WASHINGTON – In a growing sign of commitment to engage the church on wider social issues, evangelical leaders carried the Darfur-Olympic torch in the nation's capital on International Human Rights Day.
Although once criticized for being reclusive and narrow-minded, Christian leaders challenged the stereotype during a torch relay on Monday by marching alongside human rights activists, Darfurians, students, and other faith leaders on the streets of Washington.
Their presence represented an emerging movement among evangelicals to expand the social agenda beyond abortion and homosexuality to include human rights, creation care, HIV/AIDS, poverty, and other issues formerly associated with liberal Christianity.
"We as modern-day, 21st century evangelicals are recovering. We are grasping our history and our past and saying this (social activism) is in the finest tradition of the Gospel and the Christian faith and we are going to do it," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, to The Christian Post.
Cizik was among the Christian torchbearers at Monday's march in Washington.
"The Gospel of Jesus Christ, in our opinion, is a liberating force and it is impossible to be a live, dynamic, witnessing Christian and not be concerned for all of these issues of humanitarianism, like Darfur," he contended.
When questioned what sparked the social revival, the NAE leader pointed to the Holy Spirit rather than a particular event or situation. He noted that born-again Christians have always been involved in social activism, including evangelical lawmaker William Wilberforce who led the abolition movement in the United Kingdom.
"This is an awakening of the Gospel," said Cizik. "It is not about politics per se. It is not about one political party - the Republicans or the Democrats."
Supporting evangelical activism on the crisis in Darfur, he stressed, "It (genocide) is a violation, most of all, of the human person because every person is created by God and in the image of God. And frankly, Christ died for all so as faithful inheritors of this Gospel we must speak out and act and, yes, even carry torches with others of different faiths."
Other religious leaders who took part in Darfur-Olympic torch relay included the Rev. Bill Schulz, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former executive director of Amnesty International; Adam Taylor of Sojourners; and Pastor Gloria White-Hammond, co-pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Boston, Mass.
Cizik explained that evangelicals initially got involved because of Sudan's north-south conflict, in which Christians in the south were being persecuted by the Arab government in the north. Following the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and the south, evangelicals understandably took up the Darfur cause – which was another human rights violation committed by the central government.
Since 2003, more than 2.5 million people have been displaced and some 200,000 killed as a result of conflict in the western region of Darfur, Sudan. The United States in 2004 became the first country in the world to label the situation in Darfur, genocide.
Plans are currently underway to deploy a 26,000-strong hybrid A.U.-U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur to secure the region against attack from Arab militias known as janjaweed. The process has been painstakingly slow with delays caused by objections and protests from Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
For months, activists have participated in the Darfur-Olympic torch relay which had traveled around the world to sites of past genocides – including Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia – before reaching the U.S. capital. In the United States, the campaign was held in some 60 cities including New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
The Washington rally was especially aimed at pressuring China – Sudan's strongest business and political partner - to use its position to end the violence and humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Human rights activists argue that Beijing – the host of the 2008 Olympic Games – should stand up for peace and use its influence to bring peace to Darfur.
Celebrities and Olympic stars present at the Chinese embassy in Washington, where the relay concluded, included Hollywood actress Mia Farrow; U.S. Olympic Gold medalist (speed skater) Joe Cheek; "West Wing" actress Melissa Fitzgerald; and U.S. Olympic Athletes Nathaniel Mills (speed skater), Vince Poscente (skier), and Nikki Stone (skier.)