Wallis Sparks Controversy at Christian Music Festival
July 15, 2010
Crowds gather to hear Jim Wallis speak. (IRD)
What caused a Wisconsin radio station to withdraw its support for a Christian music festival and allege that the festival was providing a forum for a message that “is a seed of secular humanism, seeking an unholy alliance between the Church and Government”? That statement, released by Christian station Q90 FM
, came in response to Life Promotions’ selection of liberal religious activist
Jim Wallis as a keynote speaker for its annual Lifest concert.
Held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Lifest is an annual event that brings together Christian musicians and speakers for five days of seminars, speeches, and music. This year, the event’s twelfth, over 70,000 attendees were expected, which would be an average of 14,000 per day. In the past Lifest has avoided controversial performers and, as a result, has consistently been a successful and highly regarded event. The decision to invite Sojourners president Jim Wallis is a significant departure from this established behavior.
Shortly after Wallis’ selection was announced, local Christian radio station and Lifest sponsor Q90 FM approached Life Promotions to discuss its objections to the decision. After two unsuccessful weeks of searching for a compromise, Q90 representatives released a statement announcing they would be withdrawing their sponsorship. A portion of the statement reads as follows:
Q90 FM and HopeNet 360 take seriously our responsibility to our listeners, to provide the true Word of God and the hope of Jesus through our music and programs. While we value the work of Life Promotions, proudly partnering with them for many years in our shared missions to reach youth for Christ, we became concerned with the beliefs and teachings of one of the main speakers at Lifest 2010, Jim Wallis. After researching extensively the words and published positions of Jim Wallis and his organization, Sojourners Magazine, and seeking fervently the guidance of the Holy Spirit in prayer, we believe the social justice message and agenda they promote is a seed of secular humanism, seeking an unholy alliance between the Church and Government.
As other ministry leaders had before us, we brought our concerns to Bob Lenz directly. What followed was two weeks of discussions on possible compromises from both sides done in good faith by Life Promotions and Q90 FM, including our offer of having Mr. Wallis withdraw from Lifest this year and come up to our area at our expense, for the purpose of meeting with Christian Pastors and leaders to have a civil dialogue about differences, giving the community time to prayerfully consider where we agree and disagree as Christians. Our General Manager spoke with Jim Wallis personally twice making this offer to him and Life Promotions. This compromise was rejected. Life Promotions decided to hold to their original decision to bring Jim Wallis to Lifest. Because of this and the responsibility we feel for our listeners, our Board of Directors has decided we cannot endorse, by our official sponsorship and presence, the appearance of Jim Wallis at Lifest 2010, and thus Q90 FM and HopeNet 360 will not be attending this year.
Speaking on Friday night, Wallis was introduced by Life Promotions president Bob Lenz. “I’ve read his books, I’ve studied with him, I’ve been on retreats with him,” Lenz said. “This is my brother in Christ. I believe he has a message from God for the church today.” Wallis, a prominent supporter of President Obama, heads the liberal religious activist group Sojourners and has written a bestselling book called God’s Politics.
Like most speakers at Lifest, Wallis emphasized the importance of the next generation, which comprised the majority of his audience. “You’re the reason I came tonight,” Wallis declared to the crowd of several thousand. “Because I know that a new generation of Christians is about to save the church and the world…I think you’re the ones who are going to clear up the confusion about what it means to be a Christian. A lot of people don’t know what we think, they don’t understand the word, they’re confused.” This confusion, he continued, is “because of bad religious fundraisers, because of television preachers, because of pedophile priests…because of White House theology.”
Jim Wallis speaks at Lifest. (IRD)
Most of Wallis’ time on stage was spent recounting the story of his early years, how he went from being a preacher’s son in Detroit to a civil rights activist that had fallen away from his faith. Ultimately, though, it was his activism that brought him back to faith. “I came back to Jesus Christ in the middle of this huge movement [i.e., the civil rights movement],” he said. “I had been reading – I heard somebody around here thought I was an avowed Marxist. Well I’m not. But I was reading them when I was a student – Karl Marx, Ho Chi Min, Che Gueverra. But then I began to read the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus said, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” Wallis then proceeded to give an exegesis of the Greek word for “repent”, which he understands as communicating a radical, almost revolutionary, act.
Wallis’ affinity for the radical was made more explicit a bit later in his talk. Referring to the command in Matthew 25 to care for “the least of these”, Wallis said, “That’s how He knows whether we love Him or not. That was more radical than Karl Marx and Che Gueverra and Ho Chi Min. And I signed up to be a follower of Jesus.”
Wallis called the Matthew passage his “conversion text”. As he explained it, “This is a text of judgment; the Son of God sitting in judgment. What is he talking about? Not doctrine. He’s talking about how we treat those who he calls ‘the least of these’.” Wallis’ remark about doctrine bore a striking similarity to something said by Christian activist Shane Claiborne on the same stage just two nights earlier. Also referring to Matthew 25, Claiborne said, “[A]ll of the nations are gathered before God and we’re asked a few questions by God to give account of our lives. And interestingly enough they’re not doctrinal questions.” (For coverage of Claiborne’s Lifest appearance, see my previous article.)
To a great extent, Wallis’ approach to ministry can be summarized by an assertion he made toward the end of his speech. “I want to say tonight I don’t care what your politics are, I don’t care who you vote for, I don’t care what you think of Washington, DC,” he intoned. “I want to say that any gospel that isn’t good news to poor people is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That will bring us together, that can unite us, that will help us to not go left – don’t go right, don’t go left, go deeper!”
While the Gospel is undoubtedly good news for the poor, it is not the case that any good news for the poor is the saving Gospel of Christ. It is precisely this reluctance to identify the necessity of the Gospel for salvation, and the attendant emphasis on the importance of government, that has made Wallis controversial. And, from Q90 FM’s statement, it’s clear that this aspect of Wallis’ message cost Lifest an erstwhile supporter and sponsor.
It is not yet known whether this year’s decision to invite Jim Wallis is a sign of what’s to come in future Lifests. That won’t be clear until next year’s line-up is released. In the meantime, Life Promotions has the opportunity to reflect on the controversy caused by their decision and choose if promoting Wallis’ social justice message is worth risking their support, both financial and otherwise.