The Common Good
September-October 1998

The Body of Christ

by Jim Wallis | September-October 1998

This summer I taught two weeklong courses, one in western Canada and one in the
American Southwest.

This summer I taught two weeklong courses, one in western Canada and one in the American Southwest. Both were titled "Who Speaks for God," and they were each heavily populated with clergy and lay leaders from across the whole theological and denominational spectrum. We had 27-year-olds and 87-year-olds, pastors, professors, doctors, nurses, lawyers, union members, community organizers, business people, economists, homeless shelter directors, computer programmers, school teachers, retired people and students, mothers and fathers, longtime activists and new explorers.

A recurring theme in both classes was the hunger for new "dialogue," for "bridge-building," and for new relationships across former dividing lines. People are just really weary of the old liberal-conservative debates that have turned the churches into warring factions that don’t even know each other. Class members came from all of the old sides but shared a community of sorts for the week in a residential setting, and discovered that they have more in common as Christians than their divided churches have been able to find.

The growing unity on the issue of poverty that Call to Renewal is finding across the country was evident throughout the week, and the prospect of new partnerships back home in their local communities was particularly exciting to many. But we didn’t shy away from the hot topics either. We also talked about abortion, family values, and homosexuality. After a whole morning session on abortion in Canada (where the issue is also very divisive and controversial), one of the clergy in the class remarked, "I’ve never been in a better conversation on abortion. Nobody walked out and people didn’t even start yelling at each other. We all listened for a change. It was really amazing." Both the sanctity of human life and the rights of women were held up and held together.

The classes also found it possible to affirm the importance of traditional two-parent families for raising children without scapegoating single mothers or blaming gays and lesbians for the breakdown of heterosexual families. And both the Right and the Left were criticized for trying to divide the church over issues such as homosexuality. Clearly, people are tired of the extremes controlling the debate on many issues, and are looking for some common ground without compromising their convictions.

And even beyond common ground, there was a real enjoyment of the diversity of God’s people. When we can stop fighting for a moment, we realize the richness of the many traditions and experiences that are the church. Young Christians clearly marveled at the wisdom and faith of those much older. Pastors across denominational lines openly shared their joys and struggles and prayed for each other.

We laughed and cried together, celebrating over new marriages and babies and sorrowing over circumstances of sickness, loneliness, and loss. Several people began to talk about "the body of Christ," and the oldest member of the New Mexico course exclaimed on the last day of class, "We should get together next year. I think we’re a great group!"

Addresses, phone numbers, and e-mails were eagerly exchanged, and many expressed the extra support they will feel just knowing that "you all are out there." Some suggested we were parting like teen-agers leaving friends behind after summer camp. It really was a lot of fun.

Perhaps it is easier in a beautiful summer setting for a week with normal responsibilities left behind. But I wondered how church people could begin to experience some of that same depth of sharing and, yes, community, across the normal boundaries of our lives. When we have the opportunity to keep talking to each other over a few days, rather than parting with our impressions, assumptions, even anger and hurt intact, we accomplish real relationship.

Christian unity does not come cheap or easily, and must never come at the expense of gospel truth. But often in the name of our truths, we have brutalized each other in the churches, and a disbelieving world sees no reason to join us.

Remember how Jesus said the world will know we are Christians? "That you have love one for another" is not a commandment to be easily set aside because of honest disagreements among Christians. This is the love Jesus calls us to, and two groups of Christians experienced it in the lush forests of British Columbia and spectacular desert of northern New Mexico. It was enough to make you fall in love with the church again.

Cambridge

On August 3, my wife, Joy, and I left for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I’ve accepted an invitation to be a Fellow in Harvard’s new Center for Values and Public Life for the coming academic year. And we aren’t on our own. As we left, Joy was almost eight months’ pregnant. When your life changes, it can change quickly. We were married last October, and just one year later we’ll be parents and living in Cambridge. I also celebrated my 50th birthday this summer by being an expectant father for the first time.

My project at Harvard is to work on new social policies to overcome poverty, motivated more by spiritual and biblical insights than by old political categories that have reached a dead-end. A group of scholars from many disciplines at Harvard are trying to find new "social paradigms" for solving the problems of poverty. Ron Thiemann, Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and founder of the new Center, is interested in forging a creative dialogue and partnership between those efforts and the Call to Renewal. One of the Call’s commitments is to help develop new social policy and the emerging network’s success in mobilizing people, bringing diverse constituencies together, and organizing grassroots action could add new dimensions to the policy discussion. Call to Renewal’s next national Christian Roundtable on Poverty and Welfare Reform will be a conversation on key policy issues among a very diverse group of church leaders, with proposals presented by John DiIulio and Ron Sider.

I also expect that the year at Harvard will deepen and develop many of the issues that Sojourners is working on, as well as expanding our network of people and communities. Sojourners is increasingly speaking to a wider audience as more and more people seek to connect ethics and society, spirituality and politics, faith and action. We too are moving beyond old categories and trying to bring a fresh perspective to the personal and social questions all of us are asking. The year at Harvard should help with all of that.

I also hope it will be a time of personal reflection and renewal. Sabbath times are an important part of life, and the year away from Washington, D.C., promises to be refreshing as well as productive. It is a good place and time for Joy and me to begin our new family life.

A New Team

I’m still very involved as editor-in-chief and executive director of Sojourners and convener of Call to Renewal, but the day-to-day operations are left in capable hands back home. We are pleased to announce a new executive team at Sojourners, composed of myself and the two people with whom I’ll be working most closely.

First, Karen Lattea has been promoted to the new job of executive editor, and as such she oversees Sojourners’ editorial operations and outreach activities, as well as our internship and educational programs. Karen brings a wealth of experience and history with Sojourners, as well as a multitude of gifts that will serve the organization well in her new and broader responsibilities. She knows the perspective of Sojourners well, and enjoys the trust of the staff. Karen’s deep commitment and steady leadership make her the perfect choice for the new position.

And we are also very pleased to announce that Roy Coffman has come to Sojourners to become our new publisher. Roy has a rich history in publishing with many years of experience at Christianity Today and the Upper Room. At CT, Roy helped launch Leadership magazine and was centrally involved in the creation or acquisition of the 12 publications that now make up Christianity Today Inc. At the Upper Room, Roy was responsible for all international work, including the training of Eastern European and Third World leaders in Christian publishing. Widely respected in the Christian publishing world, he has served on the board of directors of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and as board chair of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Outreach.

Roy and his wife, Brenda, regard their decision to join Sojourners in the inner-city of Washington, D.C., as a "calling" more than just a job change, and a "stretching of our faith." We are very grateful that God has called them to the ministry of Sojourners, and believe that as director of all Sojourners’ business operations—including strategic planning, budget, marketing, and development—Roy Coffman could help take Sojourners to another level.

I believe that Karen and Roy are the right combination of Sojourners history and experience with new outside energy and ideas. Both Roy and Karen are innovative leaders, so be expecting new things at Sojourners. The three of us, as the new executive leadership team, have great hopes for the future.

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