This column explores the themes in Jim Wallis’ new book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus (HarperOne) available Sept. 24.
It’s always amazing to me how — somehow, apparently, mysteriously, and even miraculously — Jesus has survived all of us Christians.
And yet, it’s undeniable that the election of Donald Trump and the presidency that has followed — and the Christian response to all of it — have revealed how disconnected many American Christians have become from Jesus. In particular, the uncritical support Trump enjoys from many white evangelicals in the religious right, and the Faustian bargain they have made for power, are turning many Americans (and others) away from Christianity altogether.
Recent data shows us that while we’ve long known that institutional Christianity is in decline in the United States — especially among younger generations — the bottom is starting to fall out of evangelicalism, with people identifying with “no religion” surpassing evangelicals and Catholics for the first time earlier this year as the most common answer on a religious self-identification survey of Americans. Just this week, an article on FiveThirtyEight explained that more and more research is explicitly concluding that increasing numbers of Americans are “falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.”
Here’s why I believe this is actually good news.
Last night, I spoke to a group of university students who are in Washington, D.C. doing internships this semester on the Hill, at the White House, the cabinet, and other agencies around the Capitol. This had been already scheduled and is not connected to the book tour for Christ in Crisis that begins next week.
They had just had their group picture taken outside the building where we were going to meet and had been bitten up by mosquitoes on a hot D.C. night. They had also just had long days of work at their internship posts. When I looked at this group of students, I noticed how diverse they were in race and gender and, as I would soon learn, in their religious identification, including many who did not identify with any religion. And, honestly, they looked a bit tired and glum at an event they likely had to attend for their program.
But as I began to talk about this Jesus who we have all become disconnected from (especially in the churches), and how the questions he asked or prompted are so deeply connected to the moral and political crisis we now find ourselves in, they lit up. After I laid out some of those Jesus questions and their relevance to us today, including what they see and hear around them in the nation’s capital every day, hands came up from all over the room.
Most of their questions started by saying how they were “formerly” religious or had been raised in faith communities but had left or drifted away because of all the hypocrisy they had seen or experienced, as well as the painful issues of injustice they saw being unaddressed by the churches in particular. But the words and stories of Jesus were very exciting to them and turned the room into a very lively place for a personal and political conversation about faith and the public life they were plunging into.
Afterward, there was a long line of students who wanted to talk further and even more personally about their stories, how they had become so alienated from their churches and religion, but how this conversation was so stimulating and encouraging for them. They especially wanted to talk about how to engage in and apply this conversation going forward. African American and Muslim young women and men that I spoke with last night told me how excited they were to hear about the politics of Jesus and how diametrically opposed they are to the anti-Christ politics of the current administration, which have become so anti-immigrant, anti-people of color, anti-woman, and white nationalist. Hearing Jesus talked about like this from a white Christian man is something they said they had never heard before. The last student in line was a young Muslim woman who went on about how open and welcoming she felt in this safe space tonight and ended by giving me a great hug. How “inclusive” the conversation felt to these students was very encouraging to me.
In reflecting on last night’s experience, I think the reasons why the call to reclaim Jesus was very inviting and exciting to so many of these students — some Christian, some formerly Christian, some of other faiths, and some of no faith at all — is because they heard that Jesus is for all of us — not just Christians — and that I believe all of us have something to learn from Jesus in this moment of crisis.
When endorsements started coming in for Christ in Crisis, I got back really powerful thoughts and affirmations from people of all faith backgrounds about the particular importance and power of reclaiming Jesus in our current moral, religious, and political crisis. This is a book for right now, for all God’s people.
Brittany Packnett, a co-founder of Campaign Zero and leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, said that “for far too long, we’ve ceded the power and person of Jesus to political movements with no ambitions toward His radical love. Reclaiming Jesus is not only our responsibility, it is necessary now more than ever. This is a book for right now, for all God’s people.”
Congressman Joe Kennedy III pointed out that “… the most fundamental lessons of the gospel remind each of us — and our country — that acts of compassion, service, dignity and grace are not just the acts of a faithful Christian, but the path towards a stronger, kinder nation.”
Muslim author and interfaith justice movement leader Eboo Patel said, “the Quran says that Jesus is a wonder and a mercy to humankind … we need to return to those central Jesus qualities, and to embody them ourselves.”
I was particularly grateful for the way people of different faith backgrounds perceived the value of Christ in Crisis as a tool for those who seek to reclaim Jesus in their lives, communities, and nations.
David Saperstein, one of the country’s most important Jewish voices for social justice, described the book as “… a blueprint of how to create a more just, compassionate, peaceful and equitable nation in terms accessible to all, regardless of religious belief.”
Valarie Kaur, an influential Sikh activist, suggested using Christ in Crisis as “… a moral compass … a handbook for our times — a way to interpret Jesus’ life and wisdom for a nation in crisis, to inspire Christians and non-Christians alike in the labor of love and justice.”
Najeeba Syeed, a Muslim professor of Interreligious Education at the Claremont School of Theology, said that the book “revisit[s] Christ’s legacy and teachings as a source of religious imagination and inspiration” and “builds an authentic and relevant theological model for the questions of our time.”
Many of those students in the room who were raised in churches but now moved on from them were excited about what it would mean to get back to Jesus right now. Those from other faith traditions or none at all were excited to see how Jesus’ core teachings might help restore the soul of our nation and the integrity of faith.
The evening became a pilot for me, a case study, and a wonderful example of how the message of this book could help change the narratives about faith and politics in America — especially as we begin a critical election season.
It’s more and more clear to me how this book, Christ in Crisis, is not finally about Donald Trump, or the Democrats, or about any of us, or about religious right and left, or about me, or about Sojourners. It is about Jesus, how he has survived all of us, and how he could still open our hearts and minds right now — at a time we need his good news more than ever.