town. Doug isn't a church goer; in fact, he has a lot of struggles with organized religion. Don't worry about that with us Presbyterians I said to Doug, "We're far from being organized!" For a long time now, Doug and I have had this running series of coffee shop discussions about faith, doubt, current politics, and where the church I'm part of looks at all this. Although Doug is far from conventional in his views of religion and church, he shares with me and many others a belief that current presentations of right-wing Christianity are distortions of Jesus' teachings.
Jim Wallis puts it well in his book "God's Politcs". Since when did Jesus become pro-war, pro-rich, and only a selective moralist whose primary concern is our sexual behavior?
It's an interesting question to reflect on how evangelism and social justice or concerns for doing acts of mercy and justice in the world are related. For some time now, we mainline Christians have been conflicted about both evangelism and social concerns. We've made an artificial separation of the these two vital elements of faith, just as arbitrarily as our more conservative church counterparts.
It's really hard to see Jesus separating the two. Wallis makes this point quite clearly in "God's Politcs." As Wallis points out, there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that show God's concern for the poor. And Jesus came preaching "good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives, and the favorable year of our Lord (the Jubilee year of redistribution of wealth so that power and wealth were'nt forever concentrated in the hands of a few) Luke 4
For some time now in our nation, we've been engaged in a debate about the importance of values in national life and in cultural debates. But as Jim Wallis asks, "Which values and whose values are we talking about?" How narrowly or widely will the discussion be? Will the moral values debate cut both ways in politics, challenging both the political Left and Right, Democrat and Republican?
God is not a Republican or a Democrat! That has been the message Jim Wallis and the Sojourners Community he founded has been proclaiming for some time now.
Wallis identifies issues and values that Christians should care about:
*poverty is a religious issue
*the environment, God's creation, is a religious concern and increasingly evangelicals and mainliners are coming to agreement on this
*the war in Iraq is a continuing moral issue that touches on the issue of just war in relation to the controversy over preemptive war, not to mention the sad spectacle of our soldiers involved in prisoner abuse
*our muli-racial society and the growing debate over immigration calls for our faith communities to lead the way in the vision and practice of reconciliation
*personal and social responsbility are both at the heart of religion
*defeating terrorism is both practically and spiritually connected to the deeper work of addressing global poverty and resolving the conflicts that sow the bitter seeds of despair.
Just this week, I've been helping my son Daniel write a paper on the conflicts in the Middle East and how religion plays a key role in these disputes and conflicts.
The three major religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are each a party to these conflicts. If we believe that moral values and religious faith are crucial to our identity and values, then leaders from these great religions must be a party to peaceful resolutions of conflict. Government can't do that alone. Government doesn't really comprehend, fully, the meaning and power of religion.
Usually, government seeks to coopt religion for its own power manipulations. That's often what we're witnessing in contemporary politics.
And with the above should come a genuine humility. As Jim Wallis observes, "Religious people do not have an exclusive hold on the issues of morality."
Some might argue that religion is too volatile a force to take into the public sphere of values and politics. My friend Doug raised this very question with me. And it's a good question. As Wallis notes, "Conventional wisdom suggests that the antitdote to religious fundamentalism is more secularism. But that is a very big mistake. Bad theology and bad religion need to be corrected by a better theology and a better religion."
The three great monotheistice traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are all religions of the "book". The key question is how do we interpret the book?
Better interpretations of the book are a much better, more effective response to fundamentalism than throwing the book away. I think this is a vital insight. This past week-end, I saw a CNN special featuring the writer and influential interpreter of world religions, Karen Armstrong. She argues that at their core, the major world religions do share in common a basic compassion for human persons and a belief that God, however understood, does call human beings to mercy. Those of us who follow the life and teachings of Jesus do believe that God calls us to do justice, to live kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6: 6-8) Jesus incarnated this way of life.
Near the end of his book, "God's Politics", Jim Wallis makes this statement:
"Prophetic faith does not see the primary battle as the struggle between belief and secularism. It understands that the real battle, the big struggle of our times,
is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope." I find that comment both encouraging and challenging to my faith. How about you?