Friday, 7 August 2020  

The Gospel is personal, but never private

Jim Wallis is a national commentator on ethics and public life and a spokesperson for faith-based initiatives to overcome poverty; the editor of Sojourners magazine, covering faith, politics and culture for 30 years; and the convener of Call to Renewal, a national federation of churches, denomi-nations and faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty. Wallis speaks at more than 200 events a year and his columns appear in The Washington Post, LA Times, MSNBC and Beliefnet. His most recent book is Faith Works: Lessons From the Life of an Activist Preacher (Random House, 2000). He regularly offers commentary and analysis for radio and television and teaches a course at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government on “Faith, Politics and Society.” Jim lives in inner-city Washington, D.C., with his wife, Joy, and their son, Luke.

Jim Wallis was raised in a Midwest evangelical family. As a teenager, his questioning of the racial segregation in his church and community led him to the black churches and neighborhoods of inner-city Detroit. He spent his student years involved in the civil rights movement and protesting the Vietnam War. While at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, Jim and several other students started a magazine and community with a Christian commitment to social justice. In 1975, Sojourners moved to the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. They later founded the Sojourners Neighborhood Center, which serves the children of the community through tutoring and mentoring programs, a summer Freedom School and parents’ support activities.

Time magazine named Wallis one of the “50 Faces for America’s Future.” His books include The Soul of Politics (1994) and Who Speaks for God? A New Politics of Compassion, Community and Civility (1996).

To subscribe to Sojourners and learn more about the Sojourners community, visit them at

Homiletics met with Mr. Wallis in a third-story office in Washington, D.C., just two days after the midterm elections in November. This prompted our first question.

HOMILETICS: Did the midterm elections send a message? And if so, what is it?

WALLIS: Without a vision, you lose elections. Here you have the Republicans saying that military might is really the only response to terrorism and that tax cuts for the wealthy should be the heart of our domestic priorities. And the Democrats have no alternative vision to offer. So for those who wanted to vote and to question the nation’s rush toward war or to speak about economic fairness — they had no one to vote for and many stayed home.

So what you have is the Democrats caught up in very tactical discussions about turnout and voter demographics here or there. There was no message and no messenger. The Republicans had a message and it was clear, so the one with the message won.

We may be in a situation where the churches are going to have to provide an alternative social vision and leadership. I think we’re well-suited to do that, because the churches can offer a vision of both personal and social responsibility, which liberals and conservatives seem to not be able to do — we have this bifurcated political dialogue.

Church can talk about both family values and social justice in a way that Republicans and Democrats seem unable to do. We can speak about the common good in a way that I think both the left and the right have failed to do. The right is so preoccupied with individual liberty and often just for those on the top of the society, that there’s no conversation about the common good. The left is so caught up in rights politics — “What are the rights for my group?” — again, there’s no thought of the common good. What became of the common good is what Catholic social teaching would ask, and what biblical politics would say, and neither the left nor the right is asking that question.

So the churches may end up providing a social leadership role in the future that the political options just aren’t offering.

HOMILETICS: The Paul Wellstone memorial. Reports out of Minnesota indicate that people went to this memorial wanting spiritual comfort, to mourn or to grieve. Many were turned off by what happened there. Isn’t that suggestive of people’s motivation when they attend worship on Sunday? They want a spiritual experience, not a political one. What’s the role of the sermon in shaping social justice issues?

WALLIS: I watched that. Paul Wellstone was probably going to win the election. When he voted against the war in Iraq, even people who disagreed respected that he voted his conscience even though it might have cost him the election. You see a few politicians on both sides of the aisle who vote their convictions, and don’t just put their finger in the wind and take a poll.

Wellstone, like him or not, was that kind of politician. Very rare. Tony Hall, Democrat from Ohio, and Mark Hatfield, Republican from Oregon, were also like that. Paul was out of a prophetic Jewish tradition — I like a lot of things that Paul stood for, but I didn’t agree with everything.

I’m conservative theologically and conservative on a variety of social/moral questions. I’m basically pro-life on the abortion question. Paul was on the other side. I also have a strong concern for family values and personal responsibility.

But I’m a radical populist on questions of economic and racial justice, and don’t see war as the answer to our problems. So I don’t fit the usual left-right stereotype. But when Wellstone spoke about poor people and working people, I thought he sounded like Micah.

In the memorial service we should have paid tribute to the man, which I think his kids and Senator Harkin [D-Iowa] did rather well. But some of the staff turned it into a political rally, and it didn’t honor Paul Wellstone very well. Some of the partisan behavior offended a lot of people; even Wellstone people were grimacing, and so was I as I watched it on C-SPAN. Even in politics, in the secular arena, you can be inappropriately partisan.

Do I think that should happen in church? No. I find churches sometimes engaging in partisan politics for Republicans and Democrats. That is really inappropriate. However, the pulpit is the place to talk about the application of our faith to our public lives. The gospel is personal, but it is never private. So it’s always appropriate to speak about “What does our faith mean in the world?” That’s a pulpit topic.

Martin Luther King Jr. said it well: The church should never be the master of the state, it should never be the servant of the state, it should be the conscience of the state. That’s very important. If the church is the master of the state, we take power and impose our agenda. Karen Armstrong [author of A History of God] moderated a panel after 9/11 at St. John the Divine, and there were three of us from Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths talking about fundamentalism within our respective traditions. One of the mistakes of fundamentalism is the grab for naked, political power, rather than trying to influence the change of direction of a society democratically, via persuasion. King persuaded this nation that it was in our best interests and traditions, both political and moral, to pass the civil rights legislation in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. His vision was a religious one: The beloved community. But then he advocated applications of that in the public arena which were more than partisan. They were concrete manifestations of a religious vision that in fact Republicans and Democrats were both drawn to.

Pulpits have to be a place where faith is applied to the world in which we live. I think it’s always best if it’s related to what’s happening in one’s own community and neighborhood.

My idea of a parish church is when a church says, “We here at St. Catherine’s, or First Church — we’re taking responsibility for these 10 square blocks on God’s earth; whatever happens here, whether we’re in church on Sunday or not, is our responsibility. Youth violence, working families who can’t afford health insurance, racial tensions and conflict, single parenthood — how do churches and congregations take responsibility for their community? If you don’t preach that from the pulpit, you’re not fulfilling your pastoral vocation.

So prophetic preaching — not partisan politicking — is an essential part of the pastoral vocation. Poverty should be a non-partisan issue and a bi-partisan concern, yet is it political? In the deepest sense, yes it is, but not in the sense of Democratic-Republican politics.

HOMILETICS: Is it possible for a Christian to support a war in Iraq?

WALLIS: Let’s take the broader issue, then apply the question to Iraq. Was it possible for a Christian to come out on a different side during the civil rights movement? Was it possible for a Christian to support segregation as a valid Christian option? At the time, a whole lot of people said “Yes.” And I say “No.” Are there convictions and principles on which we must stand? I say “Yes.”

Jesus’ first sermon at Nazareth. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” Christians belong on the side of the poor. Poor people have to regard us as their friends, their allies, their advocates. The early church was a safe place for all the outcasts — for the “other.” My conversion text was Matthew 25:40: “As you have done this to the least of these, you have done it unto me.” Dorothy Day, my mentor, that was her text, too. We are to be on the side of the “least of these.” If that’s not clear in the Bible, nothing is clear.

Now that doesn’t mean that every piece of social legislation is clear. Welfare reform, for example. Did the old welfare system really serve poor people and serve justice? I would say, in the end, “No.” Did it need to be reformed? Yes. Did the welfare legislation in 1996 do that very well? No. Tony Hall was a Christian legislator from Ohio who favored welfare reform, but voted against that bill. I agreed. But Christians make prudential judgments about fundamental principles.

You asked about Iraq. In an hour I will speak to student leaders from about 50 evangelical Christian colleges from around the country, coming here to Sojourners to talk about Iraq. The first thing I will say to them is: “Whatever you conclude about Iraq, you must conclude on theological grounds.” In other words, you can’t say, “I’m supporting the war because I trust President Bush.” Or, “I’m against the war because I hate President Bush.”

There are only three traditions that shape our response to warfare as Christians: crusade, pacifism or just war. Most of us abandoned crusade as an option. Some of our friends in the Islamic world are picking it up again. Most Christians, even very conservative, fundamentalist Christians, won’t support the old notion of crusade. None of these kids will support it. So that leaves pacifism or just war.

The word “pacifism” isn’t in the Bible. It isn’t a word I like much. It has all sorts of baggage. Sounds like “passive-ism.” I think Christians can take the position that we’re always the ones who are trying to resolve inevitable human conflicts that come between nations and tribes in ways other than violence and war. It’s peace-making, not peace-loving. What initiatives can reduce conflict, contain violence, heal divided, angry circumstances? That’s one Christian approach.

The other is that if war is to be fought, it must conform to certain criteria. It’s a long-standing tradition. Is this a war of last resort? Is it being waged with adequate and appropriate authority? Have we considered the cost in terms of civilian lives and casualties? What is the intention? What is the predictability of success for that goal, or will it cause more harm than good? At the very least, we must answer the question on Iraq on those criteria. Are different judgments possible? Often there are different judgments that can be made. But I want these kids to answer as Christians, to engage in a theological discussion, not a political one. I don’t care if they’re Republicans or Democrats, I want them to answer the question as Christians.

HOMILETICS: But President Bush is not going to answer that question on theological grounds.

WALLIS: We have to.

HOMILETICS: But he’s not going to.

WALLIS: He should. He says he’s a Christian, so he should, too.

HOMILETICS: You’ve used the phrase “radical hope versus cynicism.” Some would argue that it’s “Radical idealism versus realism.” How do you respond to the view that your position is too idealistic? Do we want a president to have an idealistic vision? How do you respond to the charge that this is an idealistic, not a practical, course of action?

WALLIS: On the contrary, what I’m suggesting is the most practical course. I am saying that the choice before us as Christians is not the choice between belief and secularism, the choice is between hope and cynicism. And hope is not optimism, hope is not idealism, hope is not a feeling. Hope is a decision based on what we know about the outcome of history. Hope is based on the resurrection. Hope is based in the confidence of the triumph of God’s purposes in the world. King said that the long arm of history bends toward justice. He wasn’t saying, “I’m kind of a hope guy.” He was saying, “I know who’s going to win. I know how history is going to come out.”

Nelson Mandela didn’t know that he’d get out of prison, didn’t know he’d be the first president of the country, but he knew that eventually South Africa would be free. For Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that was a religious conviction. He isn’t an idealist or utopian person. I was there in Cape Town in his cathedral when the place was surrounded by soldiers and police who outnumbered the worshipers three to one. They came into the sanctuary. He was preaching. They stood along the walls while he was preaching with tape recorders and pads, writing down what he was saying. They had already put him in jail. They were saying to him in effect, “Go ahead, be bold, be prophetic, and we’ll put you right back in jail.” He looked at them and pointed his finger and said, “You are very powerful, but you are not gods. And I serve a God who cannot be mocked. You have already lost, so I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”

The place erupted. People were on their feet dancing. The police didn’t know what to do with dancing worshipers. I was at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, and I said, “Bishop, do you remember what you said that morning?” He smiled. I said, “Today, they’ve joined the winning side.”

Is that unrealistic? No, it’s totally realistic. It’s not realistic to submit to the vision of the white, South African security police.

I have been to Baghdad. I know Saddam Hussein is an evil, brutal dictator. I disagree with those who say that the whole problem is American foreign policy. I don’t agree with that. He is a problem. I support regime change in Iraq. The question is: “How do you respond to the threat? Not whether to respond.” Is bombing the children of Iraq the best way to respond to the evil of Saddam Hussein? I don’t think so. It’s not the Christian response nor the most practical response. So it’s incumbent upon us who believe in nonviolence to answer the question violence purports to answer, but in a different way. You don’t say he isn’t a threat. You don’t say that there aren’t weapons of mass destruction.

I live right on top of one of the top 10 terrorist targets in the world — 20 blocks from the White House. I have a 4-year-old son. I am very aware of where we live. But I don’t want to respond to terrorism in a way that takes out other people’s 4-year-olds. So how do we do that? This is very practical. How do we find real answers?

I’m driving one day down at the corner here, and as I approach the intersection, three kids wielding machetes are chasing a fourth kid, and they’re cutting him, hacking him, and they’re going to kill him. I drive my truck between the attackers, and the kid jumps in the back of the truck, and I drive him to safety a few blocks away. It’s rival gangs. We end up having conversations in this building on the second floor between the rival gangs involved in this conflict. That’s not idealistic. It’s practical. How do you resolve the conflicts of this world as a Christian? It’s about what we should do as the church of Jesus Christ.

HOMILETICS: What brought you to political activism?

WALLIS: My evangelical faith. In my church in Detroit — we used to sing, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Well, how come there weren’t any black children in my church, or black preachers, or black Christians, or why hadn’t we been to any black churches? I just heard about this minister in the South named King. What’s he doing? As a 14-year-old kid in Detroit, I just asked the questions, living in a racially polarized city, that came out of what I was taught in Sunday school. And I was told, “You’re too young to be asking these questions,” “When you are older, you’ll understand” or “We don’t know why it’s this way, but it’s always been this way.” One answer I got was, “Keep asking these questions, son, and you’re going to get into a lot of trouble” [laughs]. And that turned out to be true.

And then I was told that Christianity has nothing to do with racism; racism is political and our faith is personal. And that’s why I say that the gospel is always personal, but never private. So I lost my faith, because the church said it had nothing to do with the world. So I didn’t want anything to do with the faith. I thought I saw it in the Bible, but my elders said it’s not there. So I said, “Okay.” I left it and found my home in the civil rights and anti-war movements of my generation, and then I came to faith years later after lots of organizing, being tear-gassed more times than I can remember, chased around by the police and able to put 10,000 people on the streets in two hours, which we could do in those days. I came back to faith because the secular movements didn’t touch the deeper questions of my life and of the world. They didn’t provide an adequate foundation for changing lives and changing history.

I’m a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government this fall. My topic is different from others, like Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s speechwriter, who is talking about political leadership, and the former Mexican ambassador, who’s talking about Mexican politics, and the D.A. from Los Angeles, who’s talking about criminal justice. My topic is: Activism, Spirituality and Social Justice. And the students come out in droves. My thesis is: Social movements with a spiritual foundation are what finally change history.

It takes social movement and it takes a spiritual foundation. The civil rights movement was that kind of movement. The abolitionist struggle was that kind of movement. The first women’s suffrage movement was like that, too. The Jubilee 2000 — the debt cancellation campaign — you should hear Bono talk about his faith, his personal faith in Jesus.

When I preach every single week, I talk about what the Word of God means in our world, what the integrity of the Word of God applied to our world really means. It means that we cast our lot on behalf of economic justice. It must mean that Christians at least must all say that in a world of conflict and violence we are the ones who are trying to pursue other alternatives to war before we agree to the use of force.

HOMILETICS: After the midterm elections, Trent Lott admitted that the election was influenced in part by 9/11. How has 9/11 changed us?

WALLIS: Imagine what would have happened in these midterm elections if we had a president whose legitimacy was really at stake after the debacle in Florida, who had lost the popular vote, and were it not for the Supreme Court involvement might have lost the Florida vote. Imagine 9/11 not happening. Imagine corporate scandals being put on top of that administration with Bush and Cheney’s involvement in those matters. Imagine a bad economy. Imagine job insecurity. Imagine what would have happened in these elections.

He’s exactly right. September 11 changed everything. I don’t often agree with Trent Lott, but he’s right about that. America is now living in a kind of fear that we didn’t know before. We feel vulnerable now. The myth of American invulnerability was shattered. The idea of random, unexpected, catastrophic violence that takes your loved ones, is something that most of the world’s people already live with: Sarajevo, San Salvador, Cape Town. In fact, the kids in my neighborhood, urban children of color, had a very different response to 9/11. They thought it was terrible, but they weren’t shocked or traumatized. They’re used to this kind of insecurity and vulnerability. We don’t know how to deal in America with vulnerability. But we are vulnerable in this kind of world.

The juxtaposition of a superpower trying to reconfigure the Middle East and the world during the same period when a sniper held us all in absolute terror in this area was such a parable of how we can’t accept vulnerability. We want to erase it, wipe it away, to use our firepower to be rid of it. We can’t. Part of being human is being vulnerable and we can’t deal with it.

HOMILETICS: So have some social justice issues been put on the back burner as we struggle with our fear?

WALLIS: Oh, the soup kitchens are overflowing, shelters are overcrowded. Poverty rates are on the rise again, faith-based organizations are struggling with their budgets for survival. Fearful people are not always generous people. The new Archbishop of Canterbury said something recently: “When all you have are hammers, everything looks like a nail.” America has a lot of hammers, and Iraq is our most recent nail. By hammering this nail, we’ll somehow be more secure. The truth is, the real threat is not Iraq or the “axis of evil” but rather these cells of terrorists that you can’t subdue with tank divisions.

I thought 9/11 could be a teachable moment for us as a nation. I went to the “pile” right after the attacks two weeks later. The Red Cross took me there along with other clergy. I went alone to pray and listen. Firefighters from all over the world came to memorial services, and they came because, as one young guy from Orange County put it, “We just had to be here.” I saw in their faces and in their eyes something I had only seen before at holy sites where pilgrims come. These were pilgrims coming to a holy site. You don’t go to holy sites for ritual; you go to be changed. Will 9/11 change us and transform us, or will it just entrench our worst instincts and habits? We have all the hammers a nation could have, but will we be able to learn from this?

I want to see an end to terrorism. Poverty doesn’t cause terrorism. But poverty and hopelessness and despair are the best recruiters of terrorism. How do you dry up the swamps of injustice where the mosquitoes of terrorism breed? How do you ensure that 9/11 is a teachable moment? Julia Roberts, the movie star, even said that we learn in these crises that you don’t just save yourself, you save each other.

I know that if most Americans saw what I’ve seen at Israeli checkpoints in Gaza and the West Bank, what happens to Palestinians every single day, most Americans would say, “That’s wrong! That’s wrong!” But when I was in Jerusalem and I talked to Palestinians, I was very tough on suicide bombers. I said that movements are responsible for the images they project. In Selma, if we had projected images of dead cops, we would have lost the civil rights struggle.

Two days after 9/11, I wrote a statement which was then signed by 4,000 others, and we said: “We can’t let this terrorism drive us from being who God has called us to be.” We must deny to the terrorists their victory by refusing to submit to the kind of world they want to create.




Jim Wallis


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