The Common Good

Controversy in Wisconsin

Sojomail - July 15, 2010


"I used to live by goals, I used to live by plans, and very elaborate goals and backup plans. Now I feel like I’m more reacting and keeping an open mind and keeping a strong faith."

- Don Schoendorfer, who has a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on Free Wheelchair Mission, a faith-based nonprofit he founded that has given away nearly 500,000 wheelchairs in 77 developing nations. (Source: Los Angeles Times)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Controversy in Wisconsin

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It was a nice invitation, not unlike many I’ve received before. Every summer, a number of Christian music and arts festivals convene around the country, featuring musicians and speakers and attracting tens of thousands of young people. I have spoken at many such events over the years and, in fact, met my wife, Joy Carroll, at the Greenbelt festival in England! I’m guessing I’ve spoken there as many as 10 times. Joy is helping to organize an "American Greenbelt" for next summer called the "Wild Goose" Festival, an image that in Celtic spirituality signifies the Holy Spirit.

So when Lifest, a Christian festival in Wisconsin, invited me to come and speak this summer, and the date was free, I accepted. Bob Lenz, who directs the annual gathering, is a wonderful man with a big heart and a powerful ministry among high school kids that has saved many from suicide. He’s the kind of guy you want to say yes to. It was put in the calendar.

Then a firestorm erupted. A local Christian radio station, which had always supported Lifest, and a local pastor started circulating attacks against me, suggesting that I was a communist, a deceiver, and, worst of all, an adviser to Barack Obama. My favorite was that I was an "avowed Marxist" and that any young person that heard me would be in "spiritual peril." They were especially concerned that "the social justice message and agenda [Sojourners] promote[s] is a seed of secular humanism, seeking an unholy alliance between the Church and Government." Does that sound anything like the language of a certain Fox News talk show host who has recently come after "social justice" Christians and me in particular? Oh no, they insisted, this had nothing to do with Glenn Beck.

The intimidation of Bob Lenz and Lifest began, insisting that I be canceled or they would face pull-outs and protests. A letter was sent to local churches to call for my cancellation and, like Glenn Beck, the authors just made stuff up. Under a great deal of pressure, Bob called me to discuss what to do. He believed that these people were spreading lies and didn’t want to capitulate to their threats. But they were really stirring up trouble, and people were coming after him personally. I decided to call the president of the radio station myself, to ask him what his concerns were, and to offer a dialogue with his board or anybody else he wanted while I was in Wisconsin. But he refused the dialogue unless the station’s demands for my cancellation were met (sounds like Glenn Beck again).

He said he was against the "unholy marriage between the government and the church." Me too, I said. When I told him how I successfully worked with the Obama administration to preserve religious freedom in hiring for faith-based organizations who receive any public funds (such as World Vision and The Salvation Army), and spent half of my time on health care in preserving the rule against federal funding of abortion, he became silent and kept moving on to "other issues" – the last of which was Sojourners supporting a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When I reminded him that there actually were Palestinian Christians, and that most mainline evangelical organizations now support a two-state solution, he got silent again. But he refused to change his position about me not speaking, and his final reason was that I had supported the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative! So my openness to a previous president’s ideas for faith-based partnerships in alleviating poverty was the reason I shouldn’t speak at Lifest? This was getting quite silly. But when the wild and fabricated charges they began with all fell flat in face of the facts, they were left with not much of an argument. But they stuck with it and pulled out of the festival.

I didn’t realize how big a deal this had become until I got to Wisconsin. Green Bay and Milwaukee television stations were there, with the story already in their local media and newspapers. I arrived to a series of press interviews and meetings with local pastors who were very sorry about all this and expressed hope that I would still come back to Wisconsin (I assured them that I loved their state and would love to come back).

Finally I got to speak to the young people, which was the reason that I came in the first place. I told them that I came because of them and the hope their generation provides to me. And that I liked the title of the talk I was to give: "The Call to Jesus and his Kingdom of Justice." So that’s what I talked about to a very enthusiastic response from the thousands of young people who were there -- the crowd made even larger because of the controversy, of course.

I said that when we have controversy and conflict in the church and speak badly of one another as Christians, it actually turns people away from Christ. And I said what unites us is not our different cultures, nationalities, or political views. What unites us is the gospel of Jesus and his kingdom, and their job as a new generation was to make that clear. When I quoted Jesus' opening sermon at Nazareth and concluded that "any gospel that isn’t good news to the poor is not the gospel of Jesus Christ," they all cheered.

The front page of the local paper in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I boarded my flight for home the next day, led with the story of the night before in nearby Oshkosh by saying, "Jim Wallis shared his Bible-based message of serving the poor Friday night to a large, welcoming crowd at Lifest despite a small number of boos at his introduction." They reported what Bob Lenz courageously said in his kind introduction: "This is my brother in Christ," he told the crowd. "I think he has a message for God’s church. Part of who I am is because of this man."

I told the young crowd that heeding what the Bible says about serving the poor and seeking justice was not about social action or politics, but rather about nothing less than restoring the integrity of the Word of God in our lives, neighborhoods, nation, and world. Their response to that indicated that many young people today are no longer stuck in the old arguments and divisions in the church.

Most seemed to feel that the controversy and protest looked pretty foolish and unnecessary after the event had taken place. Many thanked Bob for standing firm against some pretty nasty attacks and pressure. But if the attackers had succeeded with intimidation to cancel a speaker they didn’t agree with, there is no doubt that the tactics of distortion and intimidation would have been repeated in other places. That is, after all, how some media celebrities now make their living, and they are encouraging others to follow their example. The newspaper article ended with my saying it was time to "replace the gospel of Glenn, Rush, Sean, and Bill with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John."

When I got to the TSA agent at airport security, she looked at my ID, smiled, and said, "So, you’re Jim Wallis! I hope you felt very welcome here; many of us are very glad you came." I did feel very welcome and am very glad that I came.

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