Jim Wallis struts and preens

Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners and longtime Religious Left leader, has a very revealing column in the Washington Post about the “behind the scenes” scrambling to avert last weekend’s scheduled Koran-burning. What it reveals mostly is his self-importance, but I think I see something less obvious, too.

I used to subscribe to Sojourners magazine. It had its moments, like when it bucked the Left generally by opposing abortion. I probably subscribed to get some balance in my reading diet (this was before the rise of the Religious Right, but my other sources were pretty conservative on the issues of that day) and because of such affinities as opposition to the Vietnam war.  I don’t recall why I dropped it. Usually, I drop magazines where they become tedious or simply unedifying.

Sojourners fellowship is more than the magazine. It is a left-leaning Evangelical “social justice” group (styled as a “community”). And in his 40-or-so years as its most prominent voice, Wallis has gained a national political voice, especially now with his man Barack in office.

His column shows him at his best and his worst:

In my work with religious communities across the country, I have seen interfaith relationships strengthened in recent years, not in spite of 9/11 but because of it. And these connections helped avert a tragic conclusion to the Jones saga last weekend.

Even before Jones’s threats, I had been in close dialogue for several weeks with the imam and his wife, Daisy Khan. I have been friends with Rauf since a few months after the 2001 attacks, when we participated in a forum on religious fundamentalism at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York. From his words that day, I trusted him and knew that we would be able to work together as peacemakers between faiths.

How, I wondered the next morning, could evangelicals — members of the faith tradition that Jones and I both claim — run interference? I felt strongly that we were the ones who should deal with Jones, rather than a respected imam whose faith he had demonized.

The Koran burning was cancelled. If Wallis really had a role in that, kudos to him. But I can’t help but notice the strutting and preening.

Has everyone got the point? Jim Wallis is important. He’s a player. He knows important people. He steps up and takes charge. He builds coalitions and makes things happen. He can stop crazed Pentecostals from gratuitous provcations. Oh look! Look and see! See Jim! See Jim run! See Jim the world!

That’s a constant danger of celebrity. Wallis appears not only to be in the tank for Obama, but for himself.

But I think I see something besides strutting and preening. Ponder these paragraphs:

I got a call from another dear friend, Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance. He was in New York and wanted to know what he could do to help Rauf. He explained that he had Jones’s cellphone number and had spoken to him earlier in the week. In an effort to talk Jones out of his original plan, he had asked him: “Will you be willing to be with me when I have to talk to the widow of an evangelical pastor in the Middle East who is killed because of what you are about to do, or to a congregation whose church is burned to the ground as a result of your Koran burning? Will you help me explain to them why you had to do this?”
Tunnicliffe seemed like the right person in the right place at the right time. We strategized how we could stop Jones from confronting the imam. I called Khan and asked her and the imam to trust Tunnicliffe; meanwhile, he pulled together many of New York’s best young evangelical leaders to meet with Jones.
That afternoon, Jones got to town and checked into a hotel in Queens. He was immediately surrounded by police officers, who, he later told Tunnicliffe, warned him that his life was in danger and advised him not to go out. With a terrified Jones now reluctant to leave his hotel, a conference call replaced the face-to-face meeting that Tunnicliffe had planned. Without going into the details of a private dialogue — one Tunnicliffe hopes will continue — he later told me that the pastor seemed “lost.” Others described the exchange as “powerful,” “productive” and “reflective.” During the conversation, Jones vowed never to burn a Koran and even asked what an apology might look like.

Do you hear what I hear?

Hint: What do Evangelicals have in common?

Got it now?

Another hint: It’s the sound of the dog that didn’t bark.

Got it yet?

Okay. I find it telling that Evangelical Wallis Tunnicliffe & Co. appealed to fellow Evangelical religiopreneur Terry Jones, CEO of Dove World Outreach Center, not on the basis of the Bible but by appealing to his emotions and vivid description of the possible outcome of his outrage (an argument which, by the way, I agree with Robert Cochran, should not be made out loud).

Did they not appeal to the Bible because they’re faux Evangelicals? If so, what Biblical arguments would a true Evangelical make?

They say “love thy neighbor.” Pastor Jones sees their “love they neighbor” and raises them — oh, let’s say Joshua 6 where Israel was supposed to destroy everything in Jericho, and then throws in that true love for Muslims requires telling them forcefully just how wrong they are.

Another round of battling prooftexts, another draw. And another, And another.

You cannot take a book of any substantial length and complexity, have millions read it assiduously, and expect substantial agreement to result.

Not the Bible. Not the Koran.

Will someone please entertain the notion that Islam, built on the Koran as much or more as Evangelicalism is built on the Bible, is not monolithic about very much — that Islam may have its Jim Wallises as well as its Terry Joneses?

Oh, yeah: And that Protestantism has Osama Bin Laden wannabes?

I’m glad, nonetheless, that Wallis Tunnicliffe & Co. did better than their precepts might have led them to. Their only efficacious point of contact with Pastor Jones was “what we can’t not know,” not the Bible that divides them.

There’s a lesson for dialog there, methinks.