By Tom Krattenmaker
“The poor will NOT always be with us!”
Thus proclaims a freshly launched Christian campaign to end extreme poverty in this generation. Scott Todd’s “58:” project declares that eradicating poverty is not only possible but probable, if the people of the church put their backs into it.
Such audacious optimism is one of the most infectious, exciting qualities of the new evangelicals movement of which Todd is part, and it surged like electricity through his and other presentations at this spring’s Q conference, the signature annual gathering of next-generation Christian leaders.
Sure, in some of the quieter, more reflective moments of the three-day event in Portland you could hear acknowledgment of the heavy burden carried by this movement of new-century Jesus followers. These are, after all, the people who accept responsibility to right seemingly every global wrong you can name while restoring the credibility of publicly expressed Christianity in the process. But the workload is exhausting only when they lose connection with their ultimate power source, says Gabe Lyons, the host of Q and an unofficial spokesperson for the movement. These action-takers draw their energy and strength not solely from their fair-trade coffee, entrepreneurial wits, and technological savvy, Lyons says, “but from the cross — from knowing we are living in the way that Jesus demands.”
As the generational tides nudge this demographic closer to the front and center of American evangelicalism, it’s time for a refiguring of the equations by the many non-evangelicals nursing grudges about those pushy Jesus nuts — especially the progressive secularists who share these new evangelicals’ social justice commitments.
Divided by religious belief, these groups are easily stereotyped as culture war enemies. They needn’t be. If anything, they’re common-good allies simply in need of an introduction.
The number 58
Todd was an up-and-coming scientist, an oncology fellow at Stanford with multiple research grants and a dozen scientific publications on his curriculum vitae, when he heeded a different call. Witness Todd’s pitch for the end-poverty campaign and you’ll be taken on an energetic tour of some surprising numbers. Did you know that 52% of the world’s population suffered from extreme poverty just 30 years ago, but that number has been halved to 26% in one generation?
Perhaps even more revealing is the figure that Todd waves to rally the church to get extreme poverty the rest of the way to zero. That number is 58 — as in Isaiah 58, the Old Testament chapter that compels the righteous to loosen the chains of injustice, free the oppressed, give shelter to the wanderer and food to the hungry.
What of that passage in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus claims “the poor you will always have with you”? Long summoned as evidence of the futility of good works, of the need to focus on saving souls rather than perfecting society, it’s a notion that has let many a would-be poverty-fighter off the hook or stopped in her tracks. And it’s a colossal misinterpretation, Todd argues. What Jesus meant to convey in that remark to Judas was not resigned acceptance of poverty; he was rebuking the soon-to-be-traitor for his hypocrisy — for the charade of Judas objecting to Mary’s use of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet while Judas, all the while, was stealing from the group’s money bags. Why, Todd asks, are pastors so often loath to put that phrase in context but never the second half of the same sentence, where Jesus says, “You will not always have me?”
Not have Jesus? You won’t convince people like Todd and Lyons that they don’t have him. They might lack many things — a penchant for modest goals would clearly be one, as would allegiance to the conservative politics associated with their evangelical elders — but if there’s anything they have for sure it’s their certainty about Jesus. And therein lies the interesting part.
To the many secular common-good seekers who share the new evangelicals’ justice commitments, but not their Christ, Todd, Lyons and their co-conspirators pose a puzzle and a possibility. Who would want to go to social-transformation war with a bunch of Jesus fanatics who speak boldly about “the kingdom” and have this funny habit of praying out loud and punctuating their conferences with worship songs?
Distrust will take time to overcome. What these younger evangelicals mean by “kingdom” is not a Christian conquest of America as the ranks of the wary might fear, but the divine ideal of something closer to heaven here on earth — a world in which the most vulnerable are protected and the poorest are fed and clothed.
Not that the evangelical old guard hasn’t cared, or hasn’t served others, but we are seeing a seismic shift in emphasis — from an emphasis on assenting to the right theological ideas and getting to heaven, to one where it’s all about translating belief into righteous action on behalf of others. You can expect to find, on a scale not seen for decades, more and more Bible-believing Christians on the front lines of compassion campaigns for the poor, abused women, modern-day slaves, children (born as well as unborn), minorities of every sort, and anyone else being exploited and mistreated.
However noble this might sound, Lyons knows better than just about anyone why many of the unconverted might look askance. This 36-year-old Liberty University graduate co-authored the influential 2007 book UnChristian, which used extensive opinion-polling to probe younger Americans’ negative perceptions of Christians. Since then, Lyons has helped lead the effort to rethink how to bring the faith forward in what sociologists and commentators will tell you is an increasingly post-Christian culture. It is not a power play, Lyons stresses, but the activation of a network of “restorers who will work with anyone to see goodness go forward in the world and evil pressed back.” These “next Christians,” as Lyons calls them in the title of his 2010 book, “are socially conscious, grounded in their gospel commitment, and optimistic that when their faith is practiced according to the ways of Jesus, it is complementary to cultural reforms that value all human beings, all human flourishing, and all spiritual traditions.”
Christians ready to go shoulder to shoulder with anyone to advance the greater good? Not exactly the form of religion we’ve been arguing about these past few decades.
Let’s see who’s ready to work with them. There’s a lot to be done.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is the author of the book Onward Christian Athletes.
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