Sunday, September 24, 2006

Wallis Report

Since I've gotten a couple requests for a better update on dinner with Jim Wallis, I thought I'd take a minute and tell you a bit more about what that was like.

It might be good to point out that I honestly have some pretty conflicted feelings around Jim Wallis and his enterprise. Not least because the left evangelical movement has never succeeded at including women in integral ways to their project; it remains a white male dominated world. I've heard a few women who have worked with Wallis speak about his arrogance and their frustration at not being heard. I've also been saddened over the years that Sojourners has consistently failed to take a welcoming and affirming stance for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer people. This has continued to be the case among the Call to Renewal folks, at least as far as I can tell. I believe that justice for all people is necessary--and that seeking justice for GLBTQ folks is not a distraction, but integral to shalom.

There is also no small part of me that gets very suspicious of anyone who claims to be (or is assumed to be) The Voice of a movement. Call me a Gen-Xer is you must--I hear it is one of our traits--but my gut tells me to trust grassroots movements before trusting booming voices. And the way Wallis was introduced at the event where I heard him speak (it was on September 11, earlier this month), played into all of my misgivings. The woman who introduced him lamented that he was "the only Jim." And talked about how we had all come that day because we were "fans." She asserted that we came because we needed to be inspired by him and because we needed him to give us hope, purpose, and faith. Maybe that is why some folks were there. But to be honest, that feels a lot like a cult of personality to me. As if the desire is merely to be close to greatness rather than to be an active member of a community involved in a movement toward justice.

Wallis's speech that night failed to measure up to his hype. My partner, who has heard Wallis speak on a number of occasions, as well as encountered him in much smaller settings, commented afterward that he's heard Wallis be much more inspirational when talking about much more mundane things. I think he may have simply had an off night, or was tired, or felt constrained by the night's theme of commemorating September 11, 2001.

Whatever the reasons, Wallis's remarks were rooted in the past. It was a "woulda, shoulda, coulda" speech--with no great vision for what we oughta be doing today. I left the event feeling disappointed. And I was a bit baffled, given that this was the first I'd ever heard him speak, about how Wallis had managed to garner such a loyal following.

It was at the dinner afterwards, though, that Wallis was able to shine. He spoke in that more informal setting about some very hopeful things that are happening on a grassroots level around the country. In this sense, Wallis was much less the Booming Voice and much more a representative of hope and ideas-in-action. Among the most hopeful things he mentioned was the awakening of evangelicals to the centrality of economic justice in scripture. Rick Warren was chief among the big, evangelical names he mentioned who has come to perceive the eradication of poverty as a moral value. This fills me with hope! What might it look like to begin to build coalitions among people of faith all across the spectrum in which together we seek the eradication of poverty?

And yet, my questions remain around the involvement of women and GLBTQ people in meaningful leadership positions in these coalitions. I feel very certain that we can not dice up oppressions as if some are important and others are not.

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