Author Jim Wallis on Faith’s Leading Role in Dismantling White Supremacy

“The original sin is the doctrine, ideology, myth, lie, and social construct of racial difference and superiority.”
Jim Wallis.jpg

People listen to Jim Wallis during a memorial service remembering the victims of the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, June 17, 2016 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images.

It’s been more than a month since a group of White supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in a protest that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer and many injuries.

In the aftermath of those violent events—and the national conversation around White supremacy that they sparked—Jim Wallis decided to go on a national speaking tour to rekindle the lessons in his latest book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to New America

Wallis is a Christian theologian, writer, speaker, and political activist who is founder and president of Sojourners. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author. I spoke with Wallis when he was in Seattle.

He encouraged Christians and non-Christians to work together under a shared moral mandate.

In this interview, Wallis describes the role that faith communities have in helping America turn away from White privilege and the impacts of the myth of White superiority, social constructs he describes as America’s “original sin.”

He also previews the work multifaith movements are engaging in to defend, support, and act in solidarity with the DREAMers and all people in search of civil rights.

Hours after the interview, Wallis lectured at the Marion Oliver McCaw Hall in Seattle. There, he encouraged Christians and non-Christians to work together under a shared moral mandate to dismantle racialized systems and structures of oppression, protect the DREAMers and advocate for universal access to health care.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kevon Paynter: Tell me about the inspiration behind your newest book?

Jim Wallis: For me, every [faith and activism] thing I’ve done originated in Detroit as a teenage kid. … It seemed like there was something very big and very wrong in my city that nobody in my White church, White world, or White school would talk about. So I had to go into the city to find out the answers to my questions: What was happening and why? That was for me a life-changing experience. As I got to know the [young Black men I was meeting and working with in Detroit] in their lives, I realized we were born in Detroit, yet raised in different countries.

That fundamental racial division and racial injustice in my city and society was what turned me around and put me on this path. I knew I’d write a book about all that at some point. Now these shootings—and there have always been these shootings by police that gun-down Black men and women—are finally being videotaped, revealed, and seen. It has changed the conversation, and I felt like now was the time for me to write this book.

Paynter: Can you tell me about some of the important work you’ve done? What stands out?

“We're reaching a place where we're no longer going to be a White majority nation.”

Wallis: Sojourners is more than four decades old, so we have been deeply involved in many issues and struggles over the years—the nuclear arms race, wars in Central America, the fight to end apartheid in South Africa—[and] we’ve always focused on racial and economic justice. We are very involved in fighting the battle against [President Trump’s] Health Care bill this summer. We'll be very involved in DACA, protecting the DREAMers, and issues around voter suppression. Those are the justice questions that are screaming at us right now, and we’re applying faith to those questions.

We’re reaching a place where we’re no longer going to be a White majority nation—we’re going to be a majority of minorities. And a whole new generation of people we speak to all the time are organizing to help bring this bridge to a new America. So we speak to a lot of young people as well as clergy and people who aren't sure about religion at all—but they care about moral issues, and justice questions, and they’re looking for compassion and moral courage. That’s what we’re [at Sojourners] trying to mobilize around.

[So we began] the Matthew 25 pledge, which takes the Bible back to what Jesus said: “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was a stranger. I was sick, I was in prison, and how you treat them is how you treat me.” And how you treat them is how you treat me—that text is foundational to us, and that’s now a pledge, a project, and a movement.

Paynter: You said, Jesus was a “stranger”?

Wallis: Yes, right. Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was an immigrant, and you didn’t welcome me.”

Paynter: You have a whole chapter dedicated to this passage of Jesus, that if he were walking Earth today, he’d be considered an immigrant. Tell me more about that.

“That was the original sin: racial difference and White supremacy. And that’s with us today.”

Wallis: Loving our neighbor becomes a test of our love for God. Welcoming the stranger becomes a test of welcoming Christ. It’s very simple and straightforward, which makes this more than a political issue—for us, it’s a faith issue. That’s why you’re going to see a lot of people of faith who have different theologies, traditions, and even different politics—they’re going to gather together around the need for protecting undocumented [people] at this critical moment in history. Because for us it’s a faith issue and not just a political one.

Paynter: How do you explain America’s “original sin”?

Wallis: America’s original sin is far more than slavery. We’ve had indentured servitude various times before American slavery. I’m a Christian, but it was the Christians in America and Great Britain who created our own slavery. They knew you couldn’t do what we were doing to indigenous people and to kidnapped Africans. You couldn’t do that to people who were made in the image of God, as Genesis 1 talks about, because you couldn’t do that to people who were fully human and made in the image of God. So we threw away … the image of God and said now there is racial difference, racial superiority, and inferiority. That was the original sin: racial difference and White supremacy. And that’s with us today.

So in Charlottesville, it wasn’t just White supremacists marching, it was the White supremacy underneath and undergirding our criminal justice system, our economic and educational systems. The original sin is the doctrine, ideology, myth, lie, and social construct of racial difference and superiority. That’s what is underneath American life and has to be confronted and dismantled both in our personal and religious lives and also in our systems and structures.

Paynter: So you’re saying that what’s underpinning policing, criminal justice, education systems in America is this original sin?

“Faith has had an animating role in social movements, and it’s never just people of faith.”

Wallis: Yes, it’s White supremacy, White privilege, White normalcy or the normalcy of whiteness. How do we turn around that ideology in the systems we just named?

We’re in the middle of battles on policing, criminal justice, voter suppression, and now the protection of 800,000 young DREAMers who are in danger because of the President’s [move to end] DACA.

All those issues, they are social justice issues but they’re also faith issues. [People from every faith tradition must] apply faith to our public lives and social justice.

Paynter: In your book, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to Ferguson. So what role does faith have in racial justice movements?

Wallis: Faith has had an animating role in social movements, and it’s never just people of faith. Dr. King wasn’t just a civil rights leader but also a Baptist minister. I grew up with people like that who showed me that faith has to be applied. 

How do you apply faith to those battle and struggles? I learned much by showing up. Most of what I've learned about the world and what’s changed my worldview is being places I was never supposed to be or being with people I was never supposed to meet, know, or hear their stories. That’s what’s always changed me over the years.

Our proximity to people who are most endangered, most vulnerable is something that’s really a fundamental principle of faith: being in proximity with people.

“You’re going to see faith leaders and communities joining together in opposing the wall.”

Paynter: Where does faith come in defending Muslims, indigenous people, and DREAMers?

Wallis: I remember when the Mosque in Joplin, Missouri, was attacked and blown up. Our young people [joined] with young people there [to] put up billboards that said “Love Your Muslim Neighbor,” and those billboards changed the conversation in the community. …

We [show that we] believe that message of love overcoming hate when we apply it and intervene where hate is prevailing—physically intervening if necessary.

For example, we really did unite many in the faith community around opposition to the health care bill and we won that battle, but it was a lot of people in the faith community, across boundaries—Catholics, Evangelicals, Protestant-Christians, Jews, and Muslims—who joined together against that health care bill. Now we're going to do that around DACA … [to] protect the DREAMers.

I think you’ll see a uniting of the faith community against “the wall” Donald Trump so much wants to build. It doesn't have support among Democrats, and Republicans love the border, but the wall is really a stupid idea that is based on racial politics. You’re going to see faith leaders and communities joining together in opposing the wall.

[And we’re] telling [Congress] you can’t cut taxes for the wealthy and pay for it by cutting programs for the poor. A budget is a moral document. So we’re pulling together people on both sides of the aisle who are willing to stand up for faith and protect low-income people and families in these big tax and budget debates.

You’re going to see a lot of energy around health care, the budget, DACA, and around voter suppression.

Paynter: Does White privilege have any role today in bringing forth racial equity, justice, and healing?

“We need more than allies: We need accomplices.”

Wallis: We just had this discussion with clergy in Seattle, and people may think we’re saying every White person is to blame for everything that happens, and that’s not the case. But to benefit from systems of oppression is to be responsible for changing them. 

Our segregation in our neighborhoods, schools, and churches is what keeps us from understanding the meaning of White supremacy in our society.

That racial geography is part of our lives not by accident but by public policy. It keeps us from knowing, understanding, hearing, seeing, and experiencing the experience of each other because we are separated and don’t see what’s going on.

I had a conversation today with Brittany Packnett who is a young leader in Ferguson, and a leader in Black Lives Matter, and she said, we need more than allies: We need accomplices. She said we all have some privileges, so it’s about how we use those to be accomplices dismantling White privilege in our systems and structures.

Paynter: When you pray at night, what do you pray for?

Wallis: [Laughs]. People often believe prayer is all about talking but it’s often all about listening. Often we talk so much, and the result is there’s so much noise in our lives—and we don’t just take time to be quiet, be silent, and listen. Then we might hear some things that you normally wouldn’t hear. ... But I usually pray for help to understand, help to remain full of faith, and help to know what I am being called to do. The prophet Micha says, “love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with your God,” and that’s always a good thing to pray around.

This article was funded in part by the Surdna Foundation.