Few things are as singularly urgent as is the need to bring about a better marriage, between justice and contemplation. The tension that exists between them expresses itself in a variety of ways.
It’s the perennial tension between piety and politics, private morality and social engagement, biblical righteousness and social justice, your local prayer group and Greenpeace, tenderness and hard action.
Ernst Kasemann once put it this way: The trouble in the world and in the church is that the pious aren’t liberal and the liberal aren’t pious.
Few people resolve this tension very well. Invariably we fall off one side or the other.
When worship, piety and private morality are the dominant focus of our religious lives, we too often tend to rationalize away the Gospel’s demand for social justice. Religion then means going to church, praying privately and keeping our private morals roughly in order.
In circles of piety frequently there is little sense that true worship of God demands more than church going and private morality.
Conversely, when social justice is the dominant focus of our religious lives, we too easily confuse Greenpeace with the Gospel and forget that what ultimately grounds our commitment to justice is Jesus Christ, not liberal ideology.
In social justice circles there is often too little sense that the commitment to justice demands more than merely having a just cause and doing effective political action.
One person who, to my mind, has found a rare balance here and who serves both as a challenge and a model for the rest of us is Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, community in Washington, D.C. Wallis and his Sojourners community are in the front lines in virtually every justice issue in America; they are also a community on the front lines of Christian worship and private morality. And they are not a Johnny-come lately to either of these.
Right from its inception 20 years ago, Sojourners, mainly through the vision and articulation of Wallis, committed itself non-negotiably to both personal righteousness and social justice, private morality and social transformation, piety and liberality. They married these, the church and the street, in a way that few, very few, others have.
And the ensuing 20 years have not been kind to that marriage, just as they haven’t been to most marriages. Pressures of all kinds, from the right and from the left, tempt them and everyone else to give up on that marriage.
But fortunately the reverse seems to be happening. What is coming out of Sojourners, as seen both in the literature it is producing and in the social actions it is taking, is a model for how contemplation and justice, private and social morality should meet.
In Sojourners we see a paradigm for how the church and the street, piety and politics, might mix, namely, in a Gospel that is not divided, but that embraces both the call to conversion and the summons to justice, a Gospel that integrates prayer, worship, private morality and social transformation.
Allow me here to quote a recent article by Wallis (‘Worth Fighting For,” Sojourners, Feb./ March, 1994):
“The frightening disregard for human life among too many young people is a bitter reflection on the way these same young people have become so utterly disregarded by their society. The coldness of heart that makes even veteran urban activists shiver is a judgment upon our coldness towards our poorest children: We reap what we have sown.
“Neither liberal sociology nor conservative piety can begin to address the roots of this crisis. Neither government spending nor simplistic self-help slogans will suffice. What is called for now is that particular biblical combination of which the prophets most often spoke—justice and righteousness.
“Both the structures of oppression and the morality of personal behavior must undergo radical transformation. We need a change of heart and a change of direction not only among troubled urban youth, but for all of us.
“The problem is too deep and our task too large to take it on by ourselves. We will need the help that comes by faith. As another young man in the post-riot meeting in Watts said to us: ‘We’ve got some habits that only God can cure.’ That goes for all of us.”
Wallis goes on to suggest that at this critical historical juncture only faith will make possible the political imagination needed to find solutions to the social problems that beset us. He sees signs of hope already emerging. He is one of them!