Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive Christian magazine Sojourner and author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," called on Christian leaders at a recent conference on politics and spirituality in Pasadena to join him in a national movement for "good religion." Wallis believes the Christian right's preoccupation with abortion and same-sex unions misrepresents their faith.
"How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?" he asked. "How do we get back to a historic, biblical, and genuine evangelical faith rescued from its contemporary distortions?"
He urged Christian leaders to overcome poverty with religious commitment and political leadership. Do you think some Christians have lost track of Jesus' message of social justice?
Amen! I stand with Jim Wallis and many others across the theological spectrum of Christianity who feel uncomfortable believing that Jesus only died for eternity and was not concerned about our daily lives. In fact, this weekend, I am starting a 10-week message series on it.
"I want to see liberals in Washington, D.C., talk about out-of-wedlock births and the need for personal responsibility and better choices," Wallis said. "And I want conservatives to talk about strategic investments in child care, healthcare, housing and education. If that were to happen in Washington, D.C., it would be an explosion."
Do not distort Wallis' message to mean that the right is all wrong. He names both the right and the left as distorting the historic focus of our faith. Neither of them are exempt from the shame of turning Jesus into a poster boy for their causes, and yet their causes look very little like the ministry Jesus actually had on earth.
The left has replaced the gospel with "love" and made their message to merely be defined by "the most loving thing." Belief means nothing in their paradigm.
On the right, belief has become king, and you can live like a heathen but still get into heaven if your beliefs are right.
Both views are absurd and would make Jesus sick. Our faith should affect our lives, and we should be changed by it. That change will include the love of the homeless and the helpless and the hopeless.
In the Scriptures, the book of Amos cries out, like most of the other prophets, about the religiosity of the people who excluded the changes that affected their lifestyle. In the Christian testament, the writer James says, "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."
God consistently hollers at humanity that it is not their sacrifices he wants, but their hearts.
LEAD PASTOR RIC OLSEN
The Bible is often used as an inebriated person uses a lamp post — more for support than for illumination. For many, Scripture is not what it says, but what they say it says.
Here is the difference between exegesis and eisegesis, the former discovering the text's meaning and the latter reading into the text what the reader wants to find there.
On one side are those who claim that Scripture's promotion of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men is perverted by hard-hearted, narrow-minded bigots. They charge their benighted brethren with making a mockery of religion by demonizing and marginalizing those who do not agree with their cramped and convenient understanding of God.
These so-called "moderates" do not accept it as their Christ-mandated task to shove their religion down resistant throats. They do not interpret the Great Commission as warranting what Augustine labeled libido dominandi, the urge to control and dominate. They denounce biblical cherry pickers who exploit exceptional statements for their own benefit and in service to a reactionary agenda.
On the other side are the so-called "fundamentalists" who present a demanding God of justice, a punisher of those who deviate from the Word. They do not accept it as their Christ-mandated task to preach a feel-good, power-of-positive-thinking, gospel-of-wealth, confront-your-angst, heal-your-relationships, just-put-on-a-happy-face, can't-we-all-just-get-along message. They indict these ministries by diluting or obscuring Jesus' teachings, which pronounce judgment and promise salvation. Their cause is more to disturb the comfortable than to comfort the disturbed.
These "keepers of the gates" affirm that they are the "true believers." Their faith is one of exclusion, us and them, wherein all good resides in their camp while their opponents align with Satan. The end justifies the means in silencing or eliminating those whose message conflicts with theirs.
Those whose self-image is more temperate and reasonable also paint themselves as the "true believers." The Beatitudes with their gentle ethic, not the Book of Revelation with its lake of fire, is at the core of their Bible. They offer the loving, tender, gentle Jesus — the good shepherd, the forgiving author of mercy — and not the Jesus whose eyes are flames of fire, whose sharp sword proceeds out of his mouth, and who "treads the winepress of the fierceness of the wrath of God." Theirs is a Jesus who consorts with sinners, not denounces them to eternal damnation.
Above the din of competing human voices, God cannot be heard. As Neibuhr wrote, we are never safe "against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire."
It has been said that you can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
RABBI MARK S. MILLER
Temple Bat Yahm
I'm not sure I would characterize Jesus' message as one of social justice. I think that label limits the breadth of his message, which was more along the lines of understanding the awesome nature of creation and the amazing power we posses to bring that creation into reality through love and forgiveness. Regarding the question of "getting back to the historic, biblical evangelical faith," I can see why some Christian leaders probably feel the pressure of having to support or not support those who use their religious beliefs to advance a political agenda.
But, hey, what's new? Every religion has an agenda, and sometimes it's more political than spiritual. Even Jesus was political on occasion, but his politics were more about the inner hunger and confusion that causes most to seek a life of convenience rather than a life of service.
Jesus was always telling people that their faith is what heals them, that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and that people needed to get ears and eyes so they can discern what is real and what is false. To most, a life of service seems like a contradiction to a life of convenience. The problem with convenience is that it seldom leads to a life of meaning. To serve another human being is the greatest spiritual calling in the world, and it's calling everyone to a life that is rich, deep and fulfilling.
SENIOR PASTOR JIM TURRELL
Center for Spiritual Discovery
The Christian view of social justice was adopted from the Jewish Bible. All of the prophets of Israel preached social justice.
It is not that Christianity doesn't follow social justice; it is that they preach it only secondary to salvation. Without salvation, there is no Christianity. Without the concept of social justice, there is no Judaism.
In a world where there is so much hate, where we mourn for the 3,000 lives that were taken on Sept. 11, 2001, people should worry more about helping each other rather than on saving each other's souls.
Knowing Christianity only on an intellectual level as a rabbi, it appears to me that the New Testament concerns itself with helping and blessing the poor, the downtrodden and the meek. We should help these people by acts of charity and kindness, regardless of peoples' religious creed. This is the spirit of social justice found in the Jewish bible.
In Christianity, both in the sermon on the mount and in the Beatitudes, it is said of "blessing the children; that they will inherit the earth;" however, as quoted on the radio Sept. 11, 2006, on KNX-AM (1070), some children today all over America, (about age 5), fear that other buildings will fall down like the twin towers five years ago.
This is not blessing our children. I think that Christianity today should concentrate more on what they call, "The Fall of Man and Woman," in the garden of Eden, which is a story of human error and an attempt to fix it, rather than on the concept of the paradise promised in salvation in heaven.
On the dawn of a Jewish new year, Jews try to fix our mistakes. In contrast, how odd it is that Muslim terrorists think they can get to heaven by doing immoral acts and practicing social injustice. Has the world gone mad? Some of us even blame God for the immorality and amoral actions of many who don't live by their faith and ethics and with religious tolerance toward others. In the words of the prophet Amos, "Justice, justice shall you pursue all the days of your life."
RABBI MARC S. RUBENSTEIN
Yes! Some Christian believers and some Christian communities shadow the individualism, hedonism, materialism, consumerism and secularism that so characterize our age. Christians are custodians of an alternative vision of what it means to be human, a vision of meaningful, satisfying, fulfilling ways to live. To be truly human, to be fully alive, is to be childlike (not childish!), to remain humble, to be teachable, to avoid pride and arrogance, and to be reverent toward other people and toward the natural world.
The reverent justice Jesus proclaimed is very human. It may mean giving people what they can claim as a right: to live, to a decent job, to a family wage, to be treated with respect. Or it may mean what President Bush meant when he said of terrorists, "We shall make sure they receive justice, fit punishment for their crimes." This is fair enough for civilized living, but not enough by half for Christian living.
Justice in its biblical sense is what religions centered on Holy Scripture should be all about. Biblical justice is the second commandment of the law and the Gospel, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18, and Matthew 22:39).
We Christians cheat ourselves and others if we limit the justice we proclaim to what the human mind can conceive through centuries of struggle, argument and development; if we stress what people deserve or what we think they deserve (shouldn't we all be thankful that we don't get what we deserve?); if we do not witness the justice that is faithfulness to our responsibilities to God, to people, and to the earth; if we do not insist that the heart of our good news is Jesus' mandate, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12).
Just love is not an invitation; it is a command!
(THE VERY REV'D CANON)
PETER D. HAYNES
Saint Michael & All Angels
Corona del Mar
I'm glad Jim Wallis is getting Christians together to rethink the direction of evangelicals in this country. Jesus' radical message could not be further from the pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American positions of the most vocal elements of the Christian faithful. He was an advocate for the forgotten and dispossessed and preached love and forgiveness. He was especially attentive to the poor and to women. Having the discussion of "What makes for good religion?" by looking again at the central and enduring teaching of Christianity's founder, is essential to getting Christians back on track.
I have long wondered how Christians could be pro-life and pro-war and pro-death-penalty. And how could they argue for a "no new taxes" policy that encumbers generations not yet born with astounding debt as well as cuts to services for those most in need?
I am encouraged by the strong commitment some evangelicals are making to protect the environment and can only be grateful for the unprecedented generosity of Christians during the last several years following the disasters of the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
When Wallis says Americans have been exposed to "too much bad religion," he is making an important distinction between those who are at cross purposes with the gospel of Jesus and those who are concretely walking that path as Americans and citizens of the world. I agree that too much time, money and energy have been spent on abortion and same-sex marriage issues while wars and international conflict escalate, the poor and hungry cry for help, and our natural environment continues to be degraded.
As Zen practitioners we are in solidarity with all those who believe the way is one of justice and moderation. The Mahayana (Great Vehicle) branch of which Zen is a part, understands that we all are traveling together, and that our own survival and happiness depends on the survival and happiness of "the least of us."
REV. CAROL AGUILAR
of Orange County
I am sure that most humanists, secularists, agnostics, atheists would say amen to Jim Wallis' goals of getting back to many of the basic values espoused by Jesus, and away from the preoccupation with such issues as abortion and same-sex union as demonstrated by the rabid religious right. The blind support of the Bush administration by many religious groups simply because they consider the current administration to be supportive of religion (whether in good or bad ways) has allowed the extreme right's political ideologies to permeate and distort their religious principles.
Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill noted that ideology dwarfed real-world analysis, stating that: Ideology is a lot easier because you don't have to know anything or search for anything. You already know the answer to everything. It's not penetrable by facts. And thus the current administration's tendency to ignore analysis and simply to make decisions based on ideological beliefs has also been accepted by the religious right.
Humanists, on the other hand, would prefer to make decisions based on a studied analysis and a reasonable following of the Golden Rule.
The considerate Jesus of the Bible would want us to help the poor, and he would want the rich to provide most of the needed help. Yet the rich want to pay less and less in taxes, and the administration they support provides less and less assistance for the poor and destitute — all supposedly justified by their ideology. And the considerate Jesus would want us to avoid war unless attacked. Of course there is another Jesus, as represented in other parts of the Bible. In Luke he says to bring his enemies and slaughter them in his presence, and suggests severely flogging servants who did not obey their masters. In Matthew he says that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Most people surely would want to follow the considerate Jesus. But then that is one of the features of the Bible, no matter what your opinions are, you can probably find some quotation that will support your particular prejudice.
Member of the Humanist Assn. of Orange County