The Christian Church’s role in fighting hunger and poverty: Jim Wallis speaks at Baylor

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Which issues should the Christian church be focused on today? What questions should modern Christians be asking? Currently, abortion and homosexuality have been at the forefront of theological discussion and media attention. While these issues are important, in can be argued something crucial is being left off the agenda. How should the Church approach social justice issues, including poverty, hunger and immigration in America? Why aren’t these issues a regular part of Christian discussion? Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners and a spiritual advisor to President Barack Obama, recently spoke at Baylor University on Christianity’s role in dealing with social justice issues.

Wallis spoke at Baylor’s chapel service on Monday, April 22. Afterward, he led a discussion over lunch with students who will be attending the upcoming Baylor mission trip to Washington D.C. This trip will focus on hunger in America.

Wallis suggests that many are disenchanted by the direction the Church is headed.

“What’s the fastest growing religious affiliation in the country? ‘None of the above’ [i.e. the choice on a survey form]. What’s interesting is most of the none of the above’s believe in God. They don’t like what they see about religion,” Wallis said.

Wallis felt much the same way during the Civil Rights Movement when he was 14 years old. Having been a part of the evangelical church his entire life in Detroit, he started asking questions about what he was seeing around him. “Why do we live the way we do in one neighborhood,” he would ask, “when life seems different just a few miles—a few blocks—down the road?”

“I heard there were black churches. We never visited them or had a black preacher come talk to us. And I heard these stories about people who were hungry, unemployed, in jail,” Wallis said. “I [was] watching my city being torn apart by racial segregation, tension, anger, hatred, violence. It was coming apart.”

His pastor’s response did little to bring resolution: “Jim, something you have to understand: Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That’s political, and our faith is personal.”

“That’s when I left my church, dead in my heart,” Wallis said. “Here was a thing that was pricking my heart hard. What’s happening to my city? This was ripping my heart apart and then they said your faith has nothing to do with that.  So as a young person, I said, ‘Well, I want nothing to do with the faith.’ ”

Wallis joined the Civil Rights Movement shortly thereafter and, with time, he rediscovered his faith. “I realize now that my church and many other white churches missed the most important moral issue of my time growing up: race in America, the Civil Rights Movement. They missed it. They just entirely missed it. That’s why people check none of the above,” Wallis said.

Will the modern Church miss the social justice issues that are affecting our society today?

Wallis argues, based on what is presented in the Bible, that these issues should be just as much a theological concern as they are a political concern. Wallis referred to Matthew 25: 35-40, which reads:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

“How we treat [people in need] is how we treat Christ,” Wallis said. “And that’s converting [Christians]. It’s changing our minds and our hearts . . . . This is changing churches, and you know what? I think this could change Washington D.C., which is amazing to say, because this town doesn’t change for anything.”

God, Wallis said, has called Christians to be defenders of the poor, the hungry, and others in need, and that is why social justice should be a central issue in Christian churches today.

“It’s going to take going deeper into these issues and not getting caught up in the political right and left,” Wallis said.

Once the Church becomes unified around these issues and brings them to the forefront of discussion, real change could take place in America.

Wallis left the group with a challenge.

“I always say, Here’s how you recognize a member of Congress: they’re the ones walking around with their fingers in the air. And they lick their finger to see which way the wind’s blowing. You don’t change a nation by changing what that one, wet-finger politician [believes]. You change a nation only when you change the wind.”

Let us be that wind of change.

Written by: Ashley Yeaman, Communications Coordinator, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo by: Melissa Roy, Creative Commons