3 August 2005: Progressive Evangelism

Evangelist gives refreshing look at God, politics

There’s an important book out there that has generated lots of discussion. Compelling and thought provoking, Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, challenges many of our preordained assumptions about the debate in America over the role of religion in the public realm.

Two groups of people should read it: Christians and non-Christians. Read with an inquiring mind, Christians might walk away from it with a refreshed look at their religion and their core beliefs and non-Christians might have their eyes opened to a side of Christianity they may have not seen before or at least witnessed since the days of their youth.

Jim Wallis is an evangelical preacher, which for me instantly raised a red flag. But after having immersed myself into his work, I found myself pleasantly engaged, oftentimes in a non-verbal debate with him on the wide range of issues he addressed. While we disagree on matters such as taxpayer support for faith-based charitable organizations, a woman’s right/need to choose, and gay marriage, I found heartening that, unlike the big-name, typical evangelists in the Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell tradition, Wallis writes about the need for Christians to put into practice Jesus’s words—those ones about loving God above all things and thy neighbor as thyself, taking care of the poor, practicing peace and not war, and not judging others.

The Fundamentalist Right, both Catholic and Protestant, pretty much has defined the essence of Christianity today, primarily through selective passages from Leviticus, Exodus, and Deuteronomy. Wallis challenges “Truths” the Christian Right has promulgated by demanding to know “When did Jesus become pro-war, pro-rich, and a selective moralist?” When referencing the Old Testament, Wallis emphasizes the prophets. He quotes Amos, “People hate this raw talk. Raw truth is never popular (5:10),” and then Isaiah, “Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims—laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children (10:1-2).”

Wallis suggests the “It’s the kind of talk we don’t hear much these days in America. But we need it. If the Hebrew prophets were around today, they would surely be preaching about our tax and budget policies that enrich the wealthy and ‘make misery for the poor.’ And I don’t think they would have worried much when accused of class warfare”(247). Further, Wallis takes President Bush to task for continually drawing a correlation between God’s Will and American foreign policy. In so doing, he says, “Bush seems to make this mistake over and over again of confusing nation, church, and God. The resulting theology is more an American civil religion than Christian faith”(142).

In an article in the recent edition of The Progressive, John Oliver Mason describes like-minded progressive evangelist Tony Campolo. He quotes a line from Christianity Today of how Campolo often opens his talks. “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” Exactly. As Alan Alda put it once in his role as Hawkeye on MASH when Frank Burns went off some ostensibly offensive act, “There’s a greater obscenity out there—it’s called the war.” It is quite a pathetic irony to listen to so-called pro-lifers go apoplectic over a woman needing to submit to an abortion yet actively work to reduce or eliminate programs that provide young mothers, infants, and children necessary food and health needs. They’re called “tax cuts,” which are primarily about enriching the coffers of the wealthy. It’s called hypocrisy and if I recall correctly, Jesus had something to say about those folks.

Obviously, our political beliefs and actions reflect personal core values. Had I come across Wallis and Campolo some years ago, I might have found a Christianity that is a reflection of my ideals. Nevertheless, non-Christians—those who do not believe in the Jesus but, in fact, “practice” Christianity in their words and actions—can find in prophetic evangelists a rich depth of insight into the true message of Jesus.

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