Gathered at the Table

The presidents' summit on volunteerism, held with much fanfare this spring in Philadelphia, presented the churches with a dilemma. On the one hand, many church leaders rightly castigated Bill Clinton for his so-called "welfare reform," which took enormous sums from those least fit either to afford it or prevent it from happening.

On the other hand, the church is a strong thread in the fabric of civil society, a necessary participant in any forum that purports to be a comprehensive addressing of such issues. But was the church just to provide volunteers to make up the missing millions? Become foot soldiers for Gen. Colin Powell’s new army? Concerning the summit, the choice for many was righteous withdrawal or impure involvement.

It turned out that the very issue of division became the catalyst around which to unite. The iniquitous welfare deal demanded a correspondingly great prophetic response. On April 26, the day before the volunteerism summit, the Call to Renewal invited more than 50 leaders of churches and religious groups from across the political spectrum to a common table—a real, physical one—to outline alternative ideas for alleviating poverty. The discussion—"The Church Steps Forward: A Christian Roundtable on Poverty and Welfare Reform"—focused on principles, practices, and policies to end poverty.

It was a roster of leaders rarely before seen on one guest list. Among others, representatives of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Reformed Church in America, and the National Council of Churches (NCC) met with leaders from Promise Keepers, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Family Research Council, an offshoot of Focus on the Family. People from on-the-ground groups such as the Salvation Army and World Vision shook hands, some for the first time. At one point, Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the NCC, and Deanna Carlson of the Family Research Council could be seen paired off, discussing policy differences. And they returned to the group together.

The varied faith expressions on offer sometimes made for an unexpected ride: In the middle of a policy plenary, an individual began to pray aloud for his own repentance and that of the church, to the surprise of others around the room. But these expressions of diversity served only to underline how important it is that members of the various churches forge a common identity and work together despite differences. Things can be achieved together that could never be achieved separately.

WE ARE CONSTANTLY penned in by labels: liberal or conservative, left or right, progressive, reformist, or centrist. But we need a new political ethic that dispenses with that thinking and finds bridges instead of divisions. We must make partners of those whom we previously distrusted for the sake, in the end, of the gospel. Those in the Philadelphia meeting only just began the exploration of policy questions. But this discussion is as much about trust as it is about politics; it requires a belief that those at very different theological and sociological places in fact have the same basic instincts—that they, too, are committed to justice. That they are in this not for themselves but for others—and for God. A new politics is indeed about more than trying to end poverty, vital though that is. It is about searching our hearts and finding them wanting in our attitudes toward other Christians. Here is the deeper meaning of the roundtable.

Some will dismiss this type of relationship-building as naiveté, as merely caving in to those who, although we may give ground, will never give up an inch of theirs. Is it a ploy to lure us into a false security, after which they will make off with our credibility and continue to scapegoat the poor and the vulnerable and minority groups? The possibility exists. But Jesus knew exactly who he was dealing with, and he still decided to turn toward Jerusalem to encounter his adversaries, believing that the best way to change people is to meet them face to face.

This is a historic opportunity to do the same. Neither progressives nor the Right are the sole bearers of truth. Those on the cutting edge today are those who can surmount their suspicions—even those that are justified—in search of new ideas and practices that travel further together than either side could alone. The gospel demands nothing less.

MARK FARR helped organize and participated in the Christian Roundtable on Poverty and Welfare Reform.

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