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Jim Wallis Embraces Interfaith Millennials
Mikhail Bell May 17, 2012
According to Jim Wallis, Generation Y is more open to interfaith interaction than their elders. (Photo credit: CSULB.edu )
Freshly back from a sabbatical, Evangelical Left icon Jim Wallis addressed the April 20-22 Illinois Conference on Interfaith Collaboration (ICIC) outside Chicago, attended by about 80 students and local residents.
ICIC 2012 is part of a national initiative by the White House Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which focuses on service projects and “foundational goodness” to bring students from different religious backgrounds together.
Before Wallis spoke, amid a slideshow of community service photos, event emcee Chris Wise reminded attendees that a “meditation and prayer space” would be available for quiet contemplation between plenary sessions. The event was opened by “reflections” from a Christian, a Muslim, and a self-professed pagan.
"Faith matters to the whole of life and the whole of our being,” announced the Christian speaker. It is not "an individual and private matter." To keep beliefs out of the public square, he asserted, is to deny elements central to one’s identity.
The pagan speaker extolled virtue. "As a pagan we are called in whatever way we see to live righteously and [in] virtue," David Dash explained. He encouraged visits to houses of faith, whether a church, synagogue, "or in my case a small row of trees in the forest" where people can bridge ideological divides.
Few people are aware of the pagans among us, Dash said. After all, not many meet "a modern neo pagan person, or if you do, sometimes you do not even know it,” he noted. As a self-professed “nerd,” Dash strives to dispel “misconceptions” about pagans.
Striving to exhibit virtue as Dash had urged, event participants helped package 30,000 meals for needy local families. But the main event was Jim Wallis. On January 4, Wallis had announced that he was starting a self-imposed 90-day sabbatical to “focus on his family, reconsider the political environment, and prepare to write another book.” His April 20 trip to ICIC was perhaps his first major public appearance since then. Wallis’ scheduled co-speaker Eboo Patel was supposed help him discuss interfaith cooperation. But Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, was the victim of a delayed flight. Patel is also the founder and President of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core.
"I am really sad that Eboo is not here" Wallis lamented, before humorously describing how Patel had once "stalked" him and traveled from "across the country" to see the Sojourners chief.
Mainly Wallis discussed shifting attitudes among youth toward religion. "A new generation is less and less affiliated religiously… but they are talking to each other more and more about faith," he said. "We are shaped and defined by our relationships…whose stories we know and don't know." Wallis praised the multi faith speakers: "It's great to have a Calvinist and a pagan talking about their world views."
Echoing themes from his book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, Wallis proposed that today’s youth are not voting for "parties" or "superpacs.” Instead they are supporting those who are being "trafficked" and denied "educational opportunity." Interest is shifting toward causes of injustice, such as immigration, with hopes of leveling the playing field.
As a result, Wallis believes there has been an increased tolerance for other religious faiths and contrary opinions. "For what kind of values will you be sacrificial for? … The difference between events and movements is sacrifice."
Wallis asked: "How do you deal with the ‘other’?" Not directly answering his question, he whispered ominously: "The business of war… needs the 'other.'" Even though most interpersonal conflicts are solved without violence, Wallis was quick to remind listeners in Brian McLaren-esque terms that the "stress of empire" kills off a veteran once every "80 minutes," pointing to the increase in conflict resolution programs as a sign of pushback against national defense.
Chiding the media, which “loves conflict,” Wallis complained that devout believers become fodder for superficial commentary about faith and war. "Religion at its worst provides ammunition for conflicts," he surmised. "Sharia law is a big threat in Tennessee," he joked, referring to proposed state legislation targeting Islamic law, which he deemed a distraction.
When asked about concerns among some conservatives about presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, Wallis responded: "We have had a lot of incompetent Christians in the White House. Religion has no monopoly on morality.”
When older audience members asked about the importance of prayer and salvation, Wallis minimized their importance. Citing the Millennial Values Survey Report, he noted decreased concerns among Millennials about religious dogma. "Get arrested together and discuss theology in jail," Wallis suggested, citing a conversation between liberal evangelist Tony Campolo and a rabbi between they were arrested in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda during last summer's debt ceiling debate. The two briefly imprisoned men came to understand each other better.
"The answer to bad religion is not no religion, it is good religion… That is the religious vocation that you have," Wallis said. The "practice of faith" is what will convince non-believers of Christianity's truth.
"We don't do interfaith work to abandon our faith identities,” he insisted. “We are here to find common ground.”
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