Stirring up spiritual revolution in the soup kitchen

FAITH WORKS: Lessons from the Life of an Activist Preacher By Jim Wallis Random House 370 pp., $23.95

When Jim Wallis was a theology student in Chicago in the 1960s, he and a few classmates gave themselves an unusual assignment: Count every biblical mention of wealth and poverty. They found several thousand verses in the Old Testament, making it the second-most prominent theme after idolatry. In the New Testament, 1 of every 16 verses focuses on the subject; in the Gospel of Luke, 1 in 7.

The results amazed Wallis, producing a "moment of awakening" about poor people. They also nudged him toward a lifelong course of spiritually based activism. For three decades, he has lived among the poor. He has spent time in shelters, shantytowns, and housing projects. He has visited Nicaraguan villages, Filipino barrios, South African townships, and Middle East refugee camps.

"The test of any authentic faith is action," explains Wallis in his compelling book, "Faith Works." Part memoir, part call to action, the book documents not only the urgent need for faith-based efforts to address social problems, but also the rewards. The real issues, Wallis insists, are spiritual, not just political. He views the state of poor people - and especially America's 15 million poor children - as a "moral test for the health of any society." Yet in an age of prosperity, he finds a "climate of denial" about the very existence of poverty.

Wallis poses a central question: "What if we started paying attention to what the Bible says about wealth and poverty?" He calls social movements with spiritual power "the most important force for changing the world," offering purpose and moral value. But with the notable exception of black churches, he says, religion in 20th-century America has failed to be a strong force for justice. Even much of the resurgent spirituality of the past several years "has been commercialized into mere self-help."

He laments the growth of a "poverty industry," a social-welfare bureaucracy infused with billions of dollars and staffed by armies of well-meaning professionals. "We didn't end poverty, we serviced it," he says. Today, welfare reform has become "an excuse to stop worrying about poor people."

In addition to material poverty, Wallis describes a civic poverty shadowed by widespread cynicism and a coarsening of public debate. He also sees a deep spiritual and moral poverty affecting many poor children who lack caring adults in their lives. Simply recruiting volunteers to spend time with children will not be enough, he cautions, explaining that Americans "must also change the culture that is killing them."

Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, is also the leader of Call to Renewal, a Washington-based movement seeking to unite politics and spirituality. Peacemaking, he notes, demands action, not theory. Jesus did not say, "Blessed are the peace lovers," but rather, "Blessed are the peacemakers."

Noting the failure of both liberal and conservative solutions, Wallis proposes two new questions in any search for the moral center of an issue: What is right? And what works? Finding answers means learning how to say "we" instead of talking divisively about "us" and "them."

Wallis hopes to engage a generation of young people searching for meaning and connection. It is "ordinary people," he insists, who ultimately make a difference in social movements. By his estimate, more than 3 million Americans and 20,000 groups or congregations are already working to promote social and economic justice in their communities. "The real ecumenism of the past 25 years has taken place in soup kitchens and homeless shelters more than at tables of theologians trying to find unity on the meaning of the Eucharist," he states.

Shining through this book is Wallis's conviction that the US is beginning a new movement for economic justice, led in part by communities of faith. He sees signs of growing moral energy and new partnerships linking government, business, and churches to solve social problems.

With an idealism firmly rooted in practicality, Wallis's book, like his life work, serves as an eloquent reminder of the importance of reaching out. Spiritual principles, he writes, "teach us that the best things we do for others are also the best things we do for ourselves."

*Marilyn Gardner is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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