Call to Conversion
I wasn’t religious enough when I lived in DC to pay much attention to them but now I wish I had. I subscribe to their SojoMail online. I’ve read their magazine a few times. And last week, I discovered that we had Jim Wallis’s second book, The Call to Conversion: Recovering the Gospel for These Times just sitting there on our shelf. It’s a thin little paperback. It was first published in 1981, and while some of the examples might change if he wrote it today, the basic premise is just as valuable 25 years later.1
It is addressed to people who are re-examining what it means to live in the Way of Jesus. I think that Wallis had in mind evangelical Christians who were trying to get back to their roots. However, it could be just as stirring a text for the convergent Friends/Quaker renewal movement. Or emergent church folks of any denomination.
Wallis explains a little about the Biblical history of prophets calling people to turn from their ways of idolatry and oppression to God’s ways of justice, peace and love, in the Old and New Testaments. Then he lays out two of the great imperatives of his times, two of the most urgent examples of how and why conversion of the human heart was/is necessary. He labels them “The Injustice” and “The Peril.”
By “The Injustice,” he means the incredibly inhuman levels of poverty and inequality in the world. He emphasizes the tragedy of Christians' complicity in the economic system and the hollowness of the re-emerging “prosperity gospel” in the U.S. This situation, of course, continues unabated.
By “The Peril,” he means the threat of nuclear war. In 1981, I think that the fear of the threat of nuclear weapons was higher than it is now.2 Today we might use global climate change and the threat of environmental collapse as our example of grand peril. For better or worse, we have seen that countries can still wage conventional wars without resorting to nuclear weapons. Perhaps we have become somewhat complacent about the omnipresent nuclear threat. But the human propensity to escalate conflict has not diminished. Our government has continually shown a tremendous willingness to use military means to address a variety of problems. And war is still draining our country’s (all countries’) ability to care for their own people or those suffering in other parts of the world. Wallis is especially critical of evangelical Christians’ acquiescence to the nation’s government and to violence in general.
The chapter entitled The Vision looks at answers to these problems. It’s about how ordinary men and women can heed the call to conversion. We must start with individual and corporate repentance for the ways that we fail to live up to the Light we’ve already been given. We will find that real (that is, messy, difficult and joyful) community life will be both a fruit and a cause of further turning of our own hearts and minds towards God's ways. We will find that worship and communion will also be more necessary, more vivid and more powerful, the deeper we turn to right living in the kingdom of God.
In the end, Wallis believes that all of this is possible through God’s grace and the love exemplified by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Perhaps my favorite sentence in the whole book is this: “We are invited to experiment with its truth [of Christ’s victory over death and sin] by risking our security, comfort, resources, time, energy and our very lives for the sake of his victory.”
If George Fox had lived in 1981, he might have written a sentence like that. I think this is where the RsoF at its best is headed again. We may or may not name the force that enables us to do it as “Christ.” We are nonetheless hearing the call to conversion. We always have. The early Friends used the term “conversion of manners” to describe the changes in how we live when we heed God’s call. Postmodern Friends are using the words “sustainable living” and rediscovering terms like “plain”, and “faithful obedience.”
Friend like to quote, “Live up to the Light thou hast and more will be granted thee.” (Caroline Fox, 1841) My Friend Carl Magruder (link to his speech at OVYM in 2006) talks about how Quakers are in so much pain because we have seen the Light shining before us and we are not living up to it. We know so many things we ought to do or not do and yet we feel stuck. I don’t think that George Fox felt stuck. I think he felt free. What has changed for Friends today?
Is there something about how liberal Friends refuse to call on Jesus for help that gets in our way?
What about evangelical Friends who use the Lord’s name often but in vain – I don’t mean cussing but failing to follow through on what Jesus teaches us?
Joel Bean, grandfather of Pacific Yearly Meeting, wrote in 1880, “Our society has had opportunity to learn, by sorrowful lessons, the danger of exalting too exclusively the Christ within, on one hand, and Christ without, on the other. We have need ever to guard alike against that refined and emasculated spirituality, which undervalues the Bible and the outward means of grace, and even the incarnation and sacrifice of the Son of God, and that no less fatal outwardness and superficiality which would substitute profession, and prescription, and ritual, for saving faith and all the soul-renewing and life-transforming verities of Christian experience, realized through the imparted energy of the Spirit of Christ within.” A hundred years ago, he knew this. I can say that more and more this quote speaks to my condition.
Today, what will it take to get us to take the risks before us?
In 2008, how will I respond to the call to conversion?
To whom will I turn for assistance?
1 After I wrote this book report, I found this link to his 2005 revision. I don’t know how much it differs from the original.
2 In 1981, I was thirteen. My perspective is limited. For more history. see the Wikipedia entry for nuclear disarmament and related links.
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