For many, including myself, the past few weeks have been discouraging, given the state of our politics and culture and what many vulnerable people across the country are experiencing. But despite the frustration and even grief sometimes I have been reminded of the importance of “saving faith.”
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My favorite Twitter response last week said this, “If all American Christians behaved as you do, I wouldn’t have to be such a huge a**hole of an atheist.” (Edits mine.) It came in response to a column I wrote about the new film, 12 Years A Slave (see it if you haven’t yet!), the continuing realities of racism in America that we still tolerate, and the need for churches to provide leadership in the changing demographics of the country by becoming the multiracial faith communities we were intended to be.
The week before saw many of faith leaders, pastors, and young people out in the rain at the U.S. Capitol during the government shutdown in a “Faithful Filibuster,” reading each day through the 2,000 verses in the Bible that speak of how we should treat the poor and vulnerable. One of those nights a family friend, the father of one of the boys I have coached in Little League baseball, came over to our house. He said, “You know I am an atheist, but I really admire what you are doing at the Capitol — that’s what Christians ought to be doing.”
Right after the government shutdown ended, Sojourners had our annual staff orientation. The program included each staff member telling their story of when and why they came to join us. Listening carefully, I was struck by how many Sojourners staffers recalled times in their lives when they were about to lose their faith, but rediscovered it after stumbling upon Sojourners. In my remarks to them that day, I also told stories of a few of the legion of people who have told me over the years of how they had lost or were about to lose their faith until they heard the messages about a faith that does justice.
It has all reminded me again how Sojourners began. We were a little group made up of two kinds of people — those who had just come to faith from the student movements of our time and the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, and those who had grown up conservative evangelicals and had become deeply frustrated with the lack of attention to the fundamental issues of justice and peace. We found each other at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School just outside of Chicago and began to study and pray through the Scriptures about the poor — the very same verses we recited outside the Capitol earlier this month.
In fact, one of those seminarians still at Sojourners, Bob Sabath, took a pair of scissors and cut out every single reference in the Bible to God’s priority of the poor and vulnerable and our instructions about how to treat them. It took him a long time, but when he was finished we had a Bible full of holes instead of a holy Bible. Sojourners still has that Bible today, and that story from our seminary days helped to inspire the new Bible we read from during our Faithful Filibuster. It’s called the Poverty and Justice Bible, published by the American Bible Society and World Vision, with all those verses about poverty and compassion, injustice and justice, picked up off the cutting room floor and highlighted in bright orange.
The first issue of Sojourners magazine, then called The Post-American, which our small group published in the fall of 1971, was actually intended to introduce our own generation to a Jesus we thought was very radical, and to a true biblical faith that was the foundation for justice and changing the world. Our first issue was, in fact, meant to evangelize to those in our generation who wanted to change the world — and to help save faith for many who were losing it because their churches didn’t seem to care. We had no idea there would be such a big response.
Much has happened since, including the rise and decline of the Religious Right, which, all the surveys show, caused many people to turn away from faith because of their attempt to turn religion into right-wing politics and judgment against so many people. Those in the Religious Right were ultimately defeated when they lost their own children — literally. Traveling and speaking on the road, I often meet young, disaffected evangelicals or religiously unaffiliated (some from the families of Religious Right organizations) wanting to talk. They don’t want to talk about politics but about how to save their faith from all the disillusionment and betrayal they feel.
Just last night, I was speaking at Colby College, a very secular university in Maine, sponsored by a growing group of “multi-faith” students who believe that the voice of real and active faith needs to be heard in our society. Their enthusiasm and commitment was very encouraging to me, and we had a night at Colby that seemed like it was “saving faith” from all the complacency and contradictions of religion that turn so many people against it.
What I discover again and again is the two things that happen when people of faith actually say and do what their faith says they should say and do: First, people are surprised. Then they are attracted.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners . His book , On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE . Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.