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"I Cannot Eat Your Prayers": How Student Debt Changed One Woman's Mind on "Christian Charity"

From an evangelical home to over $100,000 in student loans and healthcare debt, one writer faces the ways in which even progressive Christianity comes up short.

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I am beginning to understand why that event was so painful. Maybe it’s because we’re nearly three months into the Occupy movement. It wasn’t the treatment of LGBT people, though that was part of it. It wasn’t the near-complete absence of feminist analysis, though that was certainly part of it too. It wasn’t even the lack of intellectual rigor that lots of people associate with evangelical Christians, though that made me twitch a lot. It was about class, stupid.

This will likely come as a shock to the small crowd of 1,600 who attended Wild Goose and to those who have followed career evangelical-liberals like Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Brian McLaren. They like to go on at length about how they have a tendency to neglect LGBT issues and reproductive rights because they have prioritized what they call “social justice.” “ The core of their calling,” they say, is “economic justice.” That’s what they  say.

But these are not class warriors. I know; ten years ago, inspired by people like Campolo and Wallis, I seriously considered becoming a  Sojourners intern after I finished college. Instead, I served in Beira, Mozambique, with the Mennonite Central Committee. I cared about poverty. Knew nothing about it, but I  cared, in any case.

The thing is, these guys—and they are all guys—are pretty open about their not-at-all liberation-oriented worldviews. At a recent speaking event, Campolo acolyte Shane Claiborne offered a  non-endorsement of the Occupy movement, saying he was “sympathetic,” but calling for more unity because “God cares for the 100% … The Good News is good news for everyone!” What’s more: they’re consistent. Though journalists keep holding them up as torchbearers of the “ religious left,” they have long disavowed the political left. Wallis was a charter signatory of the Christian right’s   Evangelical Manifesto.

Mennonites love Wallis and Campolo. Even in their more liberal incarnations, Mennonites often square pretty closely with these guys when it comes to religiously motivated politics. They’re anti-war and generally supportive of measures that aid the poor. But they’re also anti-choice, anti-feminist, and very often anti-gay. Not every single solitary one of them, mind you, but in general.

But back to social class: I  know what Wallis/Campolo/Mennonites—and their offspring, the evangelical-emergent folks at Wild Goose, preach about poverty, and it ain’t class warfare. It’s not even sustained class critique. That’s why it’s important to turn a critical eye when Wallis opportunistically  takes up the Occupy cause.

Occupy Wall Street is not perfect, but it is the first sustained critique of class injustice in this country in my lifetime. And it’s important to note: the “evangelical-liberal” career Christians we know today are not always allies in class struggle. During the 1970s and 1980s, as  Mark Hulsether notes atReligion Dispatches, Wallis “was standoffish toward many forms of liberationist theology.” Tony Campolo, in a recent sermon at a fundamentalist university, said, “ There’s only one way to end poverty, and that’s to create jobs.” He went on to plug charities like World Vision, as if faith-based organizations are a comprehensive solution to world poverty. There was no mention of restructuring an unjust economic system rigged against all but the most privileged. And in the forward to the brand new  Left, Right & Christ, Wallis stresses that he isn’t “a man of the left” because “[we] should be Christians first and foremost.” He goes on to state that “our vocation as people of faith” is to “defend the poor” rather than to defend and uphold justice.