Jim Wallis has been a major contributor to social transformation returning to the evangelical Christian agenda. John Stott described the lack of a serious social dimension to mission as the great heresy in evangelicalism in the 20th Century. In 2006 Wallis spoke to my students at Queens University. He told them that he grew up in an evangelical Church and while in his teens asked what they were doing about the poor black neighbourhood down the street. He was told that that was not what the Church was about. Disillusioned he left and became an activist in the student protest against the Vietnam War. Eventually though he realised that social transformation needed God and that transcendent dimension. He set up a radical justice community called Sojourners in 1973 from which came a magazine still powerfully influential today. His second book The Call To Conversion in 1981 opened up a whole generation to the Biblical agenda that was unbelievably missed since Walter Rauschenbusch’s The Social Gospel at the start of the century (that’s a whole another Surmise for another time) Jim Wallis is now a very influential activist in American politics but his mingling of Biblical and political commentary has prophetic implications across the world.
We are delighted to have Jim Wallis in Northern Ireland on August 28th. He will be speaking in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church (77 University Street, Belfast) at 7.30pm and it is free. Fitzroy is one stop on Jim’s book tour to promote On God’s Side; What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving The Common Good. It is a book that includes endorsements from Miroslav Wolf, Scot McKnight, Shane Claiborne, Ann Lamotte, Richard Rohr, Lynne Hybels and Bono. The top African American academic, activist and theologian Cornel West writes, “Jim Wallis is this country’s (USA –ed) major prophetic evangelical Christian voice. He has a sense of urgency and hope seldom seen in our cynical time.”
I am particularly indebted to Wallis for being a real influence in my own discipleship and the widening of my missional vision and Biblical understanding. His book The Soul Of Politics articulated a lot of what I was thinking in the mid-90s. I cannot count how many times I have quoted his phrase, written in the context of South Africa’s miracle of transformation, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.”
I personally believe that there has never been a more crucial time for Jim Wallis to be in Northern Ireland and never been one of his books as timely as On God’s Side. Jim is speaking into the split in American politics between Republican and Democrat that came to quite a vicious antagonism at last year’s Presidential election. As I read the first chapter in the midst of Belfast’s street tension over the Ardoyne parades in mid July I couldn’t help seeing obvious parallels. We need our politicians to reach beyond their partisan sound bites for votes and start to act for the common good. As I have often said, “Don’t vote for the politician that will do best for you, vote for the politician that will do best for everyone.”
A few quotes from Jim’s opening chapter, A Gospel For The Common Good: -
“The common good is about so much more than partisan politics. It grows out of our personal and family lives, our vocational callings, the mission and witness of our congregations, the moral power of social movements, and the independent integrity of prophetic religious leadership in our public life as we fight not just for “our” rights but for the rights of all people.”
“Being converted... in this way means focusing on instead of ignoring our neighbour, letting the poor move us instead of serving us, and learning how to understand and even love our enemies instead of just hating and seeking to defeat them. On God’s side we learn how to compassion takes precedence over control, forgiveness over fighting, and reconciliation over retaliation. And that requires a pretty radical transformation of how we think, act and relate to others and to God. Again, it’s called conversion – to God’s side.”
“Imagine the power of divisive religion converted into a spiritual force for the common good in our time.”
You can see why I am excited about the potential of Jim’s visit. I myself expect to be challenged, encouraged and inspired to convert religion into a power for the common good in Northern Ireland.