Saturday, September 06, 2008

"The Great Awakening" by Jim Wallis of Sojourner's Magazine

In the last big election cycle of 2006, I heard Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner's Magazine and at the time the recent author of "God's Politics", speak at a lecture hosted by a large area church in Omaha. The sanctuary was filled to overflowing and my son who was a junior in high school was with me. It was a dynamic presentation by Wallis that night. "What did you think?" I asked my son that night. " Awesome" he said. Afterward, we met Wallis in a book signing and I'll never forget how Jim Wallis engaged my son in conversation while a long line of adults were waiting to get their own books signed. "What do you want to do when you go to college?" he asked my high school son. And Wallis listened with genuine interest. He did that because he knows the emerging generation of new Christians matters deeply to the future of the church. My son was impressed also.

Now, Wallis has followed up with another vital book titled "The Great Awakening" with the subtitle: "Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America".
This is an important book for Christians, for churches and their leaders, for the national conversation on how faith and politics intersect in our personal and corporate lives.

Early in his new book "The Great Awakening", Jim Wallis tells the story of his own high school experience in struggling to relate faith to politics and issues of social justice while growing up in Detroit, MI. At the time, Wallis was struggling with the troubling issue of racial segregation and related conflicts in Detroit, while trying to see how all of that related to his faith as a young Christian.

While at church one Sunday, a church leader sensed Wallis' agitation and impatience with the church's avoidance of coming to grips with racism and segration. Wallis recalls the advice he received. "You have to understand, Jim, that racism has nothing to do with Christianity. That's political, and our faith is personal." Not long after, Wallis left the life of the church, refusing to be part of such a faith, only to return some years later with the deeply held belief that "while faith is deeply personal, it is never private." Christian faith calls us to love the world and to become engaged in redeeming public life, for the sake of the "reconciling love of Jesus Christ."

I heartily recommend Jim Wallis' new book for church discussion books in preparation for the coming political season, where this discussion of what constitutes substantive moral/ethical/political commitments and values will play out with enormous consequences for our nation.

A few words about the substance of the book and its title. The phrase "Great Awakening" refers to periods in our national history when faith tangibly changed things for the better, not just in personal faith, but also in matters of national justice. Students of American religious history are familiar with the first two great awakenings, the first from the 1730s and 1740s, which many argued helped to spark American Independence. The Second Great Awakening occurred between 1800 and the 1830s and called for the abolition of slavery.

Faith changes things! But how? In the course of his new book, Wallis identifies "7 rules for engagement", what he argues are spiritual and theological guidelines for relating faith and politics. The first rule is that "God hates injustice" as revealed in the lives of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus continues that prophetic critique argues Wallis. Another guideline, Wallis maintains, is that the church is "an alternative community" that witnesses to the compassionate and just relationships that God calls us to practice.

Along with those "7 rules for engagement", Wallis identifies "7 commitments" for the intersection of "faith and politics". It is here, that Wallis challenges the narrow agenda of the Christian Right, that restricted morality to only two concerns: abortion and gay marriage. Wallis enlarges the agenda of Christian moral concern and justice to include matters of "poverty and economic fairness", environmental concerns such as global warming, issues of race and immigration and diversity in our rapidly changing nation, a broader view of the issue of pro-choice/anti-choice debates about abortion and life, and the inescapable issues of war, peace, terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Church leaders might be tempted to say: "All of that is too controversial!" I believe we ignore these pressing issues at our peril. If the church cannot serve as a community of moral discourse, what does our faith have to offer a conflicted world?

Wallis ends his book with stories about how young people are responding to his presentations and to his work all across America. Younger generations are hungry for a faith that engages matters of substance. Wallis captures that feeling well, in his comment that "the big struggle of our times, is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope...The choice between cynicism and hope is ultimately a spiritual choice, but one that has enormous political consequences."

As Jim Wallis travels across our country, he has come to believe that the two great hungers of our time are a hunger for spirituality and a hunger for justice, the belief that God is on the side of what is right for all people. And in Wallis' faith, these two hungers are deeply connected.

For all of us who share these two hungers, Wallis further offers a word of encouragement to our spirituality when it seems at times that injustice will carry the day:

"Majorities normally don't change things; creative minorities do, and the majority just goes along for the ride."


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