Over Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, a group of evangelical Christians met together in the dilapidated Chicago YMCA on Wabash Street. The gathering included both older evangelicals and a new generation who were pressing urgent questions of social justice and peace.
After an extraordinary weekend of vigorous dialogue and relationship building, a document titled "The Chicago Declaration on Evangelical Social Concern" emerged. This benchmark statement of evangelical concern for the world provided legitimation and impetus for many similar initiatives.
But by 1980 a new evangelical foray into politics emerged, known as the "Religious Right." The following years of Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons made evangelicalism synonymous with the political Right. The promise of Chicago was effectively derailed - at least in the public perception - by this development. In the meantime, evangelical social concern, especially for the poor, has continued to grow quietly across the country and around the world. This leaves us with a fundamental paradox. Never in this century has there been more evident evangelical commitment to social justice in America than now. Yet, "evangelical" means "right wing" to most people in this country.
That paradox was foremost on the minds of those who gathered again in Chicago on November 19-21, 1993, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first Chicago Declaration and to issue a new one. "Chicago Declaration II: A Call for Evangelical Renewal" celebrated the many signs of evangelical commitment to compassion and justice; wept over evangelical complicity in racism, economic oppression, broken family and personal relationships, and escalating violence; and dreamed of an evangel that is truly good news to the poor and proclaims the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.
Another new generation of evangelical leaders was present along with the veterans of 1973. Together they forged an alliance for a new evangelical witness in our time. In part, the new statement reads:
In 1973, we called evangelicals to social engagement: This call still stands. We are thankful that more social engagement is emerging, yet tragically it has frequently divided us along ideological lines. Too often recent evangelical political engagement has been uncivil and polarizing, has demonized opponents, and lacked careful analysis and biblical integrity. Faithfulness to the full authority of the scriptures transcends traditional categories of Left and Right.
The gospel is not divided - it embraces both the call to conversion and the summons to justice. Obedience to Jesus' teaching and example demands congregations that integrate prayer, worship, evangelism, and social transformation.
IN ANOTHER KIND of declaration, on December 7, four Christian peacemakers carried out a disarmament action against the F-15E fighter plane at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Calling themselves the "Pax Christi/Spirit of Life Plowshares" they acted in the tradition of Isaiah 2: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."
Philip Berrigan, John Dear, Lynn Fredriksson, and Bruce Friedrich explained why they beat a warplane with hammers and poured their own blood on this great machine of destruction:
We seek the peace of Christ who requires that we put down the nuclear sword and love our enemies. We humble ourselves before the Spirit of Life to disarm F-15Es at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, expose these nuclear-capable weapons, and begin the process of disassembly and conversion. We use the symbol of blood to illustrate the murderous purposes of these weapons, the blood already spilled in wars in Iraq and other areas of F-15E deployment. We beat the F-15E with household hammers - symbols of the creative force in our everyday lives, and of the transformation dictated by Isaiah.
For their witness the Plowshares activists were arrested and face trial on serious charges of property destruction. They will likely be sentenced to serve extended jail time.
Philip Berrigan, a longtime friend of Sojourners, is a veteran of more than 100 arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience during his 70 years and is a co-founder of the Jonah House community in Baltimore. John Dear, a young Jesuit priest living in Washington, D.C., and also a friend of Sojourners, is the author of several books on nonviolence and spends his days working with the homeless, as do Lynn Fredriksson and Bruce Friedrich. Their action signifies and affirms the prophetic biblical tradition that our witness must be in both word and deed.
For a copy of "Chicago Declaration II: A Call for Evangelical Renewal," contact Evangelicals for Social Action, 10 Lancaster Ave., Wynnewood, PA 19096. Statements and information regarding the Pax Christi/Spirit of Life Plowshares can be obtained from the Support Committee, 6615 Old Stage Road, Raleigh, NC 27603. If you'd like to write to the Plowshares activists in jail, you may send your letter in care of that same address.