Friday, February 26, 2010

Listening to Wallis' Voice


Jim Wallis came to All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena last night to talk about his latest book Rediscovering Values (2009), a look at how the American Body of Christ can create opportunity out of our current economic crisis. All Saints is in the shadows of Fuller Theological Seminary so it is always great to have an excuse to visit a place that has had a profound impact on me (MA, Theology, 2008) and see great friends like Dan Jones (MDiv, Theology, 2011) and Steve Ransom, who trekked out from Hermosa Beach for the talk.

Wallis focused not on how we might recover from the crisis, but how we might change our lifestyles for good. He proposed that we take seriously the faulty stories that our culture tells us and that we, in turn, tell ourselves. In the past 30 years, we have been buying into "it's all about me" and that "greed is good" and that we should "keep up with the Joneses." Wallis proposed that we flip these stories and live counter-culturally: simplicity, serving others, saying no to stuff we don't need and strategically and creatively taking a stand against banks and corporations. In addition, we are living in an ironically de-humanizing era when "screens" (flat screens, cell phones, laptops) continue to be readily available through lower and lower prices, while the price of education and health care skyrocket. We are a culture more and more defined by 2 of Gandhi's seven deadly socio-political sins: wealth without work and commerce without morality.

Changing these destructive trends will take structural and spiritual transformation. Wallis gave the analogy of the distinct African-American Church tradition of "call & response" for our role in the Obama Administration. As the congregation calls with its "amens" and "preach it," only then will the preacher himself be empowered and catapulted towards greatness. Obama needs a progressive movement to pray and prod him to prophetic leadership.

In addition, we should take seriously Wallis' proclamation that both budgets and calendars are "moral documents." What are we doing with our time and money? What is our government doing with taxpayers' time and money? What are our priorities? In short, our calendars and budgets reveal a lot about who we are.

The 30-minute talk transitioned into a town-hall meeting Q & A. Art Cribbs, the pastor at San Marino United Church of Christ, asked Wallis how such a diverse blend of Christians might come together to mobilize and push Obama to gear policy decisions towards justice, peace and compassion. Wallis answered that, during a time like this, when it is awfully difficult to be optimistic, we must embrace hope. He cited his visit to South Africa in the early 90's to attend Nelson Mandela's inauguration, quoting Bishop Desmond Tutu:

I am constrained by my faith to hope against hope, placing my trust in things as yet unseen. Hope persists in the face of evidence to the contrary, undeterred by setbacks and disappointment.

Although we do not have a lot of evidence that Obama will change his ways in regards to the banks and corporations and the resulting plight of the poor and marginalized, we must have faith that God will raise up a people, a movement that is obedient to the gospel of God's justice, peace and compassion through Christian witness. Only this kind of movement can bring meaningful change. Obama is not the messiah. Change will only come when people live out the messianic pattern of self-donating love, while constructively criticizing the systems that bring our culture to our knees.
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In conclusion, Progressive Christians Uniting's Quote of the Day today comes from Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and author:

There are always two worlds. The world as it operates is power; the
world as it should be is love. The secret of Kingdom life is how can
you live in both--simultaneously. The world as it is will always be
built on power, ego and success. Yet we also must keep our eyes
intently on the world as it should be--what Jesus calls the Reign of
God. Power apart from love leads to brutality; but love that does not
engage with power is mere sentimentality.


Jim Wallis is a refreshing Christian voice who embodies the love of Jesus who engaged with power so much that it killed him. Wallis is often times denigrated or brushed aside by Evangelical pastors and leaders who call him "liberal." On the contrary, Wallis is "biblical," refusing to buy into our bland political and theological packages. His life, working tirelessly for peace and justice, in and out of the Beltway, is a testimony to speaking truth (in love) to power. He critiques the Republican and Democratic powers-that-be in Washington DC and yearns for a more loving and intellectually honest dialogue in the Body of Christ. We should take him up and read.

--Theological Autopilot

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