Can a three-day preaching event bring Dallas together?
Two years ago I would have been skeptical. Friends of Justice was toying with a “Can we talk about race?” project designed to spark serious conversation across racial lines. No one seemed interested. Black and white pastors had the same reaction: “We tried that once and it didn’t work out.”
Dallas is a seriously divided city. Relations between whites, blacks and Latinos are characterized by tension and mutual suspicion. Wealthy North Dallas exists in splendid isolation from the poor folk in South Dallas. The “white flight” phenomenon left a legacy of resentment in its wake. Blacks vote Blue, whites vote Red and Latinos split the differernce Even the Dallas Cowboys now play twenty miles to the west, in Arlington.
The city’s relational dysfunction has elicited little interest from scholars. Michael Phillips’ White Metropolis notes that “Dallas does not merit a single mention in Taylor Branch’s 1,064-page study of the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters . . . Robert Weisbrot, in his 1990 monograph Freedom Bound, A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement, tells the Dallas story in a paragraph . . . A photo of the famous Dallas Skyline graces the cover of John Boles’ 569-page The South through Time: A History of an American Region, but the city appears nowhere in the index.”
Phillips suggests that the virtual invisibility of Dallas “represents amnesia by design . . . Rather than dealing with the messiness of the past, many opinion makers in Dallas chose to pretend the city had no history.” Apart from the tragedy of November 22, 1963, Dallas has been virtually invisible. And there is nothing as powerful as a historical legacy no one talks about.
Which explains why attempts to reach across racial, ethnic, political and ideological lines have rarely succeeded in Dallas, Texas.
And then Jim Wallis and Sojourners selected “The White Metropolis” as the site of the second “Justice Revival.”
A few years back, Lydia Bean (pictured above) came up with the idea of an old timey revival meeting centered on God’s call to social righteousness. A Harvard grad student in the sociology of religion, Lydia was doing a comparative study of Canadian and American evangelicals. The two groups shared a common theology but parted company on the issue of social justice. Canadian evangelicals generally believed that governments have a responsibility to build a just society and that churches should build on this work. By contrast, most American evangelicals were suspicious of any attempt to make the world a better place that wasn’t nurtured in a conservative reading of the Christian Bible. Conservative Protestants south of the border weren’t opposed to social righteousness; they just didn’t believe secular governments could deliver the goods unless born again politicians were at the helm.
While Lydia ruminated, Jim Wallis was doing an intensive study of the Second Great Awakening and its primary architect, Charles Grandison Finney. While the great evangelist called men and women to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, he resisted neat lines between the natural and the supernatural. “There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature,” he once said. “It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that, and nothing else. When mankind becomes truly religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert powers which they had before, in a different way, and use them for the glory of God.”
“Back then,” Jim Wallis recently told an interviewer, Charles Finney, Lucy Stone, the Grimke sisters, Jonathan Blanchard — these preachers, revivalists were also abolitionists. They led the antislavery campaign. They fought for women’s suffrage. They fought for economic justice. In fact, Charles Finney, who was the evangelist, the Billy Graham of to his day, really pioneered the altar call. And the reason he did was he wanted to sign his converts up for the antislavery campaign. So faith got directed right to justice.”
Wallis has been one of the few American evangelicals who believed that government and the religious community had complimentary roles to play in the common task of making justice roll down like the waters.” I have been reading “Sojourners” (the magazine) ever since 1976 when Glen Stassen, then an ethics professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, held up a copy in class and told us to subscribe.
For decades, Wallis and his band of radical Christian zealots in Washington D.C. were an interesting anomaly. Then a badly wounded politician named George W. Bush eked out a surprising electoral victory in 2004. Everybody credited a resurgent Religious Right for the president’s political survival which elicited an obvious question: “If there is a Religious Right why isn’t there a Religious Left?”
It turned out there was. Nobody in the mainstream media was much interested in the usual suspects in liberal religion because (how do I say this gently?) while they had plenty of ideas about making the world a better place they didn’t have much to say about the intentions of a personal God. Or, to put it another way, religious liberals are enamored of religious dialogue and reporters like to write about conflict.
Then somebody said, “What about this Wallis fellow? He’s a progressive evangelical.”
Disgruntled Democrats pricked up their ears and Jim Wallis suddenly had more big-time speaking invitations than he could handle.
But Wallis wasn’t interested in being a shill for Blue America (the mirror image of the Religious Right); he wanted to introduce America to a God who, while neither a Red nor Blue, had big plans for the world and would work with everyone (preachers, politicians and pole vaulters) who believed in justice.
The Blue Team wasn’t hard to sell on this plan (what alternatives did they have?) The Reds took a little more convincing. Which explains Wallis’ description of Charles Finney as “the Billy Graham of his day.” The founder of Sojourners was challenging mainstream American evangelicalism to stretch back behind the culture war to the roots of their movement. “What about Wilberforce in England?” he asked, “didn’t he use his role as a Christian politician to outlaw the British slave trade? And what about Finney? Didn’t he call people to Jesus with one hand and sign them up for the prohibition movement with the other?”
As Wallis was reflecting on these things, he remembered meeting a Harvard graduate student the year before, who had earnestly pressed a “think-piece” into his hand. Lydia Bean had cornered him during his year at Harvard, and handed him her five-page summary of what the “Religious Left” didn’t understand. In short, they weren’t recognizably Christian, they were just dressing up progressive talking-points in flowery, religious language. Wallis re-read this document, and called Bean up. They discovered that both of them were thinking along the same lines: what America needed was not a “Christian Left,” but genuine revival. Wallis asked her, “I want to read more–can you write me another think-piece?” Bean wrote another think-piece called “New Wine in New Wineskins,” that laid out what it would mean to integrate justice into evangelism. It was over fifty pages long. Impressed, Wallis used this document to chart out the first Justice Revival, a pilot project held in Columbus, Ohio. Bean flew out to observe and give some critical feedback. “Talk more about the cross,” she told Wallis. “This is for the church, we don’t have to be apologize for being explicitly Christian!” The vision of “justice revival” was evolving.
I’m not sure why Sojourners selected Dallas for the second Justice Revival. Maybe it’s because whether you’re white, black or Latino, evangelical religion rules this town. We have plenty of Roman Catholics and a respectable sprinkling of Presbyterians and Episcopalians, of course, but the sheer size of the evangelical camp dwarfs the religious competition. The revivalistic tradition with its fiery preaching and dramatic altar calls has shaped the religious culture of the community. I have heard black preachers like Freddy Haynes at Friendship West Baptist Church issue a come-t0-Jesus invitation in one breath and a call to hop on the bus to Jena, Louisiana in the next.
A Justice Revival works in Dallas because it evokes a religious sensibility everyone is familiar with. Even the liberals grew up evangelical.
Thus far, it appears to be working. Jim Wallis and staffers like the indefatigable Aaron Graham were in town last week for a civic leaders luncheon (where the picture above was taken) and you could feel a distinct buzz in the room. Leaders from every corner of the religious landscape were saying the same thing, “we’ve never come together like this before!”
Naturally, Wallis is conducting a delicate tight wire act in which a millimeter to the right or the left could spell disaster. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News he laid out the game plan: “The idea is simple: Churches ought to get together around what Jesus said about ‘the least of these.’ We may disagree about abortion, church polity, all that. On this, we’re clear.”
Issues on which there is little consensus (like abortion, gay rights and the death penalty) have been pushed to the back burner so we can talk about housing and educating the poor. This has injected a measure of imprecision into the process but participants seem to be adjusting. The key thing is to bring people together and we’re willing to sacrifice to make it happen. Thus far, folks disinclined to cooperate are keeping their opinions to themselves.
Sojourners is used to living in the shell-scarred no-mans-land created by the culture war. Last week Ryan Roderick Beiler, editor of Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog, got tired of biting his tongue:
Every now and then someone to our right or left posts an article excoriating Sojourners or Jim Wallis for not being _____ enough, infuriated that we still claim to be _____ even though we’re really just _____. You may want to play along with this Mad Libs game at home. The comments on this blog often do, filling in those blanks with terms like “conservative,” “liberal,” “evangelical,” “progressive,” “pro-life,” “pro-abortion,” “anti-abortion,” “pro-gay,” “anti-gay,” “radical socialist,” “closet conservative,” “Obama shill,” and “White House hijacker” respectively, depending on whether it’s the right or left wing that’s doing the flapping.
While we don’t shy away from honest debate, we generally prefer not to respond to attacks that are unfair, inaccurate, or ad hominem. However, I’ve always had a tremendous desire to introduce our critics on the left to our critics on the right. I would love to be a fly on the wall as they debate which one of them is wrong about our position on hot button issues, of which abortion is the easiest example: “He’s anti-choice!” “He’s certainly not pro-life!”
The result was predictable. Folks on the right criticized Beiler for being too liberal while the liberals critiqued his unthinking conservatism.
God may not be Red or Blue but we humans like to pick sides.
It isn’t easy being purple.