Robert Wilson-Black: Resistance and healing, after the election

White House lawn

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In the wake of the presidential election, it's time for listening and learning, says the CEO of Sojourners in this interview.

Christians are called to healing and resistance -- though not necessarily in that order, said Robert Wilson-Black, the CEO of Sojourners, in an interview that took place five days before the Nov. 8 presidential election.

"If it's President Trump, it's resistance and healing," Wilson-Black said. "If it's President Clinton, it's healing and resistance."

"What I mean by that is Sojourners, along with other progressive Christians, doesn't sit in a camp where we take our directives from a political party or a president," he said. "We take ours from the gospel."

No matter who is in the White House, Christians "still need to resist the ways in which any president leads a country that harms the vulnerable and that basically goes against what we consider to be gospel values," Wilson-Black said.

The task for the church in that process of healing will be, first, to listen and stay focused on the gospel, on the "good news" for the poor.

"There's a lot of listening, a lot of learning to do," he said.

As CEO of Sojourners since 2013, Wilson-Black manages the organization, working with the board of directors and with president and founder Jim Wallis.

Robert Wilson-Black
Robert Wilson-Black

Wilson-Black has a Ph.D. and an A.M. from the University of Chicago and a B.A. from the University of Richmond.

 

Sojourners is a nonprofit organization that publishes the Sojourners magazine and website, covering the intersection of faith, politics and culture, generally from a progressive, evangelical perspective.

Wilson-Black was at Duke recently to deliver the lecture "What do we owe one another? A new social covenant and theory of change to make sense of the times," and he spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What is the role of Sojourners as a progressive, liberal evangelical magazine on the religious landscape today?

We have a couple of roles. The first is to resource the people who've been following us -- Catholics, progressive evangelicals, mainline Protestants -- giving them the content, the inspiration and the connection they need.

And then second, we play the bridge-builder role. That's where, for example, we have our board member David Gushee write an article about LGBTQ in the Scriptures. We're able to build that bridge across parts of the body of Christ that are hurting and in pain and haven't figured out how to understand the Scriptures deeply enough to be able to talk with their neighbor. We play that role on a number of issues.

And then the third role is more evangelical, reaching out to share the good news of Jesus Christ and how Jesus taught us to turn our eye toward those who have less power, those who have less of a voice, those being pushed to the margins.

Q: What's your assessment of the current state of evangelical Christianity, and in particular, progressive evangelical Christianity?

A couple of things are important to remember. No. 1, we're called by God not to be successful but faithful. The things that are considered successful or unsuccessful in our culture are turned around by the gospel. It doesn't mean that you can be lazy or that failure or less than excellence is expected in our work, but it means, when you're looking at larger things you can't control, faithful is more important than successful.

The second thing is, power has decreased not only for mainline Protestants since the late 1950s, early '60s; over the last 10 years, the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, has also been seeing decline. And if you track the numbers, you'll see that many young evangelicals want no part of the institutional church, along with the rise of the "nones," or the "underaffiliated," as I call them. So fewer people are turning to those traditional institutions.

But also, right now we're seeing some tectonic plate shifts in how people think about faith in the late modern world, how they are able to understand religion itself.

If myth is an authoritative narrative and people are living into all kinds of myths, what about the question of authority and what about metanarratives? Do we believe in overarching narratives, or do we have kind of a hermeneutics of suspicion regarding all metanarratives? There's that kind of questioning.

So these massive shifts are occurring -- culturally, intellectually, socially. The way we connect with people is very different these days. We have virtual lives well outside of our face-to-face lives. When you put all this together, it's very difficult for institutions to navigate.

It's a complicated time, and we have to be faithful to our call.

Q: What does that mean for progressive evangelical Christianity in the future?

We have a particular call right now to help people who find no more oxygen in their faith life. They're looking for something to give them breathing room in their understanding of the Scriptures and of institutional church and the late modern world. And progressive Christianity actually can offer that, because we have a capacious and loving "generous orthodoxy," to quote our former board chair Brian McLaren.

The second good thing about progressive evangelicalism and progressive Christianity at this moment is that it is a great re-entry point into the gospel for those who are fed up with institutional church or who put their faith in a little box somewhere and forgot about it and don't seem to have it anymore.

Why? Because if you look at the pains and agony and difficulties of the world -- which could be very much highlighted in this election season -- progressive Christianity doesn't have simplistic answers, such as, "Just follow this, and all your pain will go away."

It brings the theology of "We will be with you during this tough time." Which is, of course, what Jesus says to us: "I will be with you; I may not be able to solve everything."

At the same time, progressive Christianity is all about trying to play a role in solving the greatest social ills that we're facing.

What better way to provide both to the nones and whatnot? "You know those things you care about, underaffiliated folk? We care about those, too, and here's a lens on the gospel that gets us into solving those problems."

"You also have difficulties with institutional church? Come, let us reason together."

Q: You're at Duke to give a presentation entitled "What do we owe one another?" What is that about?

It's an examination of the phrase "What do we owe one another?" Do we owe one another nothing? Something? More than we thought we did? More than we'd like to admit? Everything?

Q: That's a great question for the current political climate.

I found that to be the case.

On one hand, for example, you can look at redlining maps of hundreds of cities in the United States, where billions of dollars were sucked out of the African-American community -- potential gains and actual gains in real estate -- by segregating people. What do you owe people when that has happened?

And then, likewise, Black Lives Matter has asked, what do you owe people in terms of doing no harm? Leviticus 25:17 -- "Do not take advantage of one another." What does that mean in the context of Black Lives Matter?

And then you have people who say they have so much less power than they thought: "My children have left my faith. My job has evaporated. I don't have a future economically. The culture seems to be shifting in a way that's not me. What happened to the culture that I thought I had?"

What do you say to those people?

What do we owe one another?

And then as a Christian, Jesus calls us to follow his example, and he was willing to give his life. What does it mean to owe one another that?

And then technically, we owe any number of things, from our taxes to covenants we've made at our religious institutions to covenants we've made to take care of our parents in their old age.

We literally have a set of about 20 to 30 things that we owe other people, either literally, in the sense of a financial obligation, or morally, to our parents or others, to take care of them.

The question is a call for a deep reflection on what we owe one another. Even if you decide you owe nothing, then reflect on that theologically. What does that mean in your tradition?

If you say we owe nothing to each other, you're really exempting yourself from all associative behavior, and religious organizations.

Certainly, some folks interpret it that way, but I don't agree. To become a more flourishing democracy, you need that.

Q: So what do we do with that? What do we owe one another?

I call for three things.

One, spend an hour sitting down, figuring out what you owe other people. I did it and came up with 30 things that I owe, literally.

The second thing we do with that question is search the Scriptures. For me, it's the Christian Scriptures. If you're not a practicing person of faith with scriptures or traditions to turn to, then turn to the moral, ethical scriptures of your own life and ask through that lens.

Third, figure out how can you act on these first two parts. If you've taken a personal inventory and you've run it through the lens, what's the third step? How can I be more a part of this rich web of owing and being owed, and live into that?

It can be small practices. Maybe when I pull into a gas station and fill up, I look around at the other people and think about their lives and think about how I may be connected to them. It's really just spiritual practices. And then maybe I think, "Oh, they've got kids in the car; I wonder if they're getting a good education?"

If you do those three steps, it may mean very little change in your behavior. Or it may mean some change in behavior. But it's certainly a different way of viewing things and living in the world. It can be a richer experience, realizing I was owed, I am owed, I owe.

Q: The general election is next week, and by the time this interview is published, we'll know the winner. But sitting here today, imagine you wake up next Wednesday morning and Donald Trump is the president-elect. What's your thought? What do we do?

It's resistance and healing.

Resistance to anything that President Trump would do that is going to harm other individuals. That can mean everything from people taking to the streets to actually forcing the hand, policywise, protecting the most vulnerable.

It's really an enhancement of resistance -- being prepared to be imprisoned, being prepared to go the extra mile as faithful Christians to resist, in the same way that we resist the use of drones in the current administration.

Q: Same question. You wake up next Wednesday and Hillary Clinton is the president-elect. What's your thought? What do we do?

For me, then it's healing and resistance. Notice I switched them. If it's President Trump, it's resistance and healing. If it's President Clinton, it's healing and resistance.

What I mean by that is Sojourners, along with other progressive Christians, don't sit in a camp where we take our directives from a political party or a president; we take ours from the gospel.

What that means for those two different Wednesday mornings is you'll still need to resist the ways in which any president leads a country that harms the vulnerable and that basically goes against what we consider to be gospel values.

But the healing part is critical for both. What does that mean? It doesn't mean pandering to the people who feel like they've been left out, but it does mean helping them to imagine a new way of participating in the country when they feel like they've lost. You can often judge any great society by how they treat people at the "bottom," by any metrics you have, or losers, people who've lost something.

We need to attend to that. What do the Scriptures say about people who feel on the margins?

It's certainly a time of listening and healing and attending to.

Q: What's the role for the church in that healing process?

One, the pastor and the church leadership has to be in a nonpartisan stance of listening. You can have justice on your mind and heart but not be politically partisan. There's a big difference between national elections and living out faithfully.

Second, churches have the ability to keep the gospel at the center, and the gospel is about good news, good news for the poor. It takes you straight to Matthew 25 -- "I was hungry" -- and if that is the center, that does have a healing way.

And the third way, we don't know yet. We have to be attentive as the church to how that healing will happen. There's a lot of listening, a lot of learning to do. What will our role be? You just don't know on Wednesday what that will be. Stay prayerful.