There’s a Revolution brewing in Jesusland

And Zack Exley wants you to know about it.

Zack is a left-wing activist and organizer who writes for the Huffington Post and at his own blog, Revolution in Jesusland. And what is Jesusland, you ask? Well, perhaps you’ve already seen the internet meme that redraws the map of North America thusly:

As Exley puts it:

The image was a hit because it expressed a sinking feeling in the hearts of many progressives that America had been taken over by an incomprehensible cult of ignorance, intolerance and hate—a cult they knew as “evangelical” or “born again” Christianity.

But what he wants us to know is that there are some radical changes taking place among evangelicals. He writes:

…there is an incredibly large and beautiful social movement exploding among evangelicals right now that stands for nearly all of the same causes and goals that secular progressives do. Those goals include: eliminating poverty, saving the environment, promoting justice and equality along racial, gender and class lines and for immigrants—and even separation of church and state.

From mega churches to tiny country churches, evangelical Christians are rediscovering the “gospel of the God of the oppressed.” Perhaps the most surprising among these are the suburban, white evangelicals who are stepping outside of their comfort zones to “get into relationship” with the poor, the oppressed, the homeless, prisoners—the people of whom Jesus said,

Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me….Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. —Matthew 25

They are building houses for and teaching job skills to homeless people, they are creating tutoring programs for kids in failing schools, they’re paying health care bills and sending off rent checks for people living on poverty wages—and there’s even a movement afoot among these people to move their young families out of wealthy suburbs and into forsaken inner city neighborhoods, putting their kids into broken and often violent public schools. And in their Sunday services and Bible studies they are questioning the very foundations of modern American capitalist ideology.

So why should secular progressives care about what is happening among evangelical Christians?

By learning to work together with “progressive” evangelicals, secular progressives will stand a better chance of achieving their goals and also learn an enormous amount from these remarkable people and their organizations that will help secular progressives strengthen their own movement.

Even Exley himself has been caught up by this movement. In a recent post at Sojourner’s God’s Politics blog he wrote:

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten acquainted with a movement of Christians that is vibrant, enormous, and yet refuses to let itself be named or to take credit for any of its accomplishments. Some have named subsets or aspects of the movement — for example, “The New Monastics,” “The Emergent Church,” “Ordinary Radicals,” and even “Revolutionaries.” But there are millions of people swept up into this movement who have never even heard those phrases.

I grew up an atheist and a left-wing activist/organizer. I got a view into this movement only when I married a Christian and started going to church (the only way it was ever going to happen) a few years ago. When I first saw thousands of upper-middle-class, white, Southern suburbanites respond passionately to a sermon titled “Two Fists in the Face of Empire,” I knew that something incredible must be going on. Afterward, a minute of Googling revealed that the U.S. was already full of churches preaching that same “anti-empire” gospel — both mega- and mini-churches, suburban, rural, and urban.

I started weeping in worship services myself when I started to see what this movement was actually doing in people’s lives. It was taking very isolated, individualistic middle-class suburban people like me and breaking them open in all kinds of ways. Even though I had spent a lot of time working as a community and union organizer, I had always been careful to keep my life totally unentangled by the immediate needs and troubles of the people I was organizing — that’s what I was most comfortable with, and it’s also what I was taught to do by all my mentors.

I was organizing for “big” solutions and staying away from all the “little” stuff that to me just seemed too messy and complicated to ever solve anyway. But these young Christians I was meeting were “falling in love with each other across class and racial lines,” and wrestling with demons of poverty, addiction, community violence, family violence, sexual abuse, depression, hopeless schools, and all the other troubles that plague American life. They were “making redemptive history” by healing wounds and repairing families and communities one at a time. It’s really the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve had the opportunity to witness it up close in a dozen states and scores of giant mega-churches and tiny house groups.

At any rate, Zack’s blog is, in his words, “A guided tour for secular progressives” into this new Great Awakening among evangelicals. His goal is to help other people like him see that there is more going on among heartland Christians than what the media stereotypes and shocking stories of the extremes would seem to indicate. I’d definitely recommend giving him a read.

Besides the articles I’ve already linked above, I’d also recommend a two part series he recently did for the Huffington Post about Shane Claiborne and his new book (together with Chris Haw) Jesus for President. They are:

Jesus for President, a Book Review for Atheists; Part 1, What is Shane Claiborne?

Jesus for President, a Review for Atheists — Part 2: God’s Story

  • http://skepticalmonkey.com Ted Goas

    I guess we take the good with the bad. Despite being (pretty much) an atheist, I like to see Christianity make this kind of news.

  • Richard Wade

    Mike, I hope this is as good as it sounds, as widespread as Exley claims and not just another fad. From what I’ve read so far, I’m not clear what exactly these revolutionaries mean when they say they oppose “capitalism.” If whatever they mean by that term is overthrown, will I still be able to work for myself and make a profit?

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com efrique

    Thanks Mike,

    Interesting stuff.

  • Darryl

    Unlike my Christian friends, seeing is believing. Excuse me if I don’t start preparing for the revolution.

  • EKM

    In other words, there are Christians who are actually reading their Bibles and not waving them around to justify something stupid.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Unlike my Christian friends, seeing is believing. Excuse me if I don’t start preparing for the revolution.

    Well, that’s exactly Exley’s point. He and his wife have spent some time this past year traveling the heartland and seeing examples of this first hand.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    From what I’ve read so far, I’m not clear what exactly these revolutionaries mean when they say they oppose “capitalism.” If whatever they mean by that term is overthrown, will I still be able to work for myself and make a profit?

    I’ve got nothing against making a profit.

    But I have a lot against making a profit on the backs of exploited labor – whether it’s the child slaves that make our chocolate, the sweat shop workers who make our clothes and toys, or the immigrant workers who grow our food.

    I also have a problem with profit that is made by passing along the external costs to others, whether in environmental degradation, depletion of natural resources, government subsidies, the health of employees, etc.

    And on a fundamental level I have a problem with any system that prioritizes profits over people.

    At any rate, I’m sure some forms of capitalism have much to commend them, but the form we currently practice is simply broken.

  • Richard Wade

    Mike, thank you for the clarification. You are describing unethical capitalism. Please count me as one of your allies.

  • laterose

    I’m most skeptical about the “promoting justice and equality along … gender … lines” bit. Is there a hidden movement of pro-choicers within the evangelical churches? It’d be awesome if there were. It just goes against everything I’ve heard about evangelical churches. It’s not exactly secular-types who’ve decided the Pill Kills, after all.

  • cipher

    As I told you the other day, Mike, this is all very encouraging. And yet – how many states did Huckabee carry? I can’t simply ignore that.

  • stogoe

    Richard, if you call that ‘unethical’ capitalism, then I don’t think we’ve ever seen ‘ethical’ capitalism.

    I’m just saying, to me, it smells like a Scotsman.

  • the Shaggy

    My stepmother’s step-brother (extended family of sorts) is some sort of evangelical Christian in the Chicago-area. I don’t know the specifics, but I think he did something like this. He, his wife and his child moved out of his comfortable home into a downtrodden inner-city neighbourhood (I don’t know Chicago, so I am unaware of the areas) into a house he got through the Church. Then, through social programs, started helping the less fortunate, going so far as to bring in African youth and try to get them set up and trained to work and live in North America. It sounds like a wonderful thing, and I can get behind that and everything you’ve said.

    The only problem, I’m told, is that all the people around him started resenting this intruder who brought yet another competitor for limited low-skilled jobs and pushed him into the game.

    Mike, would you think there are many instances where this (admittedly) fantastic spirit of charity and good will could actually backfire?

  • Ron in Houston

    Love em or hate em you have to give Evangelicals credit. They feel the need to try to help people. Granted, it’s sort of a baited hook, but they really do a lot of work to address needs in society.

  • Richard Wade

    stogoe,
    Have I inadvertently said something that sounds like a “true Scotsman?” I’m not saying that if it’s unethical then it isn’t “true capitalism” or something like that.

    I’m saying that the broad term “capitalism” is often used so loosely or so narrowly by some people that it gets confusing. To me, free enterprise with the goal to make a profit is capitalism. How that is accomplished can be with or without concern for workers’ well being, preserving resources, protecting the environment, the effect on local culture, the effect on the broader economy or legal issues. Some people use the term “capitalism” to only mean the really ugly practices that Mike described, and so I asked for clarification.

    There are some companies that do have policies and practices that have positive effects on the above issues, and I support them. For instance, I own stock which is a pretty capitalist thing to do, and I use brokerage services that tell me how companies rate on what I consider ethical issues such as these, and I only buy stocks that rate highly on those scales.

  • absent sway

    It’s true; the plight of the poor, especially, is becoming more and more emphasized in evangelical churches. I was still active in church four or five years ago and witnessed a bit of this shift being enthusiastically embraced by my generation. “Urban ministry” training (including inner-city tutoring, working for non-profits, feeding the homeless, “racial reconciliation,” learning about public policy, etc.) was popular with my peers and rapidly becoming part of our Christian identities as much as, say, fretting about sexual matters. From my perspective, so much energy in evangelical circles in the past has been spent on intense self-scrutiny and suspicion of others in the avoidance of possible sin that it is so refreshing to believers to have a concrete and communal cause to express their love through.

  • Karen

    It’s true; the plight of the poor, especially, is becoming more and more emphasized in evangelical churches. I was still active in church four or five years ago and witnessed a bit of this shift being enthusiastically embraced by my generation.

    This just reinforces my gut feeling that I’m always ahead of some kind of societal norm curve. When I was desperately trying to get evangelicals to accept this kind of mindset 10, 15, 20 years ago, it was a totally uphill battle. It seems like just as I got out of the church, the message started getting through.

    Sigh.

    On the other hand, however, my deconversion just might presage a mass turning to atheism in the next decade or two. ;-)

  • Student

    Extreme liberalism can be a sort of religion. And the “conversion” of others to implement their agenda, is often done through force.

  • Darryl

    Richard, if you call that ‘unethical’ capitalism, then I don’t think we’ve ever seen ‘ethical’ capitalism.

    I have to agree with Mike’s (and Richard’s) view on capitalism. It seems to me that Jesus had no problem with free enterprise, but he had a few unkind things to say about those that put profit before people. Jesus saved his best tirades for the rich and hypocrites–often one and the same. It always tickles me how blindly stupid and hypocritical religious conservatives can be when they praise Jesus one minute and defend predatory capitalism the next. If you didn’t know better you’d almost come to think that Jesus was a capitalist or that it was taught in the Bible. That kind of Christianity is junk pure and simple. It deserves everyone’s scorn.

  • Julie Marie

    On the other hand, however, my deconversion just might presage a mass turning to atheism in the next decade or two

    what an excellent and optimistic way to look at it! And I think you are right. The excesses of the RR have caused many to rethink the basis of their faith, and one thought leads to another, and another….you trailblazer, you.

  • Julie Marie

    I have noticed this phenomena too, Mike – there is a dedicated core of Christians from my former church that are serving the most desperately poor area of town in tangible meaningful ways. They are leaving the comfort of the coffee shop in the megachurch and partnering with a hispanic church on the other side of the tracks. Its heartwarming and humbling to listen to my friend, who is their children’s ministry director, talk about all they are doing. The passion and love they bring to the people they serve is a small light in a large dark place.

    would that it were ever this way with the faithful!

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    For instance, I own stock which is a pretty capitalist thing to do, and I use brokerage services that tell me how companies rate on what I consider ethical issues such as these, and I only buy stocks that rate highly on those scales.

    Richard, could you send me some specifics on who you use for that? I’m going to be investing some money soon, and I really need to know more about this kind of “Socially Responsible Investing” and how exactly it is done. I’m pretty much a complete novice when it comes to investing, period, and any advice you can offer on getting involved in these kinds of investments would be much appreciated.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    The only problem, I’m told, is that all the people around him started resenting this intruder who brought yet another competitor for limited low-skilled jobs and pushed him into the game.

    Mike, would you think there are many instances where this (admittedly) fantastic spirit of charity and good will could actually backfire?

    I’m sure there are all kinds of ways in which charity can backfire. In fact that’s why in many cases what is needed is not charity so much as justice.

    Though in this situation that you describe the issue seems to be one of the poor and oppressed turning on each other in their competition for limited resources rather than uniting and focusing on the systems of injustice that are keeping them both down. This is similar, I think, to what we’ve seen recently in the primary elections where the white rural poor blame the black urban poor for their disadvantages rather than seeing that both of them ought to be on the same side against the same systemic forces that have negatively affected both groups in very similar ways.

    It’s an ingenious strategy on the part of Republicans and other advocates for the wealthy when you think about it – divide the poor against themselves and thereby keep them from rising up against you.


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