October 21, 2004
Motivating a Movement?
It was a beautiful fall Sunday morning when the "Call to Renewal Rolling to Overcome Poverty" tour bus came to Media (PA) Presbyterian Church. It was the last stop on a fifteen city, twelve-day tour. I looked forward to hearing the Rev. Jim Wallis preach, and hoped to hear how he and his team of activists plan to unify people of faith and "make poverty a religious issue." I came away inspired enough to report here, but otherwise a little disappointed.
Wallis is the well-known editor of Sojourners magazine -- perhaps the most significant source of progressive public commentary from the evangelical community in the last thirty years. Wallis is also the "convener" of "Call to Renewal," an ecumenical "network of churches, faith-based organizations, and individuals working to overcome poverty in America" founded in 1995.
In his sermon, Wallis highlighted many inspiring themes in ways that would be familiar to his readers. He described the "Burger King Mom," and contrasted her with the "Soccer Mom" or "Security Mom" of recent political campaigns. "Burger King Mom" has to work every afternoon at 4PM while her kids run amok in the restaurant. On her salary, "Burger King Mom" has to choose between daycare, feeding her children, buying them boots for winter, or paying the rent. She can't do them all. "Work in American isn't working," was Wallis's effective punch line.
Wallis called on believers in Media to work together. "The National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches are like the Crips and Bloods," he lamented. Instead, he envisioned a "gang peace movement in the church," where liberals and conservatives, Protestants and Catholics, and Republicans and Democrats "come together" to "restore integrity to the Word of God."
"It's time for a movement." People of faith need to "magnify our collective voice" in public life. And poverty ought to be an issue on which Christians, at least, can agree. After all, "one out of every sixteen verses in the New Testament is about the poor," Wallis contended, and yet "the poor are overflowing" in America. "Ministry is not enough. We need a movement."
Many in the pews at Media Presbyterian, no doubt, shared my deep and respectful agreement with Wallis. But what motivates a movement?
Three things seem absent in Call to Renewal. The first, oddly, is God. There may be good reasons for omitting God's name in some settings, but the paucity of God-talk in a Presbyterian church was jarring. Here, where the sovereignty of God can be preached to motivate care of the poor through just policies that flow from gratitude, I heard instead moralistic judgment of failed policies. It didn't work.
I came away that morning feeling not implicated in the plight of the poor. I felt pretty good about myself, in fact. The problem, in other words, is not that people fail to see the poor as a religious problem, but that they see the poor as only a religious problem. A religious movement to address poverty must, if anything, be shrewder politically than the most-savvy politician. And that means implicating individuals and groups in the policies that cause poverty in a way that does not permit evasion.
Finally, though, what I felt most lacking in Call to Renewal is what a Lutheran like me calls grace. By that word I don't mean in the least to play a parochial card. But I do mean to urge Call to Renewal to articulate its relationship to the light, nature, energy, truth or Spirit, which truly motivates change, which inspired a converted slave-owner to write a song about how amazing it is.
Call to Renewal, as the very name suggests, is trying to do something new. It seeks a public metanoia or change of mind, where the existence of poverty is no longer denied, and where many faith-based organizations and individuals are mobilized to address it. To bring about that change, though, Call to Renewal will need more than moralism. The name for what that "more than" is may change, but Call to Renewal needs to get clearer about what people find powerful in faith to garner the kind of strong public support its framers intended, and the poor deserve.
Jon Pahl teaches at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. His last book, Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place, is largely about grace.