A new kind of evangelist?

It’s refreshing to see the record participation of voters during the primaries. It gives this oft-cynical Xer slightly more hope for the country, as people care and weigh in to choose the next president. It makes me wish that I lived in a state that had caucuses, to hear a healthy back-and-forth about candidates and to cast a vote within this spontaneous community. (MSNBC did an audio slide show of a Washington state Democratic Party caucus that was held at my old middle school.)

Though I’d like to (and often did) endorse a candidate publicly, I won’t anymore. I do have a preference, and I did vote. But I’m inspired by the likes of William Wilberforce (who never joined a political party) or Martin Luther King Jr. (who never endorsed a candidate). They stood in the prophetic tradition, avoiding the endorsement of a party or candidate, but always calling these parties and candidates to a higher standard. It was a corrective voice that stayed away from the halls of power, and instead wore camel hair clothes and a leather belt.

Jim Wallis is doing the same thing today.

I went to see him speak a few days ago at the San Diego Hall of Champions. He was introduced as “the evangelical that I can stand the most” by the president of the Catfish Club. And Wallis spoke to a mixed crowd including liberals, evangelicals, the “spiritual but not religious,” and I’m sure many more shades of spirituality.

He said that America has a deep hunger for a connection between spirituality and social justice. That just makes sense. He doesn’t believe that politicians are our hope, because they were voted in by the majority. And the majority doesn’t have to change, because they’re in power. Instead, he said that any lasting change in this culture didn’t happen through Washington politics, but through social movements. And these social movements, according to Wallis, were almost always led by people of faith.

He received a standing ovation.

He makes evangelicals look good. I saw him on the Daily Show, and comment after comment on the website exclaim what a breath of fresh air he is to this country and culture. In the end, he’s making Christianity sound a little better to a culture that finds our faith’s taste a bit bitter, and that might encourage more people to bet their lives on the leadership of its founder.

In this way, isn’t Jim Wallis a new kind of evangelist? He helps people see that faith and politics could and should mix, but it could mix in a humbler, more prophetic way. Instead of seeking the interests of a minority, he seeks the common good. And as I wrote before, he and his organization, Sojourners, do not endorse a candidate. For no matter who’s in power, they always want to be on the outside — yet always speaking in.


By the way, I highly recommend his book God’s Politics. If I could find a candidate that held these positions, then he or she would get my vote every time. But that person doesn’t exist. You can read my review here.

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12 Comments

  1. Yo James,
    Great post. It was good to see you there. When I closed my eyes, Jim kinda sounded god-like, which perhaps enhanced his points…you ever think about hos certain people’s faces don’t match up to how you projected from hearing only their voices or seeing their physique? Random, but Jim Wallis tops my list…. ;-)

    Spontaneous question: We talk about raising up world-changers….do you practically see a modern-day Wilberforce or MLK these days? If so, where? If not, why do you think that is?

    Wilberforce and King stood for very strong, Jesus-influenced agendas and platforms, even though they never endorsed particular candidates…could you see yourself publicly espousing a particular agenda without endorsing a candidate? Would there be any way for you to publicly endorse a candidate with whom you didn’t 100% agree?

    Also, can you name your top 3 foci/issues for this upcoming election year?

    Love ya!
    L

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  2. Hey Lars — great question. But perhaps a distinction needs to be made. You asked about modern-day world changers, and they are everywhere. Generally, they’ve chosen a non-political path, people like Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission or the leaders of organizations like World Vision or Love146. Or Mother Teresa. They are making a difference.

    But people like MLK or Wilberforce were political. And it’s hard to find political voices that rally toward hope and change these days in America. Jim Wallis is doing great work. It’s hard to find in America, but then there are people like Cardinal Jaime Sin in the Philippines, Bishop Desmond Tutu in Africa, and other great leaders who have done similar feats as them. Perhaps we’re too Western-centric in looking for these leaders, but they are out there. Would Bono count?

    I would definitely endorse an agenda, or take a public stance on an issue. But for a candidate, that would be hard. Even if we agreed on 100% agenda, he or she is still human. That person will make major mistakes. Perhaps it would be better to speak prophetically — unless I was in politics myself.

    At any rate, we’ll need to partner with political officials and leaders, so we can’t avoid being seen with some of them. But to endorse? Bono would hurt his message if he endorsed a candidate, wouldn’t he?

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  3. daily show interview thoughts;
    some comments suggest that Wallis is pro-“faith” simply for utilitarian purposes. he describes faith as an “engine” that drove the great social movements. he spends a fair amount of time working to assure listeners that the “great religions” don’t have a monopoly on morality and to encourage ben & jerry spiritualists. his comments are designed to resonate in the “post religious right america” that he describes (and probably with positive effect) but what does it really mean to be pursuing a deeper centrism?

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  4. James,

    I enjoy your blog! I have just returned from our mission in El Salvador, and I am convinced more than ever that there are many things that only the Church can accomplish with regard to the poor and the oppressed. You may not know I have some political experience, so I look at politics and particularly presidential politics with a different perspective. Whenever you need a Starbuck’s, I’d love to get your thoughts about some things. Happy Easter.

    Scott Furrow

    Reply

  5. I’ve just discovered your work. It looks great (the True Story stuff). My tradition is Church of Christ/Christian Church. I’d like for you to take a look at a different approach to politics: David Lipscomb and James Harding. These two guys were prominent Church of Christ editors and College founders in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They have a very different view of politics. This isn’t a crass commercial, ok? But take a look at the book KINGDOM COME by Dr. John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine (it’s not very thick) which explores the legacy of these two men. I don’t think you’ll agree with them, but I think you’ll get a very interesting perspective. This is just a fyi. Keep up the good work. I look forward to reading more of your stuff. And I’ve already ordered True Story and Based on a True Story! Blessings!

    Reply

  6. Hi Darryl — thanks for the book recommendations. And for the book order! =)

    And Scott, coffee sounds great!

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  7. Hey James,

    Thanks for your comment on my Good Bookz blog. Lipscomb’s position on politics certainly does suprise!

    Some viewed him as a sexist (during the sufferage movement he opposed the right of women to vote). He was to a degree–but he was also consistent in his belief. He didn’t think Christian MEN should vote either!

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  8. Since I am an English teacher, I appreciate you ability to relate to literature and explain its symbolism. You write very well, and I am looking forward to meeting you soon. I have talked to your wife (the day you had a tooth pulled) and were not up to a phone conversation, and I am looking forward to you visiting our congregation. I am on the committee for hiring a pulpit minister for the Clifton Church of Christ. I also share your love of drama and am involved with the local theater group in Clifton and the school’s One Act Play. We need a minister. I think you would like the community and be very pleased with the school system. We have had a state award winning band for the last 20 years. It is tradition here. We have about 130-140 members in the marching band. As I told your wife, we are a progressive congregation. We have three very progressive elders. We did have four, but one died recently. I hope you will consider us.

    Reply

  9. Hi Georgeanne —

    I don’t remember having my tooth pulled. Are you sure you have the right person?

    Reply

  10. please my name is elizabeth am from ghana and am a very powerful evangelist. amd looking for ministry that is looking for evangelist to evangelize souls for their church in the europen countries including asia

    Reply

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