Washington, D.C., is a city of strong opinions. You don't have to go far to find protesters, picketers, or pundits making their views known in front of a government building. Perhaps that's why most tourists flock to monuments commemorating our greatest leaders and fallen heroes—they remind us of our unity when so much in Washington speaks to our divisions.
The nation's capital seemed a fitting location to talk about the nature of justice and the gospel. While Jesus Christ unites church leaders, there are still strong differences of opinion about how justice fits in the church's calling. Leadership's Skye Jethani sat down with two prominent Christian leaders who live in D.C. While their perspectives diverge on several issues, they also find much they share in common.
After graduating from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and participating in the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Wallis became founder and editor of Sojourners, a magazine and community focused on the biblical call to social justice. His acts of civil disobedience have landed Wallis in jail 22 times, and his decades of advocacy have helped ignite the current passion among evangelicals for justice.
Mark Dever is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Before he arrived in 1994, the 143-year-old congregation had seen decades of numerical decline and urban decay. The neighborhood was festering with drugs, poverty, and crime. Dever's leadership helped turn the church and community around. Dever also serves as a trustee at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and as the president of 9Marks Ministries (9marks.org). These roles have made him one of the leading voices in the New Reformed movement.
Young people in the church seem to be talking a lot about justice. But sociologists Christian Smith and Patricia Snell in their book, Souls in Transition, say that young people are actually less involved in community service and social issues than previous generations. How do you explain that?
Dever: Those observations are probably true. Our congregation includes lots of people in their 20s and 30s. So I have regular opportunities to interact with a different generation than my own. Because they relate so much through Facebook and Twitter, that creates a non-geographic passivity alien to earlier generations. And because many churches haven't reflected any kind of serious community, they've come to understand Christianity to be very private. But I don't believe you should simply follow Jesus privately. Christianity is personal, but not private. This generation needs to have it de-privatized.
Wallis: Half of Sojourners' audience is now under 30. I'm talking to 14-year-olds every week about their faith. So I'm pretty hopeful. There is something happening with faith and justice among the younger generation. What's interesting, though, is that the places I see activism tend to be evangelical campuses or Catholic schools, not the old, left, liberal, secular bastions—they're just partying. So I find a real connection between faith and activism.
Where is the emphasis on justice coming from? Is it a pop culture trend? It is Bono? Or is there something deeper behind it?
Wallis: Bono is a product of it; he's not the cause of it. I know his story of faith, and what happened to him is remarkably similar to what happened to me a long time ago. I was raised in a very evangelical church, but when I became aware of the racism in our city and wanted to do something about it, I was told, "Jim, you have to understand that Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That's political. And our faith is personal."