As a teenager growing up in ’60s era Detroit, Jim Wallis voiced a question: “Why was life in the white neighborhood so different from black Detroit just a few miles away?”
As he found some answers inside the church his parents pioneered, his questions increased exponentially.
Why, he wondered, had he never heard black preachers? Why was there so much hatred between the races?
He remembers church members squelching his questions.
“Faith is personal,” they assured him. “You’re asking about politics.”
This preacher’s son saw their response as a convenient way for the church to dodge the hard issues of poverty, race and starvation.
“That’s the night I left the church — both in my head and in my heart,” he said.
Fortunately, Wallis wasn’t gone too long. He didn’t give up on his questions. Eventually he would come to loudly reject his church’s notion by declaring, “God is personal, but God is never private.”
Jim knew there was a much bigger question than “What would Jesus do?” He was asking, “What would God have me do?”
In his college years, Wallis and his fellow students would start Sojourners, arguably the best-known Christian activist magazine. Today, according to his Web site, Wallis is, “a best-selling author, public theologian, speaker, preacher and international commentator on religion and public life, faith and politics.”
In his latest book, “The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post–Religious Right America” (HarperOne, 2008), Wallis is preaching with all his fervor that people should awaken to what faith can do for this country.
He preaches that politics is broken and quotes polls telling us that “70 percent of Americans believe that America is going in the wrong direction.”
“When politics breaks down,” he explained to me in the shadow of the California capitol building, “movements rise up to change politics. The best ones have spiritual foundations.”
Shifting into the hushed tones of a fervent believer, Wallis recalls that, “when a revival of faith has occurred, it has led to big things like the abolition of slavery, child labor law reform and women’s suffrage.
“I think those changes are happening again around issues like the scandal of poverty, the degradation of environment and the threat of climate change.”
To see the kind of faith-based changes Wallis is preaching, he declares that new commitments are needed on at least three levels.
First, there needs to be a “personal change.” These changes include things like where we live, how we live, how we spend our time, energy and resources.
Second, he puts the focus on faith communities. “Our congregations have to show a different way of living in the world, otherwise the church is just a club, and we should stay home and watch television.”
Finally, Wallis’ agenda calls for a change in public policy on social issues such as race, poverty and environment.
In the face of these responsibilities, Wallis believes we are confronted with a choice. We can follow cynicism that says things can’t change or we can invest our faith in hope and work for that change.
As a teen, Wallis’ faith prompted questions. His questions compelled him to act. Those faith questions still exist. Why is there so much discrepancy in what we have and what others in this world have? Why are there better schools in communities with manicured lawns? What does our personal greed have to do with the homeless?
The question remains, “What would God have us do?”
Burkes is a civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. E-mail [email protected].