The Common Good

It Takes a Movement: How Access to Power can be Dangerous

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[Editor's Note: Today is the fourth installment of a six-part series by Jim Wallis reflecting on the past two years and painting a post-election vision for people of faith and Sojourners. We encourage you to read the essays, engage in conversation with others, and support Sojourners in making this vision happen.]

The power of an inside/outside strategy has been compromised by the problem of access which many leaders from social movements got after the election of Barack Obama. I remember seeing many friends in the building which served as the administration's transition headquarters, all of us attending meeting after meeting on the policies the new administration hoped to enact. Some of us attended so many meetings on so many varied topics that some security guards joked that we ought to have cots in the transition headquarters to avoid going back and forth from home so much.

After the new administration took office, the meetings and calls continued. Along with about 20 other leaders from the faith-based and nonprofit community, I served on the first Whitehouse Council of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- a commitment which involved more task forces, phone calls, and multi-day White House meetings than any of us ever expected.

In Washington, D.C., access quickly becomes an end in itself, with elites simply changing places after elections. Getting your calls returned or being able to get the meetings you want about your concerns can be very seductive. But access without results doesn't ultimately mean very much. Dr. King learned to navigate the corridors of power in Congress and the White House, but his base was always outside of those places of power. When leaders from social movements get too close to power and are given lots of access, they can sometimes forget the lessons and wisdom of the social movements they have come from. Frederick Douglass knew he had to be a thorn in Abraham Lincoln's side when he said, "Power concedes nothing without demand."

I am deeply concerned about the disappointment I have felt everywhere among those who believed, almost two years ago, that some serious political change might finally be on the way. That promise is now disappearing rapidly and is in danger of retreating into an even deeper cynicism than before, having acted in faith for a hope that seems ever more dim. Many are deeply troubled about our country right now, and have been struggling in the hope of finding some clarity and direction ourselves for what to say and do.

Many leaders of various constituencies and sectors who I talk to around the country are ready to mobilize a movement in support of solutions to our pressing needs, whether there is a president or Congress who leads or not. I feel a growing need to create a more independent and critical movement for social justice and change in America. The relational and convening power in the faith community is substantial and has the potential to chart a more prophetic course on behalf of the issues that are so central to us. We will reach out directly to the people in our pews, our parishes, and our communities; empowering ordinary people to resist the cynicism and become real citizens again. We will do our best to create the response, even strong enough to evoke the call. Advisors might not be as needed as prophets are. Biblically, there were always the prophets of the court, who often had supportive words for the king. But, the prophets of Yahweh were more often from the wilderness and often had strong words for the king.

[Part 5 of this series, "Moral Centering and Political Recalibration," will be available on the God's Politics blog tomorrow. Sojourners is building a movement to inspire hope, over fear. That's the message that must echo in 2010. Help us make it happen.]

portrait-jim-wallisJim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.


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