The Common Good

Jim Wallis Blog Entries

I Will Miss David Kuo

David Kuo was a good friend of mine. After a decade long battle with brain cancer, David passed away last week. He leaves a beloved wife, Kimberly, and two little children. 

Because David’s family situation was similar to my own, our whole family was very aware of David’s pilgrimage over these many years and my two boys would want to pray for “your friend David.”  

When I first met David, he was known as a rising young star among political conservatives. We met in a hotel gym at a conference we were both attending. Over the workout together, we became friends. David was the exemplary “compassionate conservative”  and later joined the Bush White House faith-based office. He was always a truth teller and did that in Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction that warned how politics — on both sides of the aisle — can prevail over and even manipulate faith for political gain. 

David always believed that our faith should shape our politics, not the other way around.

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VIDEO: The Story of the Common Good

I recently went back to the Lincoln Memorial to tell the story of how and why I wrote my new book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good. And I reflected on my favorite Lincoln quote, displayed on the book’s cover:

“My concern is not whether God is on our side: my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

I invite you to watch this short video, and to engage in the discussion as we move forward toward our common good. Blessings.

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On God’s Side: For the Common Good

A revealing thing happens when you remove yourself from the daily drum of politics and become a mere observer. I did just that last year, during some of the most divisive moments of the presidential election. Sitting back and watching the deluge of insults and accusations that feeds our political system, I witnessed the worst of us as a nation. And I came to the conclusion that it’s time to reframe our priorities.

When did we trade the idea of public servants for the false idols of power and privilege? When did we trade governing for campaigning? And when did we trade valuing those with the best ideas for rewarding those with the most money?

We’ve lost something as a nation when we can no longer look at one another as people, as Americans, and — for people of faith  — as brothers and sisters.  Differing opinions have become worst enemies and political parties have devolved into nothing more than petty games of blame.

During a three-month sabbatical, observing this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, I prayed, meditated, read — and then I put pen to paper. The resulting book gets to the root of what I believe is the answer to our current state of unrest. It is not about right and left — or merely about partisan politics — but rather about the quality of our life together. It's about moving beyond the political ideologies that have both polarized and paralyzed us, by regaining a moral compass for both our public and personal lives — by reclaiming an ancient yet urgently timely idea: the common good.

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Men and Boys Behaving Badly: Where Are Their Fathers?

It’s a constant story line involving powerful men in politics, sports, business, and even religion: they behave with utter disregard for the dignity and humanity of women, using and abusing them at will, and somehow believe that — as men — they are entitled to do so. These men seem to think that the ordinary rules of decent behavior do not apply to them. We have a never-ending avalanche of disgusting stories about men cheating on their spouses and the mothers of their children, abandoning old wives for new ones, practicing serial philandering as a way of life, sexually harassing and assaulting women, physically abusing them, and even committing rape.

And now we have the boys, high school football players from Steubenville, Ohio. As a father of two boys, one now a high school athlete, and as a Little League baseball coach, I was especially fixed on this very sad and brutal story of a 16-year-old girl being sexually assaulted by two high school football players after she had passed out from drinking too much. When the girl woke up the next morning, she was horrified to see herself naked all over social media with Tweets everywhere about her and what had happened, from the boys who assaulted her and those who watched. The boys’ lawyers pleaded that she didn’t say no; but the judge concluded that when you assault a girl who is unconscious, and can’t say no; it’s called rape.

The judge made the right decision. Rape is rape.

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Gordon Cosby: Teaching Us How to Live and How to Die

Gordon Cosby was perhaps the most Christian human being I have ever known. But he would always be the first to raise serious questions about what it meant to be a “Christian” and lived a very different kind of life than many of his fellow pastors and church leaders who call themselves Christian. Gordon was always happier just calling himself a follower of Jesus. He always told people who wanted to call him “Reverend” to just say “Gordon.”

At 4:15 Wednesday morning, Gordon went home into the arms of Jesus. At 94 years of age, he died in hospice at Christ House, a medical living community for the homeless, and one of the myriad of ministries formed by the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., which Gordon and Mary Cosby founded in 1950.

Gordon Cosby and the Church of the Saviour were one of the most important reasons that Sojourners decided to come to Washington in 1975. And we have been spiritually intertwined ever since. For Sojourners, Gordon was a mentor, elder, inspirer, supporter, encourager, challenger, and retreat leader. For me, personally, he was a pastor and my most important spiritual advisor and director. Our countless times together provided me more wisdom, care, support, discernment, and direction than I ever found with anybody else. And never have I felt more prayers for me from anyone than I did from Gordon Cosby, especially in the closing years of his life.

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'Rebuild My Church'

Francis. Pope Francis. This could be good news for the Catholic Church, for the whole church, and for the world. Let’s hope and pray so.

Jorge Bergoglio, the Argentinian cardinal from Buenos Aires, will be the first pope from Latin America and the first outside of Europe in a millennium. That’s good news from the start. And the world is now learning about the 76-year-old new pontiff whose election caused the white smoke to rise in the night skies of Rome to the cheers of tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square. A Jesuit scholar, he seems to be a humble man who lives simply, choosing to live in a small apartment instead of the archbishop’s palace, and travel on buses and trams instead of in the church limousine.

Will simplicity and social justice become the witness of the Roman Catholic Church around the world — and will it emanate from the first pope from the Global South, which is clearly the growing future of the church? What good news that would be.

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A Prayer at the White House

A meeting today of faith leaders with the president on immigration reform opened and closed with prayer.

This was my prayer at the end:

Thank you Lord, for this circle of leaders around the table and how you have brought us together to help welcome the stranger in our midst — to fix this broken immigration system that breaks families and lives.

Thank you for the leadership of Barack Obama in making comprehensive immigration reform such a high priority in these critical months ahead. Guide and direct him to find a genuine bipartisan political path to accomplish something so important that has been needed for so long. We thank you for both the Republicans and Democrats who are coming together to make that possible.

[Continued]

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'The Bible' Series: An Invitation to 'Change the World' (VIDEO)

The Bible. Just the phrase sends messages, signals, and feelings to our hearts and minds, and around the world. It’s the best-selling book in human history, and one that the majority of humanity (including me), believes to have been inspired by God, with myriad interpretations of what that means.

I grew up on Bible stories, some of the best stories in human and divine history. We learned them as kids, were amazed at the images and lessons, and they were ingrained into our thinking and acting. So I watched with great delight as my sons, Luke and Jack, saw the first episode of “The Bible,” a History Channel special series that began this past Sunday and runs the five weeks through Easter. Film and television personalities Mark Burnett and Roma Downey are behind this, with a legion of others. They expect it to eventually be seen by 1 billion people.

The first Sunday show was a very dramatic depiction of the creation story, Noah’s Ark, Abraham’s call to come out to a new land, the birth of Ishmael and Isaac, the almost sacrifice of Isaac, Hebrew slavery in Egypt, Moses' call at the burning bush, and the Exodus through the Red Sea — all in two hours! I loved watching my 9-year-old Jack watch the stories with such excitement. “I know this story!” he would say and tell us what was about to happen. “I don’t know this one,” he would then comment, and we would discuss it. We had a conversation about the scary sacrifice of Isaac before bedtime, trying to figure that one out. I told him I couldn’t have been as obedient as Abraham was.

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Pastors: It's Time to Speak Out for the Common Good

Politics at its best serves the common good — far above any one interest or political party. And right now in Washington, we see that playing out as we continue to reach accord on immigration reform. But when it comes to our budget debate, partisan ideology and special interests are winning out over the common good.

The ever-looming “sequester” that was never supposed to happen goes into effect tomorrow. Billions of dollars will be cut from domestic and military spending without any plan or strategy; jobs will be lost and people will suffer. Public frustration is growing with our elected officials, while they continue to argue over the role of government instead of governing responsibly. The press discusses who wins and loses in the polls, but it is clear that it is the common good that is losing.

On the other hand, immigration reform is being discussed, at the same time with the same political players, in a very reasonable and hopeful way. On that important policy change, bipartisan work is going forward to shape legislation that could pass both houses of Congress.

 

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Our Pastoral Letter on the Budget — And My Hope for the Common Good

The sequester battle is a good but tragic example of how the idea of the common good is failing in American politics. By contrast, the growing bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform is an alternative example of how a moral issue can rise about our ideologically driven politics.

The faith community has stepped into both issues with a call for political leaders to serve the common good. On immigration, political leaders are listening to the faith leaders; on the debates about our nation’s fiscal soul, political leaders need to listen better.

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Changing Poverty Into Opportunity: A Moral Cause To Bring Us Together

I know I am not the only one who is sick and tired of Washington’s manufactured crises around budget and deficit debates. Brinksmanship has replaced statesmanship in trying to find a sound path to fiscal responsibility. It is time to make the right moral choices that will defend the most vulnerable and pursue an opportunity agenda to reduce the highest poverty rate in 50 years.

Ideological debates over the role of government are the real battle in the nation’s capital — more than the debt crisis. Political calculations about the next election are more important to many of our political leaders than the common good of the country.

It’s just time to move on from the partisan politics that has polarized and paralyzed us for so long — by committing ourselves to moral issues that could and should bring us together. The first will be comprehensive immigration reform, which will change the lives of 12 million people in this country, lift many out of poverty, and help the economy at the same time. This is a clear example of how the faith community has changed, and now come together to become a political game changer in Washington, D.C., at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on both sides of the aisle.

And it’s time to make another moral commitment in the midst of our growing economic recovery — to include poor families and change poverty into opportunity. Fighting poverty must not be a partisan issue. When we look at both the causes and the solutions, this battle should bring both liberals and conservatives together. Overcoming poverty, by creating opportunity, happens because of three very basic things that most of us can agree on: family, education, and work. All three are crucial and necessary in moving people out of poverty and into opportunity.

Let’s break it down.

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Call and Response: What the President Did This Week

There is a tradition in the black church named “call and response.” It’s simply the experience of the preacher “calling” and the congregation “responding.” I’ve always loved it. When you’re preaching in a black church, and the congregants begin to actively and vocally respond, your sermon can actually get better, stronger, deeper, and more powerful than it might have been if everyone just sat there. Sermons get interactive. Congregations can be inspired by the preacher — and the other way around. Ideas grow, get taken further, and even develop during and after the sermon. And it can make things change.

After his first year in office, I sent a letter to President Barack Obama humbly suggesting he needed “the political equivalent of the black church’s call and response.” Just talking to and in Washington was never going to get important things done. Washington just sits there and mostly makes sure that things don’t change — and that the special interests that buy, shape, and control this city usually have their way. (That private letter to the president will be published for the first time in my new book about the common good coming out in April.)

I recalled something Obama said right after the 2008 election — that he would need “the wind of a movement at my back” to get anything really important done. He would have to go over the heads of Washington, to speak directly to the people that had elected him and also those who didn’t. He would have to have public debates about the common good and not just debate in Washington. 

I saw him do that in this week’s State of the Union speech.

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SOTU: Time for Common Ground for Common Good

There was truth tonight in the president’s State of the Union message.

There was truth that the rising costs of health care must indeed be addressed by serious reforms in our Medicare and healthcare system — but  that it’s wrong to put most of that burden on vulnerable seniors, while protecting the most powerful special interests. Truth that you should not reduce the deficit by cuts in crucial investments in education, infrastructure, science, clean energy, or programs for the most vulnerable — but leave billions of dollars in tax loopholes and deductions for the wealthy and well-connected. 

Truth in the compassionate and committed words about “poverty” and “poor” children and families who deserve our attention to find ladders up from poverty. Truth that no one who works full time in the wealthiest nation on earth should have to live in poverty but have a living wage. That quality pre-school should be available to every child in America to create stable and successful families. 

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A Grateful Farewell

Joshua DuBois has been running the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships for President Obama for the past four years, but he leaves the White House today. That Joshua’s farewell party had to be moved to a larger location is just one sign of the respect and affection he earned during Obama’s first term. The President especially appreciated his young spiritual adviser, and read devotional biblical reflections from DuBois every day. At yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama lifted up Joshua’s importance to him and his administration, and said how much the young African-American Pentecostal pastor would be missed; the applause from the audience demonstrated the president wasn’t alone.

I have worked closely with Joshua, and want to wish him my own grateful farewell. I’ve watched this young man grow into this important job. He has been a good listener, facilitator, encourager, and convener; and has worked hard to put faith-based offices in executive departments throughout the administration — a first for any White House. Over the course of the last four years, Joshua has been successful because people both trust and like him, and the farewell comments at his going away party will show that. Joshua has especially worked hard to connect outside faith leaders and the faith-based community to key places and players in the White House to move agendas that we care about forward. 

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Angry Senators Afraid of Debate

It was the biggest story inside the Beltway. Since last Thursday’s hearing, the whole Washington media machine has been discussing and dissecting the extraordinary confrontation in the Senate Armed Service Committee regarding the potential confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as the new Secretary of Defense. Several Republican senators were extremely combative with the combat veteran who earned two Purple Hearts for his wounds in Vietnam. Hagel deserves another Purple Heart for the wounds his former “friends” and party members tried to inflict upon him. Hagel didn’t really defend his views — which were both caricatured and attacked by his adversaries — perhaps on White House advice not risk further debates before being confirmed.

But I think Hagel’s views and the important questions he has raised about current U.S. wars and military policy deserve defending and, indeed, should become the subjects of a national debate. So I wrote a piece about one of Hagel’s most hostile questioners who insisted the possible new Secretary answer the simple question of whether the surge in Iraq was “right” or “wrong.” I said it was wrong, as was the war in Iraq, as was the war in Vietnam, as are the views of John McCain on war throughout his entire political career; and how the nation has been wounded by McCain’s and others’ “theology of war.

Chuck Hagel’s views could lead us to a necessary national debate if he becomes the new leader of the Pentagon. And it is that potential debate that Hagel’s critics are so afraid to have.

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John McCain’s Theology of War is Wrong

John McCain angrily insisted on “right” and “wrong” answers to his questions of Chuck Hagel yesterday. As a theologian and a religious leader, I want to say that John McCain is “wrong.”

I watched the hostile questions that Sen. McCain asked Hagel in the hearings on his nomination for Secretary of Defense. The angry attacks from McCain were about the Iraq War, for which McCain was one of America’s leading advocates. Hagel had previously called the war in Iraq the biggest American foreign policy mistake since Vietnam. Obviously furious, McCain tried to force Hagel to say the last “surge” in Iraq, which McCain had made his cause, was right after all. Despite the aggressive and disrespectful questioning from his former “friend,” Hagel wouldn’t submit to McCain’s demands and said these questions would be subject to history — and to theological morality, to which John McCain has never submitted his views. In fact, his repeated desire to invade other people’s countries is offensive moral hubris.

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Pastors, Parents, and People of Faith: Game Changers on Gun Violence

Pastors, parents, and people of faith — they can make the most difference in this country. We have seen it just this week on immigration reform. On Monday, in a breathtaking display of bipartisanship not seen for years in our dysfunctional capitol city, Democratic and Republican senators unveiled their plan for fixing the horribly broken immigration system — which their partisan irresponsibility caused. It was quite amazing, really. The very next day, President Barack Obama announced his commitment to and principles for comprehensive immigration reform amid a cheering crowd of young people in a Las Vegas high school gymnasium.

Political courage has suddenly replaced partisan roadblocks and official reticence to take on the controversial issue of immigration. What changed all this was, in my view: the courage of the young undocumented “DREAMers” who risked stepping out and speaking up; a change of heart among many law enforcement officials who find the present system untenable; business leaders who realize the economy now depends on immigrant labor; and, most dramatically, the faith community’s conversion to what Jesus said about welcoming the stranger as we would welcome him, and treating immigrants among us — who are the largest growing group in our faith communities — as our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s been basic: Gospel and relationships — but it has changed immigration politics. And as others, including those in the White House and the Congress, will tell you: evangelicals’ entry into this debate has been the primary political game changer.

We have a real battle before us now, and the ugly xenophobia and anti-Hispanic rhetoric that has resisted reform before will no doubt re-surface again. But that angry — and I will say racist — talk is what sunk the Republican Party in this last election. And the election has changed everything—even many Republicans’ sentiments. In this moral battle over the last several years, I have witnessed the roles of pastors, parents, and people of faith. Their roles have made all the difference.

Could that now happen again on guns? It will certainly be a long, up-hill battle (as immigration once was), but I think a change is possible here too.

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A Call for a New Social Covenant

In the past 20 years, the world has witnessed the death of social contracts. We have seen a massive breakdown in trust between citizens, their economies, and their governments. In our own country, we can point to years of data painting a bleak picture of the confidence Americans have in any of our traditional institutions.

Former assumptions and shared notions about fairness, agreements, reciprocity, mutual benefits, social values, and expected futures have all but disappeared. The collapse of financial systems and the resulting economic crisis not only have caused instability, insecurity, and human pain; they have also generated a growing disbelief and fundamental distrust in the way things operate and how decisions are made. 

This week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, we are looking to the future and asking “what now?” At a Saturday session — “The Moral Economy: From Social Contract to Social Covenant” — a document will kick off a year-long global conversation about a new “social covenant” between citizens, governments, and businesses.

This is really “a call” for worldwide discussion about what values are needed to address the many difficult challenges and choices the world is now facing. Inequality, austerity, retrenchment, constraints, mal-distribution, growing conflicts over resources, and extreme poverty all raise questions about our values. 

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Courage for the Common Good: Obama's Second Term

I attended the Inauguration Ceremony today. It was thankfully not as cold as last time. But it was one of President Barack Obama's best speeches — strong, clear, even tough, in a good way. My favorite line was: "… history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.

In other words, God has made those principles always presented at inaugurals "self-evident" or ordained; but human beings must implement them. The president is saying that it is up to us to do that in our time. He elaborated. He was specific. 

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The NRA's Dangerous Theology

Tuesday was the 84th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know about you, but I miss his words, so I offer a few. King said “people often hate each other because they fear each other, they fear each other because they don’t know each other, they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate, they cannot communicate because they are separated.” I would add to his words: ‘and in that separation they seek guns.’ As an evangelical Christian, I’m going to make this theological. 

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said this as his response to the massacre of children at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Conn.: “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” 

That statement is at the heart of the problem of gun violence in America today — not just because it is factually flawed, which of course it is, but also because it is morally mistaken, theologically dangerous, and religiously repugnant. 

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