Meet the Refreshing Evangelical Who’s Leading a Revival—of “the Common Good”
Jim Wallis surprises people. He’s very much the evangelical pastor, with infectious warmth and an enthusiasm for preaching. But the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine is not out to convert people. He takes the teachings of Jesus seriously, challenging Christians to think first of justice for the poor and oppressed and to worry less about abortion and gay marriage. An inclusive “common good” is the core idea of his new book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good.
For Wallis, doing this takes more than talk. He stands with people losing their homes to foreclosure and those opposing the Keystone pipeline—he’s been arrested nearly two dozen times. He’s served as an adviser to President Obama and appeared on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” where he called giant Wall Street executive pay packages “a sin of Biblical proportions.”
Sarah van Gelder: This week started out with the bombing in Boston. How can faith communities respond to violence that kills civilians like this bombing but also like the drone strikes that are being carried out by the U.S. government?
Jim Wallis: Boston has such stark contrasts. You had people who deliberately planted explosives to hurt and maim people, which is so destructive of the common good. At the same time, you had people rushing toward the blast, at risk to themselves, to help people who had been hurt, which is a heroic example of serving the common good. So, both things were present at the same time.
On the one hand, terrorists want to destroy the trust we have in our society and to create fear. At the same time, others are saying we can engage around our differences and have civil discourse and find common ground, and even find forgiveness and love for those with whom we disagree.
A few days ago, I was in Birmingham speaking, along with Representative John Lewis, at the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Here was a room full of national church leaders who, after 50 years, were responding to King’s Birmingham letter. John and I opened the symposium, and we talked about the grievances King experienced: the brutal discrimination in Birmingham, Bull Connor firehosing children and siccing dogs on demonstrators, King thrown in jail. And eight moderate clergy blamed King and the civil rights movement for causing the trouble!
That’s a real grievance, and yet King’s response to those clergy is classic. It’s just and reasonable; it treats them with respect and love. And today, nobody remembers those eight clergy members. People remember King.
van Gelder: Let me follow up on the question of American drone strikes, because this is having an impact on the international common good—we’re talking about violence that’s killing civilians in the name of keeping the American people secure.
What's going to make us safer? What's going to build relationships? What's going to win the hearts and minds of people in Pakistan who had nothing to do with 9/11 but know about drones?
Wallis: On the one hand, the Obama administration is trying to move away from wars of occupation, which don’t work and don’t make us safe but do recruit more terrorists. The drone policy, allegedly, is an alternative to that, but it’s really spun out of control; there’s no clear framework or rules or procedures, and the loss of innocent lives is recruiting terrorists in Pakistan.
I tell a story in the book that seems unrelated but is very related. In a suburb of Memphis, Tenn., Heartsong Church, an evangelical Methodist church, learned that an Islamic cultural center was coming to their neighborhood. So Steve Stone, the pastor, puts out a big sign on the front lawn of the church: “Welcome Memphis Islamic Center.”
The Muslims were astonished. A couple of days later, they came to the church and they said, “Are you the pastor?” He says, “Yes.” They say, “We were hoping to be ignored, and you welcomed us. Why?”
“Jesus says we should welcome our neighbors, and we hear you’re going to be our neighbors, so welcome, neighbors! And we don’t know much about Islam, but we’d like to learn.”
And before long, the church pork barbecue is serving halal meat, and the kids are playing with each other, and the adults are tutoring inner-city kids and feeding the homeless together. On CNN, the imam and the pastor are featured guests, and they clearly respect each other, and you can tell they have real affection for each other.
So I call Steve, and I was so pleased about this and so proud of him, and he said, “Can I tell you about a call I had last night?”
And I said, “Sure.”
“I got a call from Pakistan,” where we do drone strikes. Actually from Kashmir, Pakistan. Perhaps the most conflicted area of Pakistan. A room full of Muslim men, who said, “Is this Pastor Stone?” “Yes.” “We saw the segment on CNN.” And the voice said, “There was silence for a long time.
Finally one of us said, ‘I think God may be speaking to us through this man.’ And another one who can’t speak English, but I’ll speak for him, he went up to the little church near our mosque, and with his Muslim hands, he cleaned it, outside and inside, scrubbed it. Cleaned the church.”
“Now we’re all back, here in the room, and we called you to tell you, Pastor, tell your congregation, we don’t hate you. We love you. And because of what you did, for the rest of our lives, we’re going to take care of that little church.”
Now, which works better, that or drones? What’s going to make us safer? What’s going to build relationships? What’s going to win the hearts and minds of people in Pakistan, who had nothing to do with 9/11 but know about drones?
I want to commend this administration for moving us away from wars of occupation. But the drone policy isn’t the alternative. We’re hurting too many people.
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van Gelder: There’s a lot of emphasis on poverty in your book. I know that has a very solid theological foundation, but perhaps not one that is widely shared across the Christian faith. So I’m wondering if you can talk about the different ways people come at that question, and also about the statement of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar ... it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Wallis: King is right; this is about justice.
I realized we'd lost something very foundational, the ancient idea called the common good. ... This idea is in all of our religious traditions, but it's also in our secular democratic traditions.
Too many people are hauling drowning people out of the river—which is a good thing to do—but not sending somebody upstream to find out who or what’s throwing them in. A lot of people are still trying to work with the symptoms and the victims—which is wonderful and compassionate—but now we need to look at the causes.
I was at World Vision yesterday, and I said, I’m hearing you say, “Don’t just give someone a fish, teach them how to fish.” I agree with that. Here’s another question: Who owns the pond? And who is controlling what’s happening to the fish, the ecosystem, and the water?
A lot of young people care about human trafficking. It’s not just happening in Cambodia, it’s happening in Seattle, in Portland, everywhere. There are more sexual slaves today, women and children, than there were slaves when William Wilberforce worked to end slavery 200 years ago.
I’m for freeing women and children from the brothels and helping them start micro-enterprises. But who is laundering the money? What politicians are behind this? What businesspeople are profiting from it?
So the justice question is fundamental, and the good news is a whole new generation of Christians, even evangelical Christians, is asking the justice question.
A year and a half ago was when we met with the president and his team during the debt ceiling crisis to talk about what was going to be cut. We had a pretty broad group: Roman Catholic Bishops, the Salvation Army, Sojourners, Bread for the World, of course, but also the National Association of Evangelicals.
The Catholic bishop says, “Mr. President, the biblical text that brings us here does not say ‘As you’ve done to the middle class, you’ve done to me.’” This is Matthew 25. “It says, ‘As you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.’”
The president said, “I know that text.”
So I said, “I think you guys aren’t going to reach agreement, and we’re going to have a sequester. You’ve got to protect low income people from the sequester.”
We debated for an hour. The White House wouldn’t commit to it. An hour later they did. We also met with Rep. John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan. They said, “If it happens, we won’t block it.” And that’s how with $2 trillion in cuts, so far, SNAP and Medicaid are protected.
In the Bible, God is a god of justice and not of charity.
This week, with 90 percent of the American people supporting background checks, the Senate voted down a common-sense gun regulation. And people in the audience at my talk last night were just sickened, shocked, feeling democracy had been thwarted.
But the same day, eight senators introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which is going to pass, but only because of pressure from the outside.
Yesterday we had a big gathering in D.C. of the Evangelical Immigration Table. NPR did a story about it this morning. Sojourners and Southern Baptists are together supporting immigration reform.
van Gelder: The way I understood this change in the immigration debate is that it shifted dramatically after the election when Hispanics swung the vote.
Wallis: Right, but the Evangelical Immigration Table had formed two years earlier. So both factors are very real.
van Gelder: We’ve talked a little bit about polarized politics, and I think we’re all feeling the cultural fallout and also the political fallout of having a gridlocked federal government. How do we get beyond that polarization? How do we create a higher ground that includes people of divergent faiths and that also includes those who are not people of faith?
Wallis: I took the first three months of the election year as a sabbatical to write this book, with a discipline not to write or speak or do anything on politics for three months.
I got up early, and I’d have some quiet time, exercise, and then I’d read and think and write all day. And at night I’d watch the news, and the more I watched, the more depressing it seemed. As you say, the polarization, paralysis, the vitriol, the anger, the fear, even hatred, and the shallowness of media politics—I realized we’d lost something very foundational, the ancient idea called the common good.
We can find common ground for the common good in the Golden Rule—treat others the way you want to be treated. This idea is in all of our religious traditions, but it’s also in our secular democratic traditions.
van Gelder: Jim, I didn’t read your entire book, but I read a lot of it, and I only found one reference to climate change. The science is clear: Climate change could not only upend the lives of other species but also the human species and especially the most vulnerable people on the planet.
Wallis: We have a major campaign at Sojourners on climate change; we just did a big retreat for evangelical environmentalists. Bill McKibben asked me to speak at the Keystone Pipeline rally at the White House. He told me to try to look religious; I was the only person there with a robe, and I could tell by people’s faces that they were suspicious. It was hilarious! But once I started talking, they lit up.
When people of faith say and do the things that our faith says we should say and do, it surprises people and it attracts them.
We have an economy I call the uneconomy. It’s unfair, unstable, unsustainable, and it’s making people unhappy.
The book talks about the new social covenant we’re putting out around the world, which has three values: human dignity, common good, and stewardship. If we just look at quarterly profit-and-loss statements for shareholders, we’re in serious trouble. As indigenous people say, you evaluate decisions today by their impact on the seventh generation out.
van Gelder: It seems to me that the climate denial movement has recruited a portion of the religious community that distrusts scientists and, in particular, climate science. How do we bridge that gap when we have so little time?
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Wallis: Well the good news is, it looks like the National Association of Evangelicals, the biggest evangelical group, has come out in favor of creation care and caring about climate change. So we’re winning, even on the evangelical side. The climate change deniers, the anti-science people, are a force on the Right for sure, but they’re losing their own kids. When I am on the road, the children of famous religious-right people come and talk to me at night—they don’t agree with their parents.
So I think we’re winning this generational battle, but as you point out, we don’t have decades and decades, so that’s a real challenge.
van Gelder: If you could suggest one thing to a YES! reader that they could do to reach out to people who are ideologically very different than they are, what would you say?
Wallis: The first thing I would say to a YES! reader is, religion has no monopoly on morality. We need all of us in this conversation. I want to speak to the genuine fears that secular activists may have of religious communities, because there have been people wanting to impose their religious agenda on the country using political power.
I fought my whole life against religious fundamentalists, but there also are secular fundamentalists who don’t want people of faith around, and who can be as narrow as the religious fundamentalists.
So let’s talk about a common ground for the common good, including people of faith, people who are spiritual but not religious, or secular but with moral sensibilities. I want to get over our fear of each other and embrace each other’s best moral values and find where we can work together.
Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for Love and the Apocalypse, the Summer 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is co-founder and executive editor of YES!
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