I’VE ALWAYS LOOKED forward to Advent. It’s a time each year of expectant hope—the hope brought by the coming of a child, born in an animal stall in Bethlehem, who would change everything. It is the time of year when I am reminded again of the choice we always have between cynicism and hope. That’s ultimately a spiritual choice, and Advent is a formative season that nurtures the choice to hope, which can guide our decisions and actions.
This fall, Sojourners launched a new project called Emerging Voices, and it’s one of the most hopeful initiatives I have been involved with in a long time. It aims to mentor, develop, and promote the most dynamic up-and-coming communicators—speakers, preachers, and teachers—who are called to lead and publicly articulate the biblical call to social justice.
The vision for this project is exciting and something to be celebrated. It also calls to mind a critical observation: Our world often wants saviors, not prophets; new messiahs, not leaders. We want heroes with superhuman strength who save the day, not mere mortals who speak the truths we typically don’t want to hear. Even the modern-day giants of social justice—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Mahatma Gandhi, for example—were at best prophets, but never saviors.
It’s easy to slip into the mentality that one person, one voice, will rise up in a generation, and that she or he will change the world as we know it. Dr. King spoke of this temptation as the “drum major instinct.” It is the basic desire of humans to lead the charge and, ultimately, reap the recognition—or, at the very least, to place our confidence in a single human being.
Two months before his assassination, King warned his listeners at his home church of Ebenezer Baptist. “When the church is true to its nature, it says ‘Whosoever will, let him come,’” King said. “And it [is] not supposed to satisfy the perverted use of the drum major instinct. It’s the one place where everyone should be the same, standing before a common master and savior.”
However, King understood that even if he were able to overcome, or at least suppress, this instinct within himself, others would still place their dreams upon him. Envisioning his funeral, he said that if he were to be remembered as a drum major, then he would like to be remembered as a drum major for justice, for peace, and for righteousness.
The role of savior has already been filled, and the cross Jesus bore is the ultimate rejection of this human drum major instinct. That’s where Christians must always start.
NEVERTHELESS, WE STILL need prophets, leaders, and voices who point us in the direction of this hope. The entire 11th chapter of Hebrews is essentially a long list of “shout outs” to the men and women of the Hebrew scriptures who persevered in their faith despite never receiving what was promised them. Individually, these men and women are saintly celebrities, but together they form a “great cloud of witnesses,” which still inspires believers to run the race of faith and seek the finish line of the reign of God.
After 40 years in public ministry, I feel a personal call to help raise up and support the next generation of faithful leaders—a new cloud of witnesses—who are boldly and creatively heralding the biblical call to social justice. More and more of my time is spent mentoring these emerging leaders.
Placing our hopes in a single drum major has never been a faithful response, and it is also increasingly ineffective. The world is changing. Notably, in the United States, somewhere between the years 2040 and 2050 we will no longer have a racial or ethnic majority. We need a multitude of fresh and culturally relevant voices who can address the challenge of faith and the common good within our diverse and complex society and, in particular, issue a prophetic call to the churches and to society.
And we have called together a hopeful and impressive circle of young leaders. Ultimately, Emerging Voices aims to be unlike any other speaker platform that exists. It’s intentionally diverse, particularly along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, and gender; it’s collaborative, as it seeks to build a community among its participants; it’s equipping, as we want to help the participants to develop their unique calling and skills; and, finally and most importantly, it’s elevating a common vision of biblical justice not through a single voice, but through many. I have a real sense of hope and excitement about the leadership they are already accomplishing.
I strongly encourage you to take a look at these communicators on our new website, emergingvoicesproject.org. Look at their faces, hear their stories, read what they have written. Consider inviting them to speak at your church, school, or public forum; join the conversation on their blogs and on the God’s Politics blog; glean insight from their books. And take heart, for a new generation is ready to lead.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine.