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(Dr. Ron Sider, founder and president of ESA retired this year. Photo Credit: Surrender.org.au)

(Dr. Ron Sider, founder and president of ESA retired this year. Photo Credit: Surrender.org.au)

Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)

Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) gathered July 12 – 14 to celebrate the retirement of their founder and president, Dr. Ron Sider, the installation of two new co-presidents, and the organization’s 40 year anniversary at Eastern University near Philadelphia, PA. The conference, called “Follow. Jesus.” drew a few hundred attendees. Through plenary sessions and small group “conversations,” the conference explored Christian participation in social and political activist causes like economic inequality, immigration, climate change, abortion and racial division, among others. The focus of the main sessions was the history of evangelical activism and what the future may hold for American evangelicalism.

Dr. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, reviewed the 40 year history of ESA, pointing to the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern as a turning point for evangelicalism, and remarking the organization made Micah chapter 6 verse 8 “become embraced by a much wider constituency” of evangelicals. The verse, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” is indeed an oft cited one among Christian social activists.

ESA, Lindsay said, became a voice for what evangelicals were for, rather than what they were against after the social upheaval of the 1960s. Although evangelical organizations have long been involved in mercy ministries, justice work “really started 40 years ago. Sure justice has been around for a lot longer than that but … there hasn’t been organizational focus,” he claimed. But, Lindsay continued: “If you really want to make a difference you’ve got to think about institutions because those are the things that last.”

In a panel discussion on the future challenges for evangelicals, Dr. David Gushee, professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University complained “the culture wars will remain with us, but in a sense they should be over.” He observed “40 years of arguing over mainly sex related moral issues in public … continues long past when one might have hoped that those arguments would be so central … and the polarization doesn’t seem to me to be changing.” Gushee predicted “as conservative white men … feel increasingly threatened by pluralistic post-white America, the heels are gonna get dug in and the positions are going to remain entrenched.”

He continued: “America’s religion and politics in the next generation will be defined as a contest between those who fully integrate the emerging racial ethnic and national background diversity of our country and those who seek to resist it.” Gushee asserted “the future of Evangelical Christianity hinges on getting past the ‘White Male Club’ as the people in charge of everything.”

Similarly, Lisa Sharon Harper, Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners said evangelicals have become “divorced from people who are not like ourselves.” She also pointed out a “deep [scriptural] illiteracy in the church,” which renders believers vulnerable to “politicking people … [who] twist the Scripture and make it mean something it doesn’t mean.”

This illiteracy “bears itself out in everything,” most recently the immigration reform debate, Harper said. “If we don’t know the Scripture, then we don’t know that 92 times in the Old Testament the word ger [the Hebrew word for immigrant] is mentioned … We don’t know or understand the fact that Jesus himself was an immigrant,” she lamented. Harper concluded the “lack of Scripture and a lack of compassion, lack of relationship” with those different from ourselves, makes evangelicals “ripe to be used, to be wielded like a sword in the public square in the hands of people who are politicking in the name of evangelicalism.”

In the same panel, Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary pointed out the “multi-cultural, multi-ethnic reality of society and Christianity,” and that “declining American Christianity is not rooted in these minority communities it’s actually rooted in the decline of White Evangelicalism.” With this shift, he warned of “the danger of framing [justice and social action] in an American exceptionalism and triumphalism that doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Yet evangelicals should not abandon that label and claim a new name, because evangelicalism has “a history that needs to be confessed” over things like slavery and racism, and evangelicals should not “[excuse themselves] from that history,” Rah said. Instead, he suggested God may be “calling us to engage in a lament rather than in the triumphalistic, exceptionalistic approach to justice,” instead of the long standing “absence of lament in the liturgical traditions in America.”

In an evening plenary session, Dr. Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality called for a “renewed commitment to gender justice in the Church and around the world.” She described how “ideas have consequences,” and theologies and philosophies that teach the inferiority of women result in tragedies like sex slavery, sex-selective abortion, and other abuses.

Later, explaining his work toward renewal in impoverished Philadelphia neighborhoods, activist Shane Claiborne said “It’s hard to believe you have a beautiful creator if everything you look at is ugly.” Pointing out the bad reputation Christians in America have, he joked “You can believe in the bodily resurrection and still be really mean to people.” Being a Christian is not just about “right believing” but “right living,” Claiborne said.

He continued: “Poverty is every person’s responsibility … things like good health care and good education are not just privileges for the few that can afford it but they should be available to everybody. That’s what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.” He urged attendees to follow the advice Ron Sider had given to him years before during the founding of the Simple Way, and keep Jesus at the center of their justice work.

In a concluding worship service Sunday morning, Dr. Al Tizon and Dr. Paul Alexander were installed as the new co-presidents of ESA.
[Note: A report on Tizon’s and Alexander’s remarks is forthcoming]