Jim Wallis, the author, public theologian, speaker, and international commentator behind the Christian Left’s Circle of Protection, was in Grand Rapids last night, and I went to hear him speak. Wallis was presented as the latest in a long line of progressive luminaries to speak (or play their guitars) at the Fountain Street Chruch: Eleanor Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, Margaret Sanger, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, U2, and the Ramones have all appeared on the same dais. He was introduced to speak about “where we are going together so that we can keep our eyes on the prize.”
That’s a pretty hip list, and Wallis considers himself a pretty hip guy, so I was genuinely surprised to enter the nave and find a sea of grey heads. Even the handful of Occupy Grand Rapids protesters were in their forties and fifties. Well I’m here for his lecture, I reminded myself, not to draw conclusions from his demographics before he even speaks.
Wallis started off with baseball — a promising place to start — telling the audience, “Baseball, following teams like Detroit, it builds character.” (Detroit missed out on the World Series a few days ago when it ran up against the indomitable Texas Rangers.) I was hoping to hear him expound on this theme in the rest of the talk, but he moved on to his core message: that with respect to Christ’s words in Matthew 25:40, the budget is a moral document.
Then he addressed the handful of forty- and fifty-something Occupy Grand Rapids protesters, and spoke about hope. “Hope,” he said “is not a feeling. Hope is a choice we make based on faith.” His lesson for the protesters was the same, he said, was the same one he had learnt from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa during apartheid: that “hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”
Both were very true statements on the nature of hope, and the secular, materialist world desperately needs to hear them. But hope is a theological virtue, and Wallis applied it only to the material world.
I understand that he was speaking to a wide audience in a Unitarian church, but the faith he spoke of — the faith that undergirds his hope in this world and the next — is a supernatural faith. Without talk of hope in the City of God, the lecture lacked a fundamental coherence that no anecdote about Desmond Tutu, Elizabeth Warren, or President Obama could supply. It lacked even a discussion of the character that the Tigers’ season might have instilled in the audience. (It is possible that part went right over my head, since I’m a Rangers fan and the experts have picked us to win in 6 games.)
The lack of any transcendent meaning in the talk may have been why the youth of today weren’t there. Times are hard, employment is scare, it’s a bad time to be graduating college and looking for a job. But young people don’t have time to go hear someone tell them that if they hope for more from this life, they’ll get it. Wallis should stay away from that message anyway, since Joel Osteen delivers it better.
Someone looking for a gathering of energized youth in Grand Rapids should come in June for Acton University. That’s a gathering based on true hope, and the attendees (with an average age probably 40 years lower than in Fountain Street Church crowd) gather from scores of countries to discuss economic growth motivated and guided by a transcendent faith. Until Wallis’s message goes a little deeper, he continue to expect audiences that just want to be told they’ve lived a benignant life.