Back to the Basics
In “The Call to Conversion,” Jim Wallis urges Christians to rethink what it means to follow Jesus.
By John D. Spalding
One of the perks of becoming a national bestselling author is that publishers are suddenly interested in your previous work—the manuscript that was rejected, the book that never found the audience it deserved. So after Jim Wallis’ “God’s Politics” sat on the New York Times bestseller for months early last year, it’s no surprise his publisher has reprinted “The Call to Conversion: Why Faith Is Always Personal But Never Private,” which was originally published 25 years ago.
But this book is far more than an attempt by Harper San Francisco to cash in on Wallis’ newfound success. Revised and updated, “Call to Conversion” offers an unflinching critique of the church, across denominational lines, that’s just as relevant today as it was in 1981, if not more so. Though Christianity has strayed as far from Jesus’ basic message today as it had two decades ago, the difference is that Christians now play a far greater role in political discourse.
Much of the religious rhetoric in the public square, Wallis says, represents a shallow vision of Christian ethics. The Religious Right reduces “moral values” to one or two social issues. Conservative bishops, for example, urged Catholics in the 2004 election to vote on one issue, abortion, “and thereby ignore all the rest of Catholic social teaching.” And though liberal Christians may be strong on social action, they’re weak on evangelism, the purpose of which, he says, is “to call for conversion and to call for it in its wholeness.”
What’s needed all around, Wallis argues, is a proper understanding of the biblical meaning of conversion. Jesus proclaimed a new order—the kingdom of God, the “integrating and central core of the gospel”—that’s so radically different from our culture of self-centeredness that the only way we can participate in it is to undergo a fundamental transformation. We must live according to the very principles our culture rejects: that it’s better to be poor than rich, better to be meek than powerful, better to make peace than war. The Sermon on the Mount “overturns our assumptions of what is normal, reasonable, and responsible,” Wallis writes. “To put it more bluntly, the Sermon stands our values on their heads.”
Following Jesus may be hardest for those living in the wealthiest nation on earth, certainly for evangelicals, who in the 20th century “came to identify thoroughly with the mainstream values of wealth and power.” Here, Wallis pulls no punches: “In a world where most people are poor, a rich church is living testimony of idol worship. The mere possession of such wealth is proof of serving money”—and of alienation from God.
Evangelicals must also lose the notion that conversion is about getting “saved,” a private transaction between God and the individual sinner. Conversion occurs as we open our eyes to the injustices around us—poverty, war, and racism; the destruction of the environment and the deterioration of our families and communities. The goal of conversion isn’t simply to save souls, Wallis writes, “but to bring the kingdom of God into the world with explosive force; it begins with individuals but is for the sake of the world.”
Though Wallis breaks from the Religious Right in his insistence on a deeper vision of Christian ethics, there’s a limit to how much liberal Christians and religious liberals will side with him theologically. Wallis grounds his call to conversion in a literal belief in the resurrection of Jesus, and the idea that Jesus died for our sins. Many liberals, of course, don’t believe that unless Jesus physically rose from the dead there’s no validity to his claim that social injustice and economic oppression are ultimately wrong. Nor do many feel the need to believe in the resurrection, as a literal fact, in order to risk their comfort, security, resources, time, energy, and, indeed, their very lives, to advance the kind of radical egalitarianism Jesus espoused.
In any case, true adherence to the message of Jesus isn’t easy, and the price for living at odds with the world is ridicule, disdain, and worse. But the reward, Wallis reminds us, isn’t too bad—the new reality, the kingdom of God. “Those Christians who have experienced the conflict between the gospel and the world most personally and painfully are always the one who have known the joy of Christ most fully,” he writes. “The stronger the identification with Christ, the deeper the conflict, the greater the joy.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Christian Sex.
A version of this review originally appeared in Science & Spirit magazine.
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