By Peter Heltzel & Matthew Rosen
Within the evangelical ranks, Martin Luther King’s vision of beloved community is living on in the work Jim Wallis and Sojourners. Founded in 1971, Sojourners‘ mission is to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world. Jim Wallis’s passionate preaching and savvy organizing for social justice has helped forged a new breakthrough in American religion and politics—a serious collaborative dialogue between the religious community and the Obama administration.
Hosting the recent Mobilization to End Poverty, April 26-29, in Washington D.C., Wallis convened religious leaders from around the country to make sure President Obama and Congress take action to dramatically reduce poverty domestically and abroad. In the spirit of King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” the Mobilization to End Poverty represents one of the largest and most diverse anti-poverty groups that continue to advocate with Congress to protect priorities within the President’s budget that assist low-income individuals and poor communities.
What made this gathering of prophetic advocates historic was the government’s active outreach to the religious communities and constructive dialogue about how we can work together to bring about justice for all of God’s children. On Monday morning, April 26, President Obama addressed over 1,000 religious leaders, thanking them for their work to end poverty and imploring them to continue their ministries of restoration in the spirit of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. The group was then addressed by three forward-thinking leaders of the Obama administration who spoke about contemporary government policies aimed at reducing domestic and global poverty. The administration officials included: Joshua Dubois, Director, White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives & Neighborhood Partnerships; Van Jones, Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the Council on Environmental Quality; and Martha Coven, Director, White House Office of Mobility and Opportunity. This dialogue between religious leaders and the Obama administration marks a new day in American religion and politics.
Under the Bush Administration the Faith-Based Office focused narrowly on helping fund certain works of mercy by religious organizations. Now President Obama has expanded the conversation with faith leaders to include justice issues such as eliminating poverty, improving environmental stewardship and strengthening community, while still respecting the constitutional separation of church and state. Religious leaders like Jim Wallis, serving on the Council of Faith-Based Initiatives & Neighborhood Partnerships, are in regular dialogue with the Obama administration about these and other cooperative strategies.
The new dialogue has mutual benefits; Religious leaders help Obama become a better president as he in turn encourages religious leaders to become better citizens. While there is openness in the dialogue, there is still a need for the religious community to live out what it means to be an active citizen. The religious community is increasingly trying to figure out how to concretely relate its personal faith to the collective struggle for justice. The religious community needs to hold the government accountable, becoming a thoughtful and active citizenship which embodies the best virtues of our representative democracy.
People of faith are increasingly using their political voices on behalf of the common good. The Obama administration is listening and responding, calling upon people of faith to mobilize, providing a movement for justice that will provide popular support for just governmental policies. Without constant citizen support, all policy efforts will turn into prolonged, heated debates in the halls of the White House and the houses of Congress, but will not produce concrete programs that accomplish results. Now there is the possibility of a socially engaged American citizenry making King’s dream of love and justice a reality. As in the early days of the civil rights movement, the church must lead this movement for justice.
During the Mobilization to End Poverty, religious leaders lobbied the offices of their elected representatives in the Senate and the House. Yet, the most important part of the mobilization is translating the lessons learned at home. Relationships formed with elected officials should continue to be cultivated throughout the year. It is vital for Disciples congregations and other communities of faith to become more active in public life today. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has provided a great example of being a prophetic Christian citizen. In her inaugural sermon at the Washington National Cathedral she called on Obama and the nation to end poverty and to care for creation in the spirit of the Old Testament Jubilee (Leviticus 25). She continues to bear prophetic witness for God’s justice in her ecumenical ministry and public advocacy work.
Disciples congregations need to follow Watkins’ lead and take advantage of the momentum created by Sojourner’s Mobilization to End Poverty. Every Disciples congregation needs to cultivate a relationship with elected officials in order to have them commit to specific policies that help ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25). As a covenantal church, Disciples need to proclaim and embody a life together that demonstrates compassion and justice for all God’s children. Through vibrant congregational life and public advocacy, the people of God wait eagerly in a spirit for the emergence of parables of the Kingdom of God. If Disciples congregations respond at this moment, we can lead the way in a faith-based movement for justice that is daily building the political and social will necessary to enact legislative initiatives aimed at ending poverty in America and around the world.
Peter Goodwin Heltzel is assistant professor of theology, New York Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is the editor of The Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, a post-colonial rendering of Disciples thought and practice. His book Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals and American Politics will be released in July 2009 with Yale Press. He lives in New York City with his wife Sarah, an opera singer.
Matthew Rosen is faith-based community organizer most recently with the Children’s Defense Fund. Living in the Washington, DC area, he serves as a member of the Disciples Justice Action Network’s Decision Team, and as the Senior Advisory on Children’s Issues at the Disciples Center for Public Witness.