Monday, May 05, 2008


Jim Wallis: Seven Ways to Change the World: reviving faith and politics (2008).

Jim Wallis is probably America’s highest-profile ‘progressive evangelical’ and advocate for Christian left-wing causes, especially peace and justice issues. His ‘flagship’ publication is Sojourners magazine. Other well-known books include 'The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America' and 'God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it.'

Wallis is especially scornful of the Religious Right’s misuse of the Bible: ‘Jesus didn’t speak at all about homosexuality. There are about 12 verses in the Bible that touch on that question ... [t]here are thousands of verses on poverty. I don’t hear a lot of that conversation.’

'Seven Ways…' has forewords by Jimmy Carter and Tim Costello. In a commendation of the book, British PM Gordon Brown wrote, ‘Jim Wallis challenges us to create a society which both addresses injustice and stresses personal responsibility, and his call for a global covenant through which rich countries meet their obligations to the poor will have a resonance across the world.’

Jim’s style is readable, racy, and autobiographical. The people he likes – Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Howard Yoder, William Stringfellow, et. al - are quoted often.

His thesis: the Religious Right in America, which has campaigned, negatively, against abortion and homosexual marriage under the rubric of ‘moral values’ is diversifying. The issue of climate change, for example, previously treated with disdain by conservatives, is now – albeit often reluctantly - on many of their agendas. After all, shouldn't ‘family values’ have something to say about the world we leave to our children and grandchildren? Many younger Evangelicals, in particular, are ‘taking back the faith’ as he urged in his book God’s Politics. They’re concerned about poverty and economic injustice, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, Darfur, Iraq. We’re experiencing another ‘wave of revival’ similar to the spiritual awakenings that led to the abolition of the slave trade. Even megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels are getting on board. Barack Obama is linking faith and politics in a dynamic way which appeals to younger generations of Christians - and others. Even conservative columnist George Will is saying that the economic ideology that runs American society has eroded family and cultural stability.

But the shift away from the Religious Right is not necessarily a shift to the Left. This new generation is looking for a ‘Religious Centre’. The progressive Evangelicals in this group are reading theologians like Bishop N T Wright, who in a little book (Simply Christian) introducing thoughtful people to Christianity covers topics such as poverty, the environment and human rights. Thirty years ago, says Wright, these were secondary issues. They’re majoring on Jesus rather than Paul; their commission for mission is in Luke 4 (good news for the poor) as well as Matthew 28 (go and preach). They’re studying the prophets, with the help of scholars like Walter Brueggeman, and re-discovering that God hates injustice, everywhere.

Wallis writes that his concern for social justice has led him to embrace many aspects of Catholic social teaching, with its emphases on the well-being of the community as well as the rights of the individual.

There’s a wonderful tribute to Jim’s dad in an appendix. A list of discussion questions would have been a good idea.

Writing as a fellow-traveler with Jim Wallis en route from conservative Plymouth Brethrenism to following Jesus and the prophets, (I too was taught that the Sermon on the Mount didn't apply to us, but belonged to 'another dispensation') there’s not much here I’d want to argue with. In fact the only bit I marked negatively was his attribution of the famous quote (gleaned from the John Mark Ministries website rather than an original source) in the index to Richard rather than Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘The worst evils in the world are not done by evil people, but by good people who do not know that they are not doing good’ (p. 214).

Buy this book for every person under 35 who's prepared to re-think their childhood faith and/or their inherited conservative political stance!

Rowland Croucher
May 2008


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