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Group may bring us closer to being Christian

Social justice -- like politics -- is often the art of the possible. These days the possible is being affected by a shift to the right in our language, our politics and our expectations of government.

The social justice groups, of course, have not given up their convictions or their mandate to help poor people. But they do have to operate in a society where what once was considered "right" has become the political "center."

Such is the sociopolitical setting for the unusual roundtable gathering of evangelical, Protestant and Catholic charitable and social service/social justice groups that met in Philadelphia April 26 for a "conversation" in support of poor people, see related story

The Catholic sense of social justice, based on the scriptures and honed over years of church teaching, appears to be having a particular impact in this arena. This is a cause for modesty rather than triumphalism. Modesty because Catholics engaged in this promising new dialogue that crosses Catholic-Protestant lines might otherwise miss what others are saying.

An understanding of the new definition of right and left means accepting that society's vocabulary has shifted rightwards -- away from government as the finder and funder of solutions to society's ills. That acceptance was apparent in the meeting sponsored by Call to Renewal, an organization founded by Sojourners' James Wallis, an evangelical minister stumping for a new political vision.

The gathering, representing a wide spectrum of Christian groups, was in some ways pre-empting the president's volunteerism summit while at the same time gently reminding religions that volunteers and charity groups cannot do it alone. There is a role for government even though, as Wallis has said, left-right dichotomies politically haven't served the poor very well.

The roundtable recognized, too, that societal situations determine strategies. And Christianity Today writer Richard Kauffman illustrated that neatly when talking to NCR about Wallis. "In terms of basic principles, I don't think Jim Wallis has changed much," said Kauffman. "How he goes about it has. He has moved away from the radical prophetic to coalition-building."

Whatever works for the poor.

The roundtable further demonstrated that Christians who previously haven't talked to one another now have found shared reasons for doing so. The very least that might arise from the meeting -- according to the discussions -- could be a national clearinghouse of Christian-sponsored programs for the poor and marginalized nationwide, showing us all what works and why.

Good news for the poor.

And an unanticipated benefit for us all would be if this type of work were eventually to define what "Christian" means in this society.

Our hope is that such efforts would reclaim the word Christian from the extreme religious right, which is trying to copyright it, and put it back at its starting place -- with Jesus' call to walk with the poor and marginalized. We owe a round of applause to all who attended.

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 1997