The Paradigmatic Evangelism of Bill Clinton


The Paradigmatic Evangelism of Bill Clinton | Larry Greenfield, Bill Clinton

"[P]rogress changes consciousness, and when you change people's consciousness, then their awareness of what is possible changes as well – a virtuous circle," Bill Clinton says. (Photo: Clinton Global Initiative)
Recently – that is, since the Republican and Democratic National Conventions – President Obama has shared the suggestion that former President Bill Clinton be appointed to a newly created cabinet post of "Secretary of Explaining Stuff."

Obama acknowledges that this is an edited version of the original suggestion: the one who first offered the proposal used another word for "stuff."

I've got another suggestion about what Clinton ought to be called: "paradigmatic evangelist."

That idea didn't come from Clinton's speech on Obama's behalf at the Democratic National Convention.

No, it came a few weeks later in the Oct. 1 edition of Time magazine – in an article authored by Clinton that the cover heralded as "5 Ideas That are Changing the World (for the better)" and carried the title "The Case for Optimism."

Not to leave you in suspense, the five developments that the former president thinks are the basis for optimism are: (1) technology can foster global equality; (2) partnerships between governments, the private sector and foundations can continue to create strong healthcare systems across the globe; (3) green energy can be good business globally; (4) women's empowerment can lead to global flourishing; and (5) justice can provide a more promising global future.

But it isn't these five developments – as on the mark prophetically as they are – that make Clinton a paradigmatic evangelist.

It is the case he makes for evangelism itself that lifts him to a paradigmatic status.

There's no sugar-coated gospel in this rendering of the case for hope. Clinton acknowledges that in our evermore interdependent world there's good reason for despair: that as never before "negative forces" can cross borders, penetrate societies, infiltrate cultures in devastating ways.

He contends that there are "three big challenges with our interdependent world: inequality, instability and unsustainability."

The evidence for giving in to despair?

"The fact that half of the world's people live on less than $2 a day and a billion people on less than $1 a day is stark evidence of inequality, which is increasing in many places," wrote Clinton. "We're feeling the effects of instability not only in the global economic slowdown but also in the violence, popular disruptions and political conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. And the way we produce and use energy is unsustainable, changing our climate in ways that cast a shadow over our children's future."

But Clinton believes there is another side of the ledger that must be proclaimed.

That isn't just because there are genuine signs of progress over against all that is negative and despairing – it wouldn't be any exaggeration to call it "evil" – in the world.

It is also, Clinton claims, because in the human spirit, "progress changes consciousness, and when you change people's consciousness, then their awareness of what is possible changes as well – a virtuous circle."

That's Clinton's theory of evangelism.

It is what, in part, makes him a paradigmatic evangelist.

But it's also that he's got a theory/theology that has immense practical implications and consequences.

And it's a theory/theology and practice/praxis that he not just proclaims but demonstrates in his own life and actions – primarily but not exclusively through his Clinton Global Initiative.

And I'll be darned if it isn't working!

About that virtuous circle, he says: "So it's important that the (good) word gets out, that people realize what's working. That where there's been creative cooperation coupled with a communitarian view of the future, we're seeing real success."

I've never been a big fan of Bill Clinton, although I have to admit he can, at times, inspire me despite all his failings.

But there's something significant we Christians shouldn't overlook in what he's saying and doing, what he is proclaiming and demonstrating, as it relates to our own call to be evangelists on behalf of the Evangel's cause – the Evangel's cause of an inclusive, interdependent, global community of love.

We bearers and agents of the Evangel shouldn't dismiss out-of-hand what we can learn from the "Secretary of Explaining Stuff" and his contemporary paradigmatic evangelism.

Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.

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