Jesus and justice – rarely do we bring them together as the gospels do.
Somehow we find it hard to bring together the Jesus who is so uncompromising in the area of private prayer and integrity, who says we delude ourselves if we think we are following him but are not praying or keeping the commandments, with the Jesus who tells us unequivocally that at the last judgment there will only be one test as to whether we will go to heaven or not, namely, how we responded to the poor during our lifetime. The Jesus who invites us into personal piety and church doctrine is the same Jesus who tells us that nobody will get to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.
But we have always had some special mentors who helped show us how this might be done. Dorothy Day comes to mind, as do a number of others: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, Jean Vanier, William Stringfellow. Dorothy Day perhaps best exemplifies this; she was equally comfortable leading the rosary or leading the peace march.
One of the persons who as been a special mentor to me, since I never had the privilege of meeting Dorothy Day, is Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners – a magazine, a peace movement, and a spirituality. Wallis, a lay man, is an evangelical with deep catholic and ecumenical sympathies who, as a young man in the 1960s got kicked out of his own white evangelical church for standing up for justice during the race-riots in Detroit. In the forty years since he has lost neither his idealism nor his commitment to Jesus. Moreover, like Dorothy Day, he resists the temptation to bracket half of the gospel and opt for either private morality or social justice. For him, it is always both and that is why you find him leading both peace rallies and prayer rallies. Just in the past year, among other things, I have heard him speak at a Roman Catholic Religious Education convention and seen him lead a nationally-televised debate between the leading presidential candidates running for the 2008 election.
Four years ago, he wrote a remarkable book entitled, God’s Politics – Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Sensing that a number of things have shifted since, he has just published a new book, The Great Awakening, Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. His new book is very hope-filled. In his view, what has changed, and changed for the better, are two things: The Left has awoken more to Jesus, even as the Right, particularly the Evangelical Right, has awoken more to justice. As a result, we are beginning to find more common ground because both sides are moving to higher ground.
That is a very hopeful development which, after the deep political and ecclesial divisions of the past years, is opening up some wonderful new possibilities. What possibilities? Let me have Wallis speak for himself:
Given these new developments, how both the Left and Right have awoken more deeply to a new reality … It is possible to call for personal responsibility and social responsibility at the same time. It is possible to preserve the environment and turn back the threats against our fragile planet while also promoting the kind of economic growth that can lift people out of poverty. It is possible to love one’s country while admitting its mistakes, holding it to higher standards, and insisting that God’s blessings are not only bestowed on one nation. It is possible to take the reality of evil and the existence of enemies very seriously, but also to see the ‘logs in our own eye’ and prefer the skills of conflict resolution and the requirements of justice to the habit of war. All these things are indeed possible, and could unite the best instincts of principled conservatism and progressive liberalism while balancing the values of both freedom and community.
Given all of this, he suggests that it is possible too to be pro-life, to believe that abortion is always a moral tragedy, without isolating those who are making desperate choices, just as it is possible to be strongly pro-family, defend the sanctity of marriage, without denigrating those whose lives are different. And perhaps most important of all, it is possible then to let a passionate commitment to faith and justice not lead to sectarian warfare but to respectful dialogue and action for both Jesus and justice beyond just our own church, our own political party, and our own ideology.
To that end, Wallis suggests seven principles of engagement for Christian political involvement in the world: 1. God hates injustice. 2. The kingdom of God is a new order. 3. The church is an alternative community. 4. The kingdom of God transforms the world by addressing the specifics of injustice. 5. The church is the conscience of the state, holding it accountable for upholding justice and restraining its violence. 6. Take a global perspective. 7. Seek the common good.