In her latest book, The Very Good Gospel, Lisa Sharon Harper looks at the concept of “shalom,” and how we can build it in our communities, in our faith, and even within ourselves. She dives deep into the first three chapters of Genesis to really understand what “shalom” is, concluding that “shalom is the ‘very good’ in the gospel.”
But what happens when things aren’t so good? Harper, who is also a renowned speaker and columnist with Sojourners, recently came to speak at a Newbigin House Conversation for the Common Good. As a black evangelical Christian woman, she has occupied a space of wanting to hold onto her evangelical heritage, but also feeling abandoned by many of the people she considered her allies.
“The word ‘evangelical’ no longer seems to have any kind of theological meaning,” Harper said. “I’ve chosen, for now, to continue to hold on to that name. The reason is because of the heritage, and it always has been.” Harper became a Christian in the 1983, during the rise of the Moral Majority and the religious right. “Very soon after, I was told I had to become a Republican in order to be a Christian.” She was surrounded by Christians who had married their faith with conservative politics, and it seemed normal enough–Harper even recounts trying to get her mom to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984. “She literally said, ‘Who are you and what have you done with my child?’”
It was in 2013 that things really started to change for Harper. That was the year that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the year that the Supreme Court nullified section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which allowed states to revise their voting policies without federal oversight, the year in which food stamps got cut by upwards of $40 billion. Prior to that year, Harper hadn’t considered herself politically involved–but the events of 2013 set in motion a kind of fire and passion in her that continues to this day.
Why continue to identify as evangelical, then, when the label has been associated with such a specific political cause? “It’s really been a struggle the last decade, quite honestly, as we’ve been trying to help evangelicals to understand, this is who we are, not this,” Harper said. “[Evangelicalism]
was a movement that democratized the faith––it was moving the faith into the homes of the people to be controlled by the Spirit and the Word, not by the state and the agents of the state who were the pastors.” There is something about evangelicalism, in other words, that has always provided a platform for resistance. The house churches of the 17th century in Europe were “a threat to the state because they were democratizing faith.”
If that’s the case, then evangelicalism certainly has something to say to us today. Harper recalled the Second Great Awakening, with people like Charles Finney and Sojourner Truth and Harriet Beecher Stowe––”all of these incredible people who were at the vanguard of the abolitionist movement who, themselves, were evangelical.” It was Finney who, in his revivals, suggested that America needed religion because it was still a dirty society, a society that needed to be washed clean. And all these years later, we find ourselves in need of washing again.