On Wednesday 13, my last in Washington DC, I travelled to Columbia Heights to the office of Christian campaigning organisation, Sojourners, to meet Nicole Higgins.
As Nicole explained to me, Columbia Heights is an area which burned in the riots following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. It has only begun to redevelop since the 1990s, and newcomers and the long-time inhabitants live shoulder to shoulder in what is an increasingly attractive neighbourhood. As the NFT Guide to Washington DC puts it,
Columbia Heights has a well-earned reputation as a hipster mecca and vegan ghetto. It’s true, there’s no shortage of skinny jeans, fixies [fixed-gear bicycles] or soy cheese here. Travelling outside the main drags will reveal that the neighbourhood’s transformation isn’t yet complete.
So I stayed on the main street!
Sojourners’ office suite is in part of an old theatre building on 14th Street NW, 5 minutes from the Metro station. Nicole Higgins describes Sojourners as being about articulating the Biblical call to justice. Jim Wallis is their public face.
I read Jim Wallis when I was at Glasgow University and at Princeton. Wallis is an evangelical- a theologically conservative Protestant, when it comes to his theology. But unlike so many other evangelical leaders in the US, Wallis has campaigned on issues of peace and social justice- the sorts of issues which the liberal wing of the Church has been more to the fore on in recent decades. Wallis’s writings- in books, in articles in Sojourners magazine, and, nowadays, increasingly online- express frustration that liberal religion plays down the personal relationship to God, at the expense of social issues (what can be loosely termed, ‘the social gospel’). But Conservative Christians, with their emphasis on personal experience, risk reducing the concerns of Christianity to personal matters- my relationship with God or Jesus, issues of personal conduct and personal ethics- and not making the connections to wider issues in society.
For around 50 years, however, the Christian Right has played a part in US politics, but only to campaign around the ‘hot-button’ issues such as abortion and opposition to gay rights. Promised action on these by the right-wing in politics, these Christian Conservatives take a conservative stance on other political issues: ‘America first’ ideas in defence and foreign policy, and support for free market economic policies, support for Israel. Jim Wallis has struggled to make his fellow [theologically] conservative Christians see that a concern for world peace, or for speaking up for those living in poverty (beyond merely being charitable) is something which rises out of the Biblical tradition. From a small group of students in 1971 discussing their faith in the light of public issues such as the Vietnam War, Sojourners has evolved into ‘a committed group of Christians who work together to live a gospel life that integrates spiritual renewal and social justice’. There’s more about their history on their website.
I asked Nicole Higgins how she understood the work Sojourners does. She pointed to Old Testament prophets, with their concern for the poor, epitomised by Isaiah 61, the passage which Jesus reads in his hometown synagogue (Luke 4.16-31) and which he says he is now fulfilling. She also mentioned the parable of the last judgement (Matthew 25.31-46), in which Christ is to be found in the hungry and homeless: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’, he says to those who either helped or ignored the hungry, the stranger and the imprisoned.
So on this account, the Gospel absolutely has to do with poverty. Nicole explained how she had learned about a ‘hands and feet’ approach to faith. Born in Jamaica, she was brought up an Anglican, but studied at the prestigious Baptist seminary, Fuller. There the slogan of the Reformation- justification by faith alone- seemed to suggest that doing ‘good works’ made no difference to a person’s salvation, for salvation came from simply believing that Christ is your personal saviour. However, spending time in New Orleans working with disadvantaged children taught Nicole that faith could not be just a matter for words. Yes, she still believes that faith alone is what saves: but can’t say that without expressing it practically, in love for ‘the least of these’.
We spoke of how Sojourners is organised, and how they prioritise the issues they want to campaign on. A recent leaflet outlines current priorities and topics: racial and social issues, life and peace, and environmental stewardship (or creation care).
On some topics, Sojourners can find common ground with more conservative evangelical leaders. Recently, Wallis was able to bring together a coalition of evangelical leaders to produce a common statement to take to the nation’s political leadership about the necessity of immigration reform in the US (care of the ‘stranger’, in Biblical terms). Although short on specific proposals, the statement puts pressure on the politicians to cease name-calling and petty politicking over what is a major ethical issue (and one which Churches deal with day by day). The point was to keep positive with those with whom there might be disagreements on other major issues (Coincidentally, President Obama announced a significant reform of immigration- ending the threat of deportation for children of non-registered workers- a few days later).
A ‘consistent life ethic’ addresses the odd situation in which Americans who call themselves ‘prolife’ because they are opposed to abortion are often some of the strongest proponents of the death penalty! Both are ‘hot-button’ issues on the Right of American politics- Sojourners challenges this inconsistency. The issue of gay rights is also extremely divisive here (the fact that all the party leaders in the Scottish Parliament are in favour of gay marriage is inconceivable here!). It’s an issue which some have accused Sojourners of skirting around. But the wider culture has become a bit more gay-friendly (with perhaps a majority of Americans now in favour of gay marriage). Even if issues such as ordination continue to divide the churches, there are more, even among the evangelicals- who are are willing to see that gay rights are civil rights (does the Church/State divide help here, I wonder?). So as gay rights are discussed on even the most conservative college and seminary campuses, and even within conservative congregations, Sojourners has begun to produce materials to support a rising discussion which accepts the reality of church-based homophobia.
I asked Nicole what she thought was the biggest issue for US society today. She said, ‘We have to unpack the lies we have come to accept’. Which lies? Lies such as the idea that some people are worth more than others. That lie, she suggested was the big lie at the heart of the immigration issue, of the civil rights struggle, and the LGBT marriage equality campaign. If the Church teaches that we are all made in God’s image, then we cannot stand by and watch as some people seem to be treated as less worth than others. This is what is implied by the current moves by the Republican-dominated Congress to slash the budgets of programmes which most benefit the needy. The budget, says Nicole, is a moral document (and is therefore the focus of much campaigning by many religious groups). Jim Wallis has written recently that
We must agree not to reduce deficits in ways that further increase poverty and economic inequality by placing the heaviest burdens on those who are already suffering the most.
and thinks he detects a consensus on this among Christians across the party lines- another example of trying to find the common ground.
We ended with a quick tour around the office, meeting those who organise campaigns, put the magazine together, and look after the internet part of the operation. For an organisation like Sojourners, funded by private donations, keeping tabs on those who whom interactwith them is crucial. They try to monitor what is useful for their clientele (hence the LGBT resources- something Churches had been asking for). There is a lively blog, and daily email updates, as well as the Sojourners magazine. Jim Wallis has been trying to alter the political priorities of the evangelical churches for forty years- and perhaps the landscape is shifting? Maybe a trip to the traditionally-conservative Midwest will provide some answers!
- Jim Wallis: The Missing Religious Principle in Our Budget Debates (huffingtonpost.com)