Thursday, September 28, 2006

Heritage Day: Community and the Common Good

Yesterday was labeled, "Heritage Day," a time to celebrate 150 years of Benedictine community at this place. The highlight of the day was the keynote address by Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics and founder of the Sojourners community in Washington, D. C. Wallis gets around the country a good bit these days, purportedly speaking at more than 200 events a year. Of particular interest to me is the fact that he graduated from Trinity International Divinity School, a seedbed of the Biblical inerrancy debate and the alma mater of two of my good friends, Randy Balmer and Karen Longman.

Wallis calls himself a man "untimely born," a 19th century evangelical living in the 21st century. He hearkens back to the great social crusades of that century, much like many other friends of mine--Howard Snyder, Donald Dayton, and Randall Balmer in his most recent book. As I know from the history of my own denomination, this was a time when evangelism, social action, and mission were a part of a seamless garment. A good example is the last book written by B. T. Roberts, the first bishop of the Free Methodist Church, on Ordaining Women (1892). His radical egalitarianism flows out of his passion for abolition and free pews--issues which had marked his early ministry in mid-century.

In his address yesterday Wallis appealed especially to the college-age crowd, pleading with them to choose hope over cynicism, vocation over careerism. "A new generation is waiting for a vision to run to," he proclaimed, "a vision that brings together a hunger for spirituality and a hunger for social justice." In essence, he wants to see a new movement emerge from this rebirth of hope. Hope, he said, is a choice that we make because of faith and faith is "believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change."

I think that Jim does have his finger on the pulse of the generation and that cynicism (with all of its realism) is a growing danger. Seeing public officials blantantly lie, then not take responsibility for it (whether it is Nixon and Watergate or George W. Bush and Iraq), has the capacity to make cynics of us all. As Wallis put it, "Whether you go to war or tell the truth about going to war is a religious value."

But casting off the cloak of cynicism will require young people who, first, recognize how captive they have become to the culture. As I watched Tim Robbins' production of Orwell's "1984" last weekend, it reminded me of how easy it is to parrot back what is being said to us--whether it smacks of truth or not. Immersing one's self in media all the time, being surrounded by advertising no matter where one goes, can have a numbing effect on life. I see this particularly in the way young people worship. While there is a genuine desire there, it is largely held captive by pop cultural forms and a disconcerting solipsistic navel-gazing quality. Without turning outward and recognizing our own "bentness," our longings will go unrequited.

The quest for vocation is one on which we are attempting to build at Greenville College, particularly through the "strengths-based" approach pioneered at UCLA. If these strengths can be seen as something given, as Wallis suggested, "for the common good" and not just something to bolster my own egocentric universe, then there can be a fundamentally open and outward movement that makes possible the understanding of how my heart's inner longing and the world's deep needs come together. And, just as Wallis encouraged this Benedictine community to look to the best of its heritage (he specifically identified the Catholic Worker Movement here), I believe that Wesleyanism, at its best, is grounded in a wonderful combination of discipline, piety and liturgy. But, reclaiming that in this era has been, and will continue to be, a difficult challenge.