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Revival time?

Jim Wallis

As the US election process gathers pace, JIM WALLIS detects a groundswell of support for the classic fusion of faith, politics and social conscience, inspired by history's great reformers - and a certain world-famous rock star...

Two of the great hungers in our world today are the hunger for spirituality and the hunger for social justice. The connection between the two is the one the world is waiting for, especially a new generation. And the first hunger will empower the second.

One learns a lot travelling for three decades, speaking (and listening) in every part of the USA and many places in the world to a multitude of audiences and constituencies. Because much of my speaking is also preaching, I have been with almost every religious denomination and faith community in the country, and have watched the relationship between faith and politics significantly affect the issues of society - for good and ill. I've also travelled extensively overseas and been an eyewitness to many of the greatest crises the world faces today, as well as the kinds of initiatives and movements capable of changing those realities.

I have been listening, and I'd like to report that people across the USA and throughout the world convince me that it is time for a new kind of politics, and that a better public engagement by faith communities could help get us there. The good news is that many people are ready for both - better religion and better politics.

The religious landscape of the 2008 election in the United States will be dramatically different to that of 2004. The issue of faith and politics has significantly changed since the 'moral values' voters were widely perceived as a solid Republican base and the Democrats were seen as a 'secular party' that was hostile to religion. Two fundamental shifts have occurred and, when taken together, could constitute a sea change in US politics.

First, we now see the 'levelling of the praying field'
as many Democrats are rediscovering their own religious roots, with many coming out of the closet as people of faith or actively reaching out to the faith community.

Second, and more important, the agenda of the faith community - especially the evangelical community - is changing dramatically to include issues such as poverty and pandemic diseases, environmental care and climate change, trafficking and human rights, genocide, the need for a more ethical response to the genuine threats of terrorism and a foreign policy more consistent with our best moral values.

Even at this early stage of the 2008 election process, the clear winner is 'change,' revealing the deep hunger in the USA for a new direction in politics, which many on both sides of the spectrum believe to be badly broken.

In fact, these are signs that we may be approaching a new revival of faith, one that opens the door for real solutions that transcend partisan politics and leads the way to concrete victories for social justice. I am suggesting that we need nothing less than a powerful movement of faith to renew politics - one that effectively combines personal conversion and social justice. Personal transformation is necessary for social movements, and social movements are necessary to transform politics.

Some years ago, on a trip to England, I walked through the historic Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common in south London. The rector was very proud to show me around. On the wall were pictures of typically English-looking gentlemen who had helped turn their country upside down. Finally, the rector pointed to an old, well-worn table. 'This is the table upon which William Wilberforce wrote the antislavery act,' he said proudly. 'We now use this table every Sunday for communion.' I was struck that here, in a dramatic liturgical symbol, the secular and the sacred are brought together with powerful historical force. How did we ever separate them?
William Wilberforce was a convert in a revival that shook his society. Similarly in the USA in the 19th century, religious revivalism was linked directly with the abolition of slavery and other movements for social reform. Christians helped lead the abolitionist struggle, efforts to end child labour, projects to aid working people and establish unions, and even the battle to obtain voting rights for women. Here were evangelical Christians fighting for social justice, precisely because of what God had done for them - an activity with which evangelicals have not been associated in more recent times.

The 19th-century US evangelist Charles Finney was both a revivalist and an abolitionist. Often called the father of US evangelism, he popularized the altar call partly to sign up his converts for the antislavery campaign! They would commit their lives to Christ and then enlist for God's purposes in the world. That's the way it always is for revival, faith becomes life-changing. Rather than remaining restricted to personal issues and the inner life alone, it explodes into the world with a powerful force. For Finney, taking a weak or wrong position on social justice was a 'hindrance to revival.'

Martin Luther King Jr's personal faith journey and the spiritual power of the black churches were absolutely central to the civil rights movement. Arising clearly out of the black church tradition of the USA and the Ebenezer congregation his father led, the bright young Martin Jr. was steeped in the intellectual and liberal social gospel tradition during his seminary and postgraduate years. But as the freedom struggle intensified, the faith of Martin Luther King Jr. became much more personal. His theological liberalism was not an adequate foundation for what he would ultimately face. My experience is that the more deeply one moves into the struggle for social justice, the more important personal faith becomes. There is, indeed, a genuine tradition of theological liberalism that leads to a social gospel, but there's also an evangelical tradition in which Jesus brings one to social justice.

Important as education, issues and policy ideas are, we need something deeper. Societal transformation never comes about without personal transformation as well. Faith can provide the fire, the passion, the strength, the perseverance, and the hope necessary for social movements to win, and to change politics.

Can we imagine the success of freedom in South Africa without the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the South African churches, or what the 'spiritual formation' of 27 years in prison did to shape Nelson Mandela, arguably the greatest political leader of the 20th century? Desmond Tutu used to talk about a letter he received from a small group of cloistered religious women. They told the archbishop that they had covenanted together to pray for him every day during their early morning prayers at 4:00am. For Tutu, this knowledge became a real source of strength.

I had the blessing of being present for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president of the new South Africa. The occasion showed me again how much history really can be transformed - from seemingly hopeless oppression to the kind of justice that brings hope to all. And that's precisely what faith can do. Faith reminds us that change is always possible.

The list goes on and on. The stubborn faith of Archbishop Karol Józef Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, was ultimately too much for the communist regime in his native Poland, and Catholic foundations were absolutely central to Lech Walesa's Solidarity union movement that brought down the Soviet-backed government. The 'base communities' of Latin America, studying the Gospels through the lens of 'liberation theology,' became the schools and breeding grounds for resistance to military dictatorship, and those communal experiments in democracy helped set the stage for the new and fledgling democracies that would eventually replace junta after junta throughout the continent.

The Philippines' strongman Ferdinand Marcos seemed invulnerable until the 'People Power' movement brought him down, with the critical support of the Catholic Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila and the vital networks of the church's priests, religious women, and lay leaders who joined the people in the streets.

In India, Mahatma Gandhi, a spiritual leader as much as a political one, led the movement for independence. A person of deep faith who drew from many traditions, Gandhi would sometimes halt the political progress of the movement to engage the nation in periods of fasting and prayer so that the people might be better prepared for freedom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German pastor whom Hitler executed, became the spiritual heart and soul of the Confessing Church resistance to the Third Reich, which they believed had committed religious offences and not just political ones.
These stories of faith and courage provide an enduring testament to hope - even against seemingly insurmountable odds. I believe we may be on the verge of such a revival again, a renewal of faith and spirituality that could be applied to some of the biggest moral issues of our time and make the most significant difference in resolving them.

Each new generation has a chance to alter two basic definitions of reality in our world: what is acceptable and what is possible. If we are from the religious community, there is a third chance, also to shape what we mean by the word faith.

First, what is acceptable? There are always great inhumanities that we inflict upon one another in this world, great injustices that cry out to God for redress, and great gaps in our moral recognition of them. When these are finally corrected, it is usually because the moral contradiction we have long lived with is no longer acceptable to us. What we had accepted, or ignored, or denied, finally gets our attention, and we decide that we just cannot and will not live with it any longer.

It often takes a new generation to make that decision. So I ask students and young people these questions: What will you no longer accept in our world? What will you refuse to tolerate, now that you will soon be making the decisions that matter?

Will it be acceptable to you that three billion people in our world today - half of God's children - live on less than $2 a day, that more than a billion live on less than $1 a day, that the gap between the life expectancy in the rich places and the poor places in our world is now 40 years - meaning that death has become a 'social disease' - or that 30,000 more children will die globally, today, from needless, senseless, and utterly preventable poverty and disease? Many people don't know those facts or, if they are vaguely aware of them, have never given them a second thought.

That's the way it usually is. We have 'easy' explanations for why poverty or some other calamity exists, for why it can't be changed. So we tolerate the injustice and just keep looking the other way.
But then something gets our attention, goes deeper than it has before and hooks us in the places we call the heart, the soul, the spirit. And once we've crossed over to really seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting the injustice, we can never look back. What we see now offends our understanding of the sanctity and dignity of life, offends our notions of fairness and justice, offends our most basic values. We become intolerant of the injustice. But just changing our notion of what is acceptable isn't enough; we must also change our perception of what is possible.

I believe that the real battle of our times is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope. It is ultimately a spiritual choice, but with enormous political consequences. I always say that hope is not a feeling, it is a decision based upon what you believe at the deepest levels - whatever we call faith. You choose it not as a naive wish, but with your eyes wide open to the reality of the world-just like the cynics who have not made the decision for hope.

At the beginning of a new millennium, I see a new generation of young activists coming of age and talking about globalization, climate change, HIV/AIDS, and reducing global poverty. But without the deep roots of spirituality, the battle for justice can quickly lead to burnout, despair, anger, and even violence. Meanwhile the quest for spirituality alone can easily lead to narcissism, especially in affluent societies, as it becomes just another commodity to consume. That's why I believe the path to genuine spirituality must be disciplined by the struggle for justice. It is the only way for the spiritual life to have real authenticity. To be a social activist for the long term, you must also become a spiritual contemplative. And to be a contemplative with integrity, you must also engage the world where it needs to be changed.

A new generation of evangelical students and pastors is now coming of age. Their concerns are the slavery of poverty, the sexual trafficking of God's children, environmental 'creation care,' human rights and the image of God in genocidal places such as Darfur, and how the Prince of Peace might view our endless wars and conflicts. Whether they know it or not, these young activists are really 19th-century US evangelicals (or 18th-century British evangelicals) for the 21st century.

Across the nation and around the world, I'm hearing a new hope for that kind of movement. From a new day in South Africa to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, from the success of peace plans in violence-torn urban neighborhoods in the USA to models that actually work to solve the problems of poverty in unlikely places, and to the nascent signs of democracy in places where oppression ruled a few short years ago, I've seen too much not to be hopeful, or naive, about the challenges we face.

That hope, though, still depends upon spiritual revival. In January 2007 while in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, I had an epiphany. It was during a session on 'Promises to Africa' about whether and how the world would fulfill the commitments it had already made to the African continent in aid, debt cancellation, and making trade not only freer but fairer. Everyone agreed that the world had fallen far short of fulfilling the promises made, but those gathered looked forward to making more progress at the next G8 meeting scheduled for that summer in Germany. Then Tony Blair, who was on the panel, was lauded for the singular leadership he had offered at the previous G8, and he argued strenuously for finally dealing with how unjust the global rules of trade are for the poorest countries and peoples.

One of the German representatives on the panel raised the issue of public opinion. He said the German public didn't care much about the issues of global justice and pointed his finger at Bono, another panelist. 'We need the celebrities to come!' he exclaimed. Bono smiled back at him and gave him a salute, as if to accept his marching orders. The German was right: until we can move public opinion on the big issues, we are unlikely to change them. But if we are dependent only on 'celebrities' to do that, we are in serious trouble. Bono, in particular, is much more than a celebrity; he is a serious activist, a committed Christian, and a friend - who happens to be one of the most popular rock stars in the world. Nobody in the world has done more than he to awaken the public conscience to global poverty and disease.

But in a conversation later that night, Bono agreed that celebrities alone won't be enough to change public opinion, that we need nothing less than a revival of faith, worldwide - a lived-out faith that demands action from governments on the most fundamental issues of justice. He told me how excited he was to hear about the ways evangelical Christians in the USA were changing, and when I told him about plans for justice revivals across the country and eventually around the world, his face lit up. 'Justice revivals!' he repeated back to me, and he immediately quoted from Jesus in Luke 4: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.' He knew it by heart and said: 'That's what you have to preach!'

No matter which candidate finally wins the coming US presidential election, he or she will not be able to make big changes unless and until there is a real movement pushing for those changes from outside politics. Because when politics fails to resolve or even address the most significant moral issues, what often occurs is that social movements rise up to change politics; and the best social movements always have spiritual foundations.

Even a candidate who runs on change, really wants it, and goes to Washington to make it, will confront a vast array of powerful forces which will do everything possible to prevent it. And, to be really honest, there are too many bad habits, negative choices and cynical resignations in us as people that also serve as an obstacle to change. That's why I believe that it will take a new spiritual revival to finally make serious social change really possible; changing hearts and minds and forging a constituency who will demand nothing less than a new direction. We must go back to Jesus (who was quoting from Isaiah) and bring 'good news to the poor'. If the great mountains of greed, injustice, and indifference are to be moved, they will most likely be pushed aside by the mustard seeds of faith.