Barack Obama’s friend Jim Wallis calls on the Church to reject traditional political divides, preach the gospel while feeding the poor, and reject the lure of wealth in Western society.
‘You’re taking him where?’ asked my fellow Christianity contributor Martin Saunders. ‘He’s used to the White House you know.’
He does have a point. I meet Jim Wallis fresh from his appearance on the Today programme, right before he nips off to meet his friend Gordon Brown. He’s undoubtedly accustomed to more salubrious surroundings than Tony’s Snack Bar, favoured greasy spoon of the Christianity staff.
And yet, as our pictures show, he is perfectly at home. In fact, it is a great environment to chat in. White-collar staff from nearby offices mingle happily with tradesmen and taxi-drivers. It’s a ‘real’ London experience, and I get the impression Wallis isn’t interested in ceremony or show. He thinks the Christian faith is about much more than simply believing a set of creeds. For him, Christianity should be the basis of a radical community-based life, which speaks truth to power and encompasses a very different set of ‘values’ to that of the world around.
He’s in the UK to speak about his new book on just that topic. Rediscovering Values is very much a post-credit crunch work. In it, Wallis calls for a ‘moral compass for the new economy’, arguing that the very worst thing we in the UK and the USA can do is to ‘go back to business as normal’.
But who is he to tell us how to run the economy? Well... he argues the so-called experts haven’t done a great job thus far, and we should now seek inspiration from scripture as to how we should move forward together. That approach is entirely consistent with the ministry he’s carved out for himself since graduating from seminary 40 years ago. Long seen as a ‘social justice’ Christian or part of the ‘evangelical left’, Wallis seems to sit more comfortably in a movement that’s only started to gain prominence in recent years.
The Red Letter Christian movement is based around the idea that Jesus’ words (the red letters in many Bibles) are of paramount importance in responding to every challenge the world faces today. This is a response to the peculiarly American situation where evangelical Christianity is married to the more right-wing elements of the Republican Party. Wallis’ old friend and fellow leader of the Red Letter movement, Tony Campolo, describes it like this: ‘Once an individual is defined as evangelical, it is assumed that he or she is pro-war, anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-capital punishment, pro-gun, anti-environmentalism and certainly part of the Religious Right.’
The Red Letter movement is not a total rejection of the political right, or a total embrace of the political left; but a more subtle position. Wallis describes it to me like this: ‘Don’t go right, don’t go left...go deeper.’ This alternative strategy has attracted a younger generation and younger leaders have sprung up. Shane Claiborne (profiled last year in Christianity) is probably the best known, but others such as Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove are spreading the vision pioneered by Wallis, Campolo and others like John Perkins.
Critics of the Red Letter movement have been quick to dismiss their ideas as a ‘social gospel’. While the blogosphere has many ready to deride him, one of his sternest critics is a Mormon TV presenter – Glenn Beck. Beck is one of the hottest properties on American TV at the moment. His Fox News show is loved by the right, and during several broadcasts about Wallis, he urged Christians to ‘leave their church’ if they heard any talk about ‘social justice’ from the pulpit. Wallis has challenged Beck to a debate, but so far, it hasn’t happened. Fortunately for me though, Wallis is more than happy to talk and debate any time. Especially in Tony’s Snack Bar.
Andy Walton: To someone who finds the religious right anathema, ‘values’ is an interesting word to use in the title of your book...
Jim Wallis: This economic crisis is really also a moral crisis. Business executives want to talk about how they’ve lost values; they’ve lost their way.
A crisis gives you a chance to reset, rethink and reflect on values. If we go back to business as usual, we’ll have missed this opportunity. The book is saying, ‘What does a new “normal” look like?’ Are we thinking as Christians about our economic life, or have we been seduced by these new maxims? ‘Greed is good,’ ‘It’s all about me’, and ‘I want it now’. What about ‘Enough is enough’, ‘We’re in this together’ and as the indigenous people say, ‘You should evaluate decisions today by their impact on the seventh generation’?
It’s about stewardship and sustainability – hopefully Christians can provide leadership here and this could return us to the gospel and reconnect us with our communities.
People like you have been saying for years that we have a problem. Tens of thousands of people have been dying every day in the developing world. Why has it taken this crisis to make the CEOs notice something isn’t right?
We haven’t been listening to the canaries in the mine. When the poor are coughing and wheezing, the rest of us will follow. We [Christians] are the ones who are supposed to judge a society not by its Gross National Product, not by its military firepower, not by our popular culture being the envy of the world; but to judge a society like the prophets do – by how we treat the poorest and most vulnerable.
Some of your critics, such as Glenn Beck, say the Church should be the primary agent of social change, whereas you suggest the Church should work in cooperation with the government to be the agent of change. In America that’s a big difference, especially with the Tea Party and its paranoia about ‘Big Government’.
The Church for us is the centre of things. The Church has often sparked social movements – Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Junior – this is my passion. Government, though, has a responsibility... churches can’t provide healthcare for every American. Christians can’t lift people out of poverty by themselves. It takes the business sector, government doing its job – it takes partnership. We need to work out who does what best, and then take responsibility for it. But leadership has to come from the churches. The government here [in the UK] wants to partner with churches and have a ‘Big Society’. I’ve been talking to government people and churches. I say to churches, ‘Offer to partner, but not to substitute for what government ought to be doing, and don’t ever withhold your prophetic voice.’
The UK and US now have two different philosophies on how to move forward. Broadly, President Obama supports government intervention in the economy, while we’ve had a series of large cuts announced. Which side do you come down on?
Cuts and deficits are going to be the conversation on both sides of the pond. The question is, are we going to balance our budgets on the backs of our most vulnerable people? What Glenn Beck and Fox News and Murdoch don’t speak about is this: we have socialism in the USA – for the rich, for Wall Street. We use taxpayers’ money to bail them out and then they use that money and make themselves richer than ever. So, when government decides what to cut, they listen to who’s got the loudest voices. And the poor don’t have many lobbyists in Washington. The pharmaceutical companies have three lobbyists for every member of Congress.
Christians have got to stand up for those who have no voice. I would say cut those Trident submarines and warheads before you cut benefits for the poor. The balance has been all on the side of the wealthy and powerful who get their interests looked after first. That’s not what Micah, Amos and Isaiah would see as justice. Justice is integral to the gospel and Glenn Beck doesn’t understand that, Rupert Murdoch doesn’t get that, but it’s what the Bible says.
Let’s talk about President Obama. You’ve got to know him well...
I got to know him ten years ago when he was a young man; a state senator in Illinois.
How has he changed in that time? The perception is that the weight of office has been heavy on him...
The proverb says, ‘Without a vision, the people perish.’ When people feel like they’re perishing they’re afraid and angry. People are struggling, out of work and losing their homes. We have to refocus on jobs and homes and mortgages. But I think we need a bigger vision, and that’s where my old friend has got trapped. Washington DC is wired to block change and I think he ought to pay more attention to how movements in the past have really made change – from Dr King to Wilberforce. He’ll need the wind of a movement at his back and also in front of him to clear the path and pull him along when necessary.
Have you told him this?
Yes I have.
And what does he say?
I think he’s struggling with learning the lessons of the mid term elections [in which the Democratic Party lost its majority in the House of Representatives]. My hope is that he will reflect and listen carefully and we might see some new direction.
How does it work with the two of you? Does he just ring you in the middle of the night when he needs advice?
I think it’s good not to talk about conversations, but President Obama does listen to faith leaders – there’s a council of us who’ve been together for a while. My concern, though, is what we do as churches rather than what the White House does. As Christians we have to lead by example, and I hope he sees our example more than just having conversations in the middle of the night. Advising politicians is not usually the way to social change. Advice is fine, but prophetic voice is needed more than anything else. This is a spiritual and moral crisis, not just an economic one. Even as Christians, we’ve lost our way. Materialism is the drug of an unjust society and it numbs our minds, quietens our conscience and distracts our attention. I want us to think about what it means to be Christian in relation to an economic crisis, what our values and priorities should be. We’ve got trapped – the shopping malls are the places we worship. Let’s look at ourselves, let’s offer leadership by example and if the President listens to us, that’s fine. But I want us to be doing something that gets [his] attention and moves [him] in a different direction.
You’ve been preaching the same message – about ethics in economics, morality in public life and faith in politics – for more than 40 years. Do you get frustrated that we’ve not all caught your vision yet?
For years Tony Campolo, John Perkins, Ron Sider and I felt like voices in the wilderness. But now we really do see a new generation coming of age. Half the audiences who come to hear me speak are under 30. I’m hopeful about the future even though the present is painful because of recession. It’s a matter of calling and vocation. Where your gifts meet the crushing needs of the world – that’s your vocation. I try to help young people figure out what their vocation is. A movement is made up of people who find their place.
What about churches that are suffering from big internal disputes over sexuality, for example?
I think it’s sad that when three billion people – half of God’s children – are living on less than two dollars a day, so much of our talk is about homosexuality. It’s an important issue for sure, but with so many people struggling and dying in poverty, should this be our top issue?
The bigger problem is people turning away from marriage. It’s not gay people that are causing people to turn away from marriage. In the West sexuality is very recreational, rather than covenantal. How do we get young people to commit to marriage and parenting? It’s critical and worth fighting for. But to debate homosexuality forever won’t take us where we want to go. Let’s talk about it – let’s be biblical, theological and consistent; but let’s not talk about it all the time. The world needs to see we care about people even if we don’t always agree with everything they’re doing.
It’s not just the ‘hot button issues’ though. There are so many things on which Christians are divided – interpretations of hell, for example.
Well, we’ve got hell on earth right now. Too many of God’s children are in living hell – kids living on garbage dumps with HIV as a death sentence. If people see us caring about living hell, we’ll be more credible. I love theology and am happy to have those conversations, but Jesus says, ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked – where were you?’ That’s a place of judgement in the scriptures. We’d be very evangelistic if we were the ones providing leadership on that question. Then we can talk about theology. I think a new generation cares less about what we believe, than what we do. And what we do has to point people to Christ. I’m an evangelical – I want people to come to Christ. But now I see churches drawing young people into doing the things their city needs, then along the way they ask, ‘Why are you doing these things?’ And that’s your chance to tell them about Jesus and how he’s changed your life.
Does the sheer scale of poverty and injustice get you down?
In an affluent society, spirituality that isn’t disciplined by the struggle for justice can become self-serving and narcissistic. But the struggle for justice without deep spiritual roots can become despairing, burn you out and lead to violence. You can’t be an activist for a long time without being a contemplative and rooting yourself in prayer. There are people I go to for spiritual direction. And my kids, frankly – putting them to bed most nights, and hearing their prayers is an anchor for me. If we’re not being fed by the streams of living water we can become worn down, cynical and lose our faith. Faith is essential – you can only keep going if you’ve got hope.
But do you struggle with why God would allow such a level of suffering in the world?
The God of the Bible has a broken heart when he sees suffering. Christ on the cross is the image of a God crucified for the sin of our world. We have freedom and we do these things to each other and ourselves. We have a God who suffers with us and calls us to minister. We are God’s hands and feet. My seven-year-old Jack prayed the other night: ‘I pray for all of the poor and hungry people out there’ Then he paused and said ‘You know God, there are a lot of poor and hungry people out there.’ I love that kind of interaction with God. Luke, when he was about 10 said to God, ‘I pray for all the children that are going to die tomorrow. I pray they won’t die.’ Then he said, ‘but that’s unlikely...Er Lord, I pray it would be their best day ever before they die...but that’s stupid because it won’t be a good day...’ then he paused and said, ‘Lord, help us to stop this happening,’ and I’m sitting there in tears saying, ‘Amen little brother, Amen.’
Rev Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, which was founded in the USA in 1971. In demand as a speaker at Christian conferences and on secular TV and radio stations, he’s also the author of several books including God’s Politics. He’s a member of the advisory council to President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and an informal advisor to the President himself. Raised in a Brethren household, Wallis graduated from Michigan State University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, and was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He’s married to Rev Joy Carroll, who was the inspiration for the character portrayed by Dawn French in The Vicar of Dibley. The 62-year-old also loves to coach his sons’ little league baseball team.