The New Evangelical Radicalism

One of the most striking features of the early 1970s was the emergence of a new evangelical radicalism in both the United States and Britain, as well as in many Third World countries. The beginnings of a more socially aware current within the evangelical world can be seen in the founding of the American journal The Other Side in 1965, and in the Wheaton Declaration of 1966 which criticized 'unscriptural isolation from the world'. Similar assertions of the need to hold together the kerygma (the message) and the diakonia (service), evangelism and social action, were made at gatherings at Lausanne (1966) and at Keele (1967), while the Chicago Declaration of 1973 prepared the way for more militant 'radical discipleship' groups to appear (Sider 1974). These groups were rediscovering a lost evangelical heritage, the heritage of Finney and the Oberlin College movement and other early radicals of the Holiness movement (Dayton 1976:15-25). David Moberg's 'great reversal', by which the earlier radical social tradition among evangelicals gave way to individualism and otherworldliness, was itself reversed, and a new phase began (Moberg 1972).

One of the most articulate exponents of the new type of evangelical radical spirituality is Jim Wallis, leader of the Sojourners Community in Washington DC.Wallis has argued, in numerous books and articles, that the Church needs once again to become alien, pilgrim, and prophet, a counter-cultural community of outsiders, living out its discipleship in a deepening disentanglement from the values of the dominant order. In his view, modern Christians must choose between established religion and biblical faith. Establishment Christianity has lost its adversary relationship with the world. As both the 'new left' and religious liberalism declined, he predicted in 1976, the strongest and most sustained thrust towards social justice was likely to come from people of Christ-centred, biblical faith. So he called for a 'new biblical radicalism' (Wallis 1976:11). Wallis and his followers deplore the division into those who see the Gospel as primarily spiritual and those who see it as primarily political. His study The Call to Conversion (1982) is an attack on such divisions and on the individualism of evangelical preaching. He argues that the Gospel has been moulded to suit a narcissistic culture. Conversion has come to mean self-realization, the uncovering of human potential. Christ comes into our hearts to help us do better, to improve our lives rather than to transform them. Such narcissistic conversion is far removed from the biblical message of the Kingdom of God. Thus, he argues, the integrity and central core of the Gospel have been lost. 'The disastrous result is "saved" individuals who comfortably fit into the old order while the new order goes unannounced' (ibid.: 34).

Since 1973 the Sojourners magazine (originally called The Post-American) has been a unique forum where those who have been influenced by the charismatic renewal have come together with those affected by the new social consciousness. In addition, what began as a rigidly evangelical journal has, over the years, come to incorporate insights from the Catholic contemplative tradition of Merton and Henri Nouwen, and the Catholic radical tradition of Dorothy Day and the Berrigans. Contributors to its pages reflect the presence throughout the USA of churches and communities which seek to hold together the contemplative and active dimensions of ministry such as the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC and the Church of the Messiah in Detroit. The movement is ecumenical, liturgical, and biblical, defying earlier categories of definition.

Two thinkers who have influenced Wallis and Sojourners are Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. Yoder is a Mennonite while Hauerwas is deeply affected by Mennonite theology. Both argue that Christian spirituality is about the formation of a new community, characterized by non-violence and by a distinctive life-style. According to Hauerwas, the task of Christians is not to transform the world but to be the Church (Hauerwas and Willimon 1989:38). The Church is to be a community of contrast, offering a political alternative to the politics of the secular order (Hauerwas 1981). Like Wallis, these writers emphasize the character of the Christian community as a confessing Church, marked by worship of God and faithful discipleship.

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