The Common Good
September/October 2005

The New Altar Call

by Jim Wallis | September/October 2005

We must rise to the occasion, both spiritually and politically.

I just finished the book tour for God'

I just finished the book tour for God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. From the first week, book signings turned into town meetings and book store events into revivals. We toured for 21 weeks, traveling to 48 cities, doing 85 events, speaking face-to-face to almost 75,000 people, and reaching millions more through hundreds of interviews. A book on faith - and, even more amazingly, faith and politics - jumped to number two on Amazon its first week, and then onto the New York Times bestseller list for 15 weeks.

Right from the start, I realized something important was happening, and that it was about more than a book. God’s Politics became the right book at the right time, and revealed what was already there waiting to be expressed. Many people of faith felt their voice was not being heard in the national debate over faith and politics and found something to point to. I soon realized the large numbers of people were not just coming to hear my voice, but also to express their voice. I’m still amazed how much the national conversation about faith and politics has already changed as a result.

Our basic message has not fundamentally changed, but the openness to it in the church, political world, media, and culture has changed dramatically. That is due to many factors: the 2004 election, the heightened role of religion and "moral values" in our political discourse, the reaction among a large number of other people of faith to the Religious Right’s hubris and pursuit of power, and, perhaps most important, the essential moral and spiritual character of the most pressing issues our society confronts - the massive nature of global and even domestic poverty, the crisis of the environment, the cost and consequences of war, the selective moralities of both Left and Right in regard to the sanctity of life, the breakdown of both family and community.

WE NOW FACE a new moment of opportunity and possibility and must rise to the occasion - both spiritually and politically. The issues that were consistently raised on the book tour and which caused the greatest response include the following.

Poverty - both global and domestic - was the most unifying and galvanizing issue. Out of the tour a real clarity arose around the nature of a "new altar call" for these times: Make Poverty History (which is the compelling slogan of the British campaign against global poverty). Overcoming poverty is seen by many, especially young people, as the natural outcome of faith, even as a test of faith in our time.

The issues of war and peace, conflict and its resolution, were also central. The critical need for a "moral response to terrorism" and an alternative to unilateral and pre-emptive war became a rallying cry. The observation that conflicts around the world are deeply connected to poverty and are not being resolved by war is increasingly apparent.

Protecting the environment - God’s creation - is a deeply rooted and growing commitment. Again the alarming crisis of the environment is also socially and spiritually connected to the issues of poverty and war.

The partisan manipulation of issues surrounding the sanctity of life is of vital concern to many. Neither the political Left or Right is practicing a "consistent ethic" of life where all the threats to the dignity and sacredness of life are addressed - connecting issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, war, pandemics such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, and, of course, poverty.

Finally, the breakdown of our closest relationships in family and community are of deep concern. Parenting is becoming a common- ground issue just as poverty is. Across the religious and political spectrum, there are deep and legitimate concerns about the health of marriages, the raising of children, the coarsening of cultural values, and the loss of moral standards. Many believe the fraying of bonds of community as well as the rise of selfish and harsh individualism are undermining the common good.

Those issues will likely constitute "the platform" for the movement that now is to be built in response to the hunger - not just to read a book but to join a movement - I felt from people across the country and the religious and political spectrum. And poverty will be the rallying cry and new altar call.

FOR THE FIRST TIME the world has the knowledge, technology, and resources to end extreme poverty as we know it, but is lacking the moral and political will to do so. I believe that generating such moral will is the vocation of the religious community. And today, I believe that God is acting on the issue of poverty.

God is acting among us as religious leaders and faith communities are drawing us together as never before in a moral, spiritual, and biblical convergence to overcome poverty both internationally and at home. In June, many of us joined an amazing procession of religious leaders from almost every major faith tradition in America in a service at the Washington National Cathedral focusing on hunger and poverty.

God is acting in our culture. Broader popular awareness of global poverty, HIV/AIDS and malaria, and crises around human rights and genocide in places like Darfur are opening up new possibilities for action.

God is acting through new leadership in Africa and other poor parts of the world where democracies are acting in new ways to end corruption and create more transparent governance that makes effective aid and real economic development more possible.

God is acting on and even through the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations. More public pressure than ever before was brought to bear on the recent G8 leaders summit in Scotland. Our delegation of American church leaders to the first-ever G8 church leaders meeting, the "London Forum," proved enormously successful with very hopeful meetings with British political and church leaders. G8 leaders were put on notice that the public, moral, and even religious pressure will not relent until real breakthroughs are achieved.

One of the most famous 19th century revivalists, Charles Finney, developed the idea of the "altar call" in order to sign up his converts for the abolition movement. Today, poverty is the new slavery - imprisoning bodies, minds, and souls, destroying hope, and foreclosing the future for a generation. God is acting, and the new altar call in our time is a call for faith, and then a commitment - to Make Poverty History.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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