Wednesday, December 2, 2009

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis (Prophetic Voice of Religion)

Jim Wallis is an Evangelical pastor and the founder of Sojourners. He has written several books, and this particular one was written in 2005. At the time, much of the country was still dissecting the 2004 presidential election, and the role of conservative Christians in re-electing George W. Bush in a very tight race. Wallis notes that after the election, the media focused on the “moral values voter.” A poll revealed that 80% of voters, who said “moral values” were the most important issue influencing their vote, had voted for Bush. Wallis points out that such polls are flawed. Abortion and gay marriage are typically viewed as being key to “moral values” politics, but Wallis notes that is a simplistic and incorrect way to look at the issue. Poverty and war are also “moral values” issues, but that point is overlooked by the media and pollsters.

In God’s Politics, Wallis is critical of religious leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who claimed that God was on the side of George W. Bush and Christians had a duty to re-elect him in the 2004 election. He decries single issue voting, and raises the importance of analyzing political candidates based on issues with biblical roots like caring for the poor, protecting the environment, respecting human rights, avoiding wars and truth telling.

Wallis laments the “enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity” in the media which has led to people around the world thinking that the Christian faith “stands for political commitments that are almost the opposite of its true meaning.” He asks, “How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?” He notes that the religious Right tends to focus only on sexual and cultural issues while ignoring the “weightier matters of justice.” Wallis states, “Most people just don’t get it, because they know that Jesus was on the side of the poor and the cause of peace. The politics of Jesus is a problem for the religious Right.” He observes, “The religious Right’s grip on public debates about values has been driven in part by a media that continues to give airtime to the loudest religious voices, rather than the most representative, leaving millions of Christians and other people of faith without a say in the values debate.”

However, Wallis is also critical of leaders on the left who want to negate or diminish the important role of spiritual values in shaping social policy. He warns that “[t]he spiritual component in all this is absolutely crucial. An understanding of how sacred the blessing of life is must undergird all our efforts for justice and for peace....each of those forgotten souls [the poor and victims of war] was made in the image of God and carries that sacred value.”

Wallis advocates a “genuinely ‘prophetic’ spirituality to the urgent need for social justice.” He clarifies that “[p]rophecy is not future telling, but articulating moral truth,” and the “prophets diagnose the present and point the way to a just solution.” Wallis states: “In politics, the best interest of the country is served when the prophetic voice of religion is heard—challenging both Right and Left from consistent moral ground. The evangelical Christians of the nineteenth century combined revivalism with social reform and helped lead movements for abolition and woman’s suffrage—not to mention the faith-based movement that directly preceded the rise of the religious Right, namely the American civil rights movement led by the black churches. The truth is that most of the important movements for social change in America have been fueled by religion—progressive religion. The stark moral challenges of our time have once again begun to awaken this prophetic tradition.”

Wallis explains the power of prophetic religion with a specific example from our country’s recent past. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, Dr. King met with President Johnson to tell him that the next critical step was passage of a voting rights act. Johnson was sympathetic, but explained he had used all of his political capital to get the civil rights law passed and a voting rights act just wasn’t a political possibility. Instead of giving up, Dr. King and the SCLC began organizing a protest on the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Alabama. On Bloody Sunday, civil rights protestors were beaten savagely by Sheriff Jim Clark and a large group of white police officers. In response, two weeks later, hundreds of clergy from various Christian and non-Christian denominations across the country came to Alabama to take part in the march from Selma to Montgomery. The civil rights struggle had become a religious one for many of the participants, and the whole nation was watching. Five months afterwards, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted by Congress. King and his allies had shifted the debate and public opinion to enable President Johnson to boldly go to a joint session of Congress to call for a voting rights act. Wallis gives other examples of such prophetic religion such as Desmond Tutu, Alan Bosak and Frank Chikane of South Africa, Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and church leaders in the Philippines during the reign of Ferdinand Marcos and in Poland during Communist rule. He also notes the success of Christian organizations like World Vision, Bread for the World and Habitat for Humanity, and the faith-inspired movement of Jubilee 2000.

Wallis asks, “With the Republicans offering war overseas and corporate dominance at home, and the Democrats failing to offer any real alternatives, who will raise a prophetic voice for social and economic justice and for peace?” Wallis answers the question by stating there has never been a clearer need for leadership by churches and the religious community. However, Wallis warns that to be effective, prophetic voices need to not just protest but to offer alternatives. He states: “Many people will engage in protest, but even more are likely to follow an alternative that offers a better way. To offer an alternative is always more challenging than just protest; it requires more work, creativity, and risk. Like many others, I came of age during the 1960s, when the struggle for justice was embodied in the archetype of protest. We learned our lessons about politics in the streets, and the habit of protest is still deep within us. But protest can become static and formulaic. The aim of effective and transformative protest should be to illumine a society to its need for change. In other words, protest must be instructive to succeed, more than destructive. It should, at its best, point the way to an alternative, rather than just register the anger of its demonstrators. Protest must not become just a ritual of resistance, offering a laundry list of grievances.”

Observing a recent time when prophetic religion was absent, Wallis lamented the lack of a “serious national debate before” invading Iraq. He blamed the lack of debate on the Bush administration, which “seemed to equate dissent and even debate with a lack of patriotism.” Wallis quotes from a sermon given by the Reverend Peter Gomes at about that time where he stated, “This is a frightening time, and if one cannot speak out of Christian conscience and conviction now, come what may, then we are forever consigned to moral silence...What is and has always been lovely about our country is our right and our duty to criticize those in power, to dissent from their policies if we think them wrong, and to hold our alternative vision to be as fully valid as theirs.”

Matthew 10:27 (New Living Translation)

27 What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear!

Amos 5:24 (New International Version - UK)

24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Matthew 23:23 (New International Version - UK)

23 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices— mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law— justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

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