Friday, July 21, 2006
INTERVIEW: JIM WALLIS
“GOD IS NOT A REPUBLICAN….OR A DEMOCRAT”
An interview with Jim Wallis, author of ‘God’s Politics’
By Keith Giles
*NOTE: This interview was published in "THE NOISE" Magazine, June 2005
Jim Wallis has spent his life on the poor. To a culture obsessed with entertainment, amusement, self-gratification and the pursuit of wealth, Wallis has been a voice crying out in the wilderness. He’s spent the better part of his life urging the Bride of Christ to awaken from her deep slumber and hear the cries of the poor and the oppressed in her own backyard.
Starting out in the anti-war movement of the Sixties, Wallis discovered a more radical message than any of the other revolutionaries he’d ever read before; the message of Jesus Christ. “I was reading, in those days, Karl Marx, Ho Che Minh and Che Guevara, but I didn’t find answers there,” says Wallis. “Then I went back to the New Testament. During all that time I don’t think I ever quite got shed of Jesus, even though I’d left the church.” After years of being tear-gassed at rallies and chased by police, Wallis read The Sermon On The Mount and discovered a Jesus he had never met before. “I’d never heard a sermon (on this text) in my whole life growing up. It was the Magna-Carta, the Constitution, of the New Order of Jesus Christ. This was it. This was the way of life,” remarks Wallis.
Reading the words of Christ as an adult, Wallis found his view of Jesus, and of Christianity itself, transformed. “I was mesmerized by it. This was the most radical thing I’d ever read. More radical than Che and Marx put together because this was going to change everything. It was meant to change the personal, social, economic and the political. It turned the world upside down. It turned the values of the world on its head. This was a whole new order of things. This was a revolution if there ever was one,” says Wallis.
Early on, Wallis and a handful of seminary students started a magazine for matters of faith and social justice called “Sojourners”. More recently Wallis has published a book called “God’s Politics” which takes a hard look at the blurring of Christian values and political policy. Like many American Christians, Wallis is alarmed at what he sees.
One of the greatest challenges facing America, Wallis feels, is the confusion many Christians have reconciling their faith and their patriotism. Instead of standing silently by as our political leaders claim that “God is on our side”, Wallis is asking American’s another question; “Are we on God’s side?”
“God is not a Republican or a Democrat,” says Wallis. “God is not partisan. God is not ideologically committed to our Left or Right. God’s politics challenges all of our politics. It includes the people our politics regularly leave out; the poor and the vulnerable. I think God calls us to a consistency in our politics. There’s an independence to God’s politics in that, we’re not called to be ideologically predictable or loyally partisan. We’re called to uplift the poor, the vulnerable, the voiceless, the Creation itself, and we’re called to hunger to resolve our conflicts in a more peaceful way. That’s God’s politics.”
Wallis has been touring America promoting his book in bookstores and by speaking in Churches across the nation. He’s also appeared on every major political talk show known to mankind. He’s been on “Meet The Press”, “Hardball with Chris Matthews”, and most notably, “John Stewart’s Daily Show” where his message of a socially-conscious Gospel of Jesus was met with loud whoops of approval from the audience of Twenty-Somethings.
“After that show I got thousands of emails and most of them went like this; ‘I lost my faith because of Television Preachers or the Religious Right or embarrassing fund-raising or pedophile priests or cover-up Bishops or White House Theology, etc., and then they’ll say, ‘I didn’t know you could be a Christian and care about poverty or the environment’ and it’s just amazing to me,” says Wallis. “These kids have been outside the sound of our voices and all they hear is the Religious Right, and then, for the first time, they hear something different,” Wallis says. “At the end of most of the emails I received, the best part is where they tell me that, ‘Because of what I heard and saw on ‘The Daily Show’ I went out and got the book, and now I’m coming back to my faith.’”
“What you didn’t see on ‘The Daily Show’ was afterwards when John Stewart leaned over to me and said, ‘You know, I really like this. Can we stay in touch? Can we keep talking? I’d like to help somehow. I’m pretty secular, but I sure like this,’ Wallis reports.
Because of that single appearance on John Stewart’s faux-news show, Wallis has begun to attract a much younger audience to his bookstore talks and public appearances. “I had parents at my book table share with me how their son lost his faith. Then they got a letter from him saying that he saw this guy on ‘The Daily Show’ and went and bought his book and he wanted them to know that he was coming back to his faith now,” says Wallis. “There’s been a whole generational response to this book that, to me, is the best part of it. People hear me giving a voice to these things and they want to add their voice to it also. It’s not just about my voice,” says Wallis. “It’s about their voice too.”
“The first week I was signing books on the book tour I’d have these very young looking students at my table. I’d say, ‘What grade are you in school?’ and they’d say something like, ‘I’m in High School, I’m a Freshman’ and Mom and Dad aren’t even there. They had come with their friends,” Wallis says.
“I’m signing books for 15 year olds now. One night I had a 12 year old at my table, and then a few weeks ago I had an eleven year old. I had to stop and ask this one girl, ‘What did you get from tonight?’ to see what she had understood. She looked at me and said, ‘Well, I think we’re just going to have to change the world.’ I asked, ‘And who’s going to do that?’ and she said, ‘People like me.’ I saw her parents behind her with tears in their eyes,” says Wallis.
Everywhere Wallis speaks these days, he’s inundated by supporters of all ages who want to know how they can vote for a politics that embodies a consistent morality. “The answer is there is no party that is advancing God’s politics,” admits Wallis. “Neither party is doing this. Basically we need to create what I call ‘The Fourth Option’. It’s not being conservative on everything, or liberal on everything. The Fourth Option makes the link between personal ethics and social justice, between personal and social responsibility. It’s really like the Catholic Consistent Life Ethics. I think there are people in both parties who are drawn to this,” says Wallis. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of the people in this country supported this kind of agenda that my book puts forward, but they never have a chance to because both parties have interest groups who prevent this option from rising to the surface. So, the way you have to do it is, you have to build a movement based on this kind of option.”
Wallis is convinced that what is needed for our times is another social movement of the scale that was seen in the sixties under Martin Luther King, Jr. “Social movements are what change history and the best social movements are those that have a spiritual foundation,” he says. Going back even further than that, to Charles Finney and the nineteenth century Evangelicals, Wallis finds inspiration for a movement that could change American faith and politics. “Finney invented the altar call because he wanted to sign people up to the anti-slavery crusade. You had Evangelicals leading the battle against slavery, the battle for women’s suffrage, for child labor law reform. Back in the eighteenth century, in Britain, you had Charles Wesley and William Wilberforce, who was a convert of a Wesleyan revival, and he, for thirty years lead the battle against slavery and died three days after they won, it was amazing.”
We have many powerful examples of spiritual revivals that lead to social reform throughout history. “That’s what I believe in,” Wallis says. “That’s why I’m a nineteenth century Evangelical born in the wrong century. That’s what I think we need today.”
Wallis is quick to admit that a change of policy or politicians isn’t what our nation needs today. Instead, Wallis aims to see a change of heart that results in a changed people. “Martin Luther King, Jr. changed people’s hearts. He changed the way they thought about race. The laws changed because the people were being changed. Watching him and the others in the marches get beaten and clubbed on the streets of Birmingham, people said, ‘Look at that. That’s terrible. I don’t want my country to be like this.’ So their hearts got changed,” he says. “That’s why I want to go back to the nineteenth century. It was a conversion to Christ that got Wilberforce to fight the slave trade. He came to Christ, and then he became an Abolitionist.”
Is there a new revolution of heart and mind brewing on the horizon? Wallis is hopeful. “That’s what I’m feeling now at these book events for “God’s Politics”. A woman came up to me at a bookstore after one of my signings and said, ‘My father is a Southern Baptist Preacher and I decided I just didn’t want that kind of faith, so I left. But when I read your book I saw a different kind of faith was possible and so I want to come back.’ Thousands of people are rejecting the Religious Right. They’re saying, ‘If that’s faith, count me out’. But when they see that there’s another kind of faith that embraces the poor and the things that Jesus values, they want to come back to their faith.”
For Wallis, getting involved in the work of helping the poor isn’t just about writing a check from the safety of our pews, nor is it about rolling up our sleeves to slop soup at the local shelter, although he agrees these are all good things. Wallis contends that, when the Church really gets serious about social justice she will engage the culture and the political systems around her in order to effect real, positive, lasting change. “Checks are not enough, and neither is just engagement with the poor enough, unless we’re asking the questions of justice,” says Wallis. “I think history is moved by social movements that have a spiritual foundation. That’s what changes things. Now the Church is poised and ready to do something on domestic and global poverty. We’ve got to be the spiritual engine that changes the way our nation thinks. Will it be political? Of course. You find you need a civil rights law in 1964 and a voting rights act in 1965, but it was a black church that was the moral foundation of a civil rights movement and that lead the way. Now this movement to overcome poverty has become the next civil rights movement,” Wallis says.
Wallis is passionate about justice and poverty because it was the avoidance of these issues by his home church in Detroit that drove him away from his faith as a young man. “I left the church over these issues,” he says. “People do it every day. They want to believe. They’re hungry spiritually. They would like to hope in Christ, something compels them to faith, but when they look at the Church they just don’t see it. Somehow Jesus survives the failures of His Bride,” Wallis says. “We’ve lost our way in the twenty-first century, but many young people are becoming nineteen century evangelicals for the twenty-first century. This whole generation of young evangelicals may not name themselves as such, but that’s what they are. They’re the kind of Christians we had in the nineteen century,” says Wallis.
“The Church today is more American than Christian. The Kingdom of God is not the same as the American Empire. When we are more American than Christian we confuse the meaning of the Body of Christ with any nation state. This notion of the Church as a counter-cultural movement is Biblically obvious. There’s no doubt about that. We’re in the world to transform the world for the sake of this new order that has come in Jesus Christ. If Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom was so threatening, why is our vision of the Kingdom so safe?”
For more info on Jim Wallis go to http://www.sojo.net