Leonard Pitts Jr

Clergy work to reclaim a Jesus of service and hope, not of political advantage

Rev. Jim Wallis is the founder of Sojourners, a Christian social-justice organization.
Rev. Jim Wallis is the founder of Sojourners, a Christian social-justice organization. Getty Images

Years ago, in a Q&A after a speech, someone asked me if I was a Christian. I didn’t know how to answer.

I knew what I believed — “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son …” — but given how conservatives have weaponized faith since the Reagan years, I worried what simply saying “Yes” might signal to the questioner. Would he read it as an open heart or a closed mind?

I ended up saying Yes, but adding an explanation. I hated feeling the need to do so.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. Last week, I told that story to Rev. Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourners, a progressive faith-based advocacy group. He smiled. “Bono is a good friend,” he said, “and once he was asked, ‘Bono, are you a practicing Christian?’ He said, ‘I keep practicing and practicing and I hope to get there someday.”

I spoke with Wallis at a press conference after he and a group of other prominent clergy — including Bishop Michael Curry, last seen speaking at a fancy wedding in London — led a march in Washington they called “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” By “crisis,” they say, they mean not simply the individual in the White House but the spiritual health of the nation that put him there.

Wallis said that for him and his colleagues, no less than for me, “Christian” has become a flashpoint word fraught with unintended connotations. Indeed, he says that in the retreat from which last week’s march was born, his fellow clergy specifically asked him not to use that word. “Refer to us as followers of Jesus,” they said.

“They wanted,” said Wallis, “to make a distinction between Christians and followers of Jesus.”

Who can be surprised, at a time when “Christians” are so often found rationalizing things followers of Jesus should find abhorrent? They are OK with a political culture of lies, racism and misogyny. With turning away the sick, the indigent and the homeless. With separating immigrant children from their parents like some ghastly echo of a culling at Auschwitz or a flesh auction at Charleston.

“People are right to be astonished at what’s happening in this country,” said Wallis. “And then also, they’re right to say, ‘Where is the church? Why aren’t they speaking?’ Where’s another voice? So … we decided to speak another voice.”

You’ll find the movement’s statement of principles at reclaimingjesus.org. The idea, said Wallis, is to “change the narrative about both politics and faith” — and to ignite a discussion in the church. It’s worth noting that this is happening concurrently with Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis’ reinvigoration of the Poor People’s Campaign. Take it as evidence of a needed new energy among progressives of faith after years of quietly ceding public expressions of religiosity to conservatives.

“Maybe,” mused Curry, “the Spirit is helping us to reclaim Christianity, not as ideology, not as anybody’s political party — Jesus can’t be bought — but to re-center Christianity and to have it named and heard as grounded in the teachings of Jesus who said, ‘Blessed are the poor, blessed are the poor in spirit,’ the Jesus who taught us, ‘Love God and love your neighbor.’ 

Which seems to cry out for an “Amen.” Maybe even a “Hallelujah!”

It has too often been the case in recent years that faith offers the faithful little more than a framework for their cultural resentments and fears. Reclaiming Jesus, like the Poor People’s Campaign, offers instead a faith of service and hope, a faith one can embrace readily and wholeheartedly.

No explanations required.

Note: A passage in a recent column on Trump supporters implies that a reader named “Gerald” is white. I’ve since received an email from him stating that he is not. I regret the error.