The Common Good

Jim Wallis Blog Entries

Our Fiscal Soul and the Arithmetic of Protecting the Poor

The discussion we are having about “the fiscal cliff” is really a debate about our fiscal soul. What kind of nation do we want to be? We do need a path to fiscal sustainability, but will it include all of us — especially the most vulnerable? It’s a foundational moral choice for the country, and one with dramatic domestic and deadly global implications. It is the most important principle for the faith community in this debate.  

I had a recent conversation with an influential senator on these fiscal issues. I said to him, “You and I know the dozen or so senators, from both sides of the aisle, who could sit at your conference table here and find a path to fiscal sustainability, right?” 

“Yes,” he said, “we could likely name the senators who would be able to do that.” I added, “And they could protect the principle and the policies that defend the poor and vulnerable, couldn’t they?” 

“Yes,” he said, “We could do that too.” “But,” I asked, “Wouldn’t then all the special interests come into this room to each protect their own expenditures; and the end result would be poor people being compromised, right?” 

The senator looked us in the eyes and said, “That is exactly what will likely happen.”

It will happen unless we have bipartisan agreement, at least by some on both political sides, to protect the poor and vulnerable in these fiscal decisions — over the next several weeks leading up to Christmas and the New Year, and then for the longer process ahead in 2013. 

But for that to be viable, the arithmetic must work.

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Bibles, Badges, and Business: Forging Consensus on Immigration Reform

Editor's Note: The following is a statement by Jim Wallis given at the kickoff of the National Strategy Session — a gathering faith, law enforcement, and business leaders who are reaching consensus on common-sense immigration reform. Throughout the week, the group is calling on Congress to create a road to citizenship for immigrants contributing to our society. You can follow a live stream of the press conference and strategy sessions HERE.

It’s quite an accomplishment to get Bibles, Badges and Business together all in one room and agreeing on something this big. This reminds us all that Christmas and the holiday season really is a time for miracles. It’s enough to make you believe there is a God! The country is hungry to see our political leaders work together and find a bipartisan solution to an issue of this magnitude. I have faith that comprehensive immigration reform is that common ground. And if we do this, who knows what else it might lead to.

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Starting the 'Christmas Tithe'

Religion is far too judgmental. Surveys show that many people think that, especially a new generation of young people who — more than ever before — are checking the “none of the above” religious affiliation box. 

I get it. But religious leaders tend to be judgmental about many of the wrong things; they are not making moral judgments on the important questions. So I am going to be judgmental, as a religious leader, about something I just read.

A recent Harris International and World Vision poll showed that Americans plan to spend more this Christmas season on consumer gifts than they did last year, but give less to charities and ministries that help the poor. Many say they are less likely to give a charitable gift as a holiday present — a drop from 51 percent to 45 percent.

So we will have more Christmas presents this year, but less help for the poor. While retailers, economists, and politicians may rejoice at the news about higher consumer spending this year, the lower levels of support for the ones Jesus called “the least of these” should legitimately bring some moral judgments from the faith community. 

Indeed, the Matthew 25 scripture that this text is taken from is one of the few and most judgmental passages in all the New Testament. About some things, Jesus was judgmental. The Gospel clearly says that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner, is how we treat Jesus. That’s is pretty judgmental, especially when you go on to read what will happen to those who ignore Jesus in this way. 

But rather than just being judgmental, let’s do something about it. Let’s start “A Christmas Tithe.”

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Dear Congress, This Holiday Season, Don’t Make the Poor Poorer

A lot of ink, pixels, and air have been used on the potential effects of the so-called “fiscal cliff.” While many experts say that “cliff” is a misnomer (it’s more of long slope in the wrong direction), there is at least broad agreement that it’s not the right direction for the country’s long-term health.

We’ve heard a lot about the potential effects on Wall Street, our nation’s credit rating, and even the military. But little has been said about the devastating consequences for our nation and the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people — or for the charities and non-profits that serve them.  

This week, the Circle of Protection, released an open letter to the president and Congress with a simple message: during the holidays, please “advance policies that protect the poor — not ones that make them poorer.”

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The New Evangelical Agenda

The day after the election, Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler said, “I think this was an evangelical disaster.” 

Not really. But it was a disaster for the religious right, which had again tied its faith to the partisan political agenda of the Republican Party — which did lose the election. But Nov. 6 was an even deeper disaster for the religious right’s leaders, because they will no longer be able to control or easily co-opt the meaning of the term “evangelical.” 

During this election, much of the media continued to use the word as a political term — as a key constituency of the Republican conservative base. But what the media really means when they use term “evangelical” is “conservative white evangelical.” All other kinds of evangelicals are just never counted.

Just as the 2012 electoral results finally revealed the demographic transformation of America — which has been occurring for quite some time — it also dramatically demonstrated how the meaning of the word “evangelical” is being transformed. 

Evangelical can no longer be accurately used to mean “white evangelical.” 

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The Prerequisite of the Common Good

The day after the 2012 election brought a great feeling of relief. Most of us, whether our candidates won or lost, were so weary of what elections have become that we were just glad the process was over. Many were disappointed that dysfunctional and bitterly partisan politics in Washington, D.C., had undermined their deep desires for “hope” and “change.” Politics has severely constrained those possibilities by focusing on blame instead of solutions, and winning instead of governing. And, as the most expensive election in American history just showed, the checks have replaced all the balances. 

But the election results produced neither the salvation nor the damnation of the country, as some of the pundits on both sides seemed to suggest. 

The results of the presidential election showed how dramatically a very diverse America is changing; people are longing for a vision of the common good that includes everyone. As one commentator put it “the demographic time bomb” has now been set off in American politics — and getting mostly white, male, and older voters is no longer enough to win elections, as the Romney campaign learned on Tuesday.

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God Is Still Not A Republican, Or A Democrat

During the 2004 presidential election season, Sojourners put out a bumper sticker with these words: “God Is Not a Republican, or a Democrat.” The number of orders was overwhelming and we kept running out. The simple message struck a chord among many Christians who were tired of the assumptions and claims by the Religious Right that God was indeed a Republican, or at least voted a straight-party ticket for the GOP. They also absurdly implied — and sometimes explicitly stated — that faithful Christians couldn’t support Democratic candidates. We said that voting was always an imperfect choice in a fallen world, based on prudential judgments about how to best vote our values, that people of faith would always vote in different ways — and that was a good thing for a democracy and the common good.

Our efforts appeared to inject some common sense into our nation’s political discourse, but given recent electoral statements and newspaper ads from some conservative Christian leaders, it appears the message bears repeating — God is still not a Republican or Democrat.

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Religious Consistency and Hypocrisy: Election 2012

Most people in America, whether they are religious or not, prefer consistency in the faith community to hypocrisy. One of the reasons the fastest growing demographic in religious affiliation surveys is now “none of the above” is that too many people see more religious hypocrisy than consistency.

Religion is not, at its core, politically partisan. But too often religion becomes a political tool; and we see that on both sides of the aisle. That does not mean people of faith shouldn’t have strong convictions or feelings about political issues or shouldn’t vote one way or another; or that there is a moral equivalency between the political parties and it doesn’t matter which way we vote. Elections are important, and people of faith should be voting as citizens and by their most basic values.

But let’s be clear: On Nov. 6, neither a Republican nor Democratic victory will bring in the Kingdom of God. 

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The George McGovern I Remember

 

I will miss George McGovern. The former senator from South Dakota and Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 died in a hospice on Sunday, at 90, surrounded by family and friends who loved him.

Indeed, many of us did.

1972 was the first year I was old enough to vote in an election, and McGovern was the first presidential candidate for whom I voted.

To this day, I am more proud of that vote than most of the others I have cast since.

Some of McGovern’s people contacted me while I was still at seminary during the 1972 campaign. They wanted McGovern to have a chance to meet and talk with evangelical Christians, since his own Christian faith was very important to him — being the son of a Methodist minister and even having studied for a divinity degree himself for a while before deciding to go into teaching history. I agreed to help.

They couldn’t understand why most evangelicals at the time were for Richard Nixon, a man who turned out not to be one of the U.S.'s most honest, humble, or deeply religious presidents.

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Young Evangelicals and the 'Nones'

The Pew Forum recently released a new study, “Nones on the Rise.” This was not about my friends called the “Nuns On The Bus,” who just did a tour around the country focusing on social justice. Rather, It details the concerning trend of those in our country who have given up on religion altogether. 

Social scientists tell us that adults, especially young adults, are increasingly disconnected from our established religious traditions. “Nones,” the Pew forum calls them, have grown from 15 percent of U.S. adults to 20 percent in only five years. One-in-three adults under 30 check the religious affiliation box, “None of the above” or “Unaffiliated.” Despite the fact that 68 percent of nones believe in God, only 5 percent of them attend church once or more a week, and 22 percent attend monthly/yearly. (Learn more about this group in our blog series Meet the Nones.)

But the focus on the next generation is not all bad news. On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of moderating a diverse panel of seven young evangelicals. Each had unique experiences and backgrounds. Some self-identified as liberal, while others self-identified as conservative. But those political ideologies could not separate their core evangelical principles. 

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Who Didn’t Win the Presidential Debate?

Many people in America are poor, due to no fault of their own—and their numbers are growing.

If you really know any poor people, you know that to be true. If you don’t, the first sentence of this post runs against the grain of many cultural assumptions in America that tend to blame people for being poor.

On the eve of the first Presidential debate, Sojourners premiered The Line — a film about the new faces of poverty in America. In this powerful documentary from award-winning filmmaker Linda Midgett, those popular judgmental assumptions against poor people clearly and convincingly are debunked.

The Line, which I am asking everyone who reads this column to watch, deftly dismantles many stereotypes about poverty and shows why a growing number of Americans find themselves falling into it. The film does so by telling the personal stories of people who have fallen beneath “the line.”

My 14-year-old son Luke, watched the story of John: a banker from a failed bank who once made a six-figure salary, but who now finds himself a substitute teacher making $12,000 a year while trying to raise his three kids. John painfully talked about what it feels like to have to go to a food bank because he has no other viable choice.

His story caused Luke to ask his mom after the film, “John said he got straight A’s in school, so could that happen to me?”

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Let's Talk Poverty in the Debate

Tomorrow night is the first presidential debate. It will undoubtedly be an important moment in the campaign for the highest office in the land. But, whose lives will it be important to?

Certainly, there will be a lot for pundits to discuss and dissect. They will analyze phrases and statements, and will compare them to polling data and focus groups in swing states. Super PACs will record gaffes by either candidate, ready to turn them into multi-million dollar commercial buys.

But, as a person of faith, what I want to know is: how will the words that are said and the positions that are staked out affect the 46 million people in our country living in poverty? What does it mean for the hardworking families who can't put food on the table? Or the 1 in 5 children for whom poverty is an everyday reality and opportunity seems to be an illusion?

Tonight is the world premiere of a film that puts those questions front and center. The Line is a new documentary film from Emmy award-winning writer and producer, Linda Midgett. It tells the stories of real people struggling to make ends meet but still falling below the poverty line. These are stories far too common in our country today and should be a central topic of this debate.  

 

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'Love Your Neighbor' Wasn't Just a Suggestion

The most recent discussions of U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East, once again say more about politics during an election year, than they do about the fundamental issues we must confront if we want to see substantial change.

So let’s look at the basic issues and fundamental choices we need to make.

Today the Middle East — where about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25 — is a region dominated by humiliation and anger.

Failure + rage + the folly of youth = an incendiary mix.

The roots of anti-American hostilities in the Middle East run deep (literally and figuratively). We can start with the fact that our oil (and its economy) lies beneath their sands. Couple that with U.S. support of repressive and backward regimes, the continual presence of foreign troops on their land and in their holy places, and the endless wars waged there, ultimately fueled by the geopolitics of energy.

Add to that incindiary cocktail the unresolved Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which continues to drive the deepest emotions of mutual frustration, fear, and retaliation throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Injustices and violence caused by the oil economy have sparked a reaction from dangerous religious fundamentalists in the Islamic world. Fundamentalism — in all our faith traditions — is both volatile and hard to contain once it has been unleashed, and it becomes hard to reverse its essentially reactive and predictably downward cycle.

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The Christian Response to Religious Extremism

Most people, Christian or not, know the story of the Good Samaritan. In it, a man, who is presumably an Israelite, is mugged on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. A priest passes by without stopping. So does a Levite. But then a Samaritan — someone who belongs to a radically different socioeconomic and cultural group than the Israelite — stops to help. This is Jesus’ vision for us as we answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

So it should shock us, surprise us, and sadden us, when we hear about tragedies like the shooting at the Sikh gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. For the victims of such attacks — whether they are Sikh, Muslim, Hindu — are our neighbors too.

 

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Michael Gerson: Conservatism and the Common Good

My friend Mike Gerson wrote a significant column in the Washington Post today, titled "An Ideology Without Promise." It takes a deeper look at the now infamous Romney video and addresses the crisis that we all have to face now. I recommend reading Mike’s column. He says in part:

This crisis has a number of causes, including the collapse of working-class families, the flight of blue-collar jobs and the decay of working-class neighborhoods, which used to offer stronger networks of mentors outside the home. Perverse incentives in some government programs may have contributed to these changes, but this does not mean that shifting incentives can easily undo the damage. Removing a knife from a patient does not automatically return him to health. Whatever the economic and cultural causes, the current problem is dysfunctional institutions, which routinely betray children and young adults. Restoring a semblance of equal opportunity — promoting family commitment, educational attainment and economic advancement — will take tremendous effort and creative policy.

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Introducing The Emerging Voices Project: One Vision. Many Voices.

Today, Sojourners is launching a new project called Emerging Voices, and it’s one of the most exciting things I have been involved with for a long time. It aims to mentor, develop, and promote the most dynamic up-and-coming communicators — speakers, preachers, and teachers — who so clearly are called to lead and publicly articulate the biblical call to social justice.

The vision for this project is exciting and something to be celebrated. It also calls to mind a critical observation: Our world often wants saviors, not prophets; new messiahs, not leaders.

We want heroes with superhuman strength who save the day, not mere mortals who speak the truths we typically don’t want to hear. Even the modern day giants of social justice — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Mahatma Gandhi, for example —were at best prophets, but never saviors.
 
It’s easy to slip into the mentality that one person, one voice will rise up in a generation, and that he or she will change the world as we know it. Perhaps we even think, “Maybe I will change the world.”

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The Ethical Opportunity of a Video

The recently revealed video of Gov. Mitt Romney at a fundraising event last May is changing the election conversation. I hope it does, but at an even deeper level than the responses so far.

There are certainly politics there, some necessary factual corrections, and some very deep ironies. But underneath it all is a fundamental question of what our spiritual obligations to one another and, for me, what Jesus' ethic of how to treat our neighbors means for the common good.

Many are speaking to the political implications of Romney's comments, his response, and what electoral implications all this might have. As a religious leader of a non-profit faith-based organization, I will leave election talk to others.

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We Asked; They Answered: Obama, Romney on Poverty

As the faith leaders said yesterday, we have no choice but to respond when we learn that so many of our brothers and sisters are living in poverty. It makes these presidential candidate videos ones that every Christian should watch before they vote.

We asked the candidates, what will you do to address the highest numbers of people in poverty in America in almost 50 years—numbers that we learned today are still growing? We believe these messages from the Presidential candidates should lift the issues of poverty into the national debate into this election season.

We invite members of the press to watch these videos and to question these candidates even further about their visions and policy choices for overcoming poverty. The poverty numbers that came out yesterday require responsible journalists to make the question of poverty an important part of this election year discussion. 

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Watch 'The Line': The Most Important Film You'll See This Year

Matthew 25 doesn’t say, “As you have done to the middle class you have done to me."

What it records Jesus saying is, “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” Chances are that will never be the central message of political conventions during election years.

But every four years for the last 40 years (even before we were called Sojourners), our community has done what we can to lift up the issue of poverty during presidential elections. While political party platforms have changed, our commitment to the least of these has not.

So it is with that spirit, this election year, that I am proud to present a new short film called The Line.

Written and directed by Emmy-award winning producer Linda Midgett, it chronicles the very real stories of four real people struggling with real poverty in America today.

You’ll meet a banker in the suburban Midwest who used to earn six-figures a year and now, after the economic collapse, must go to a food bank to feed his three kids; a fisherman on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana who has watched his livelihood and his culture wash away in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and a devastating off-shore oil spill; a blue collar guy in North Carolina who worked hard his whole life but lost his job, became homeless, and started over as a restaurant bus boy; and a single mom in Chicago who battles daily to ensure that her son is safe, healthy, and has the opportunity to go to college.

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Caring for the Poor is Government's Biblical Role

There is hardly a more controversial political battle in America today than that around the role of government. The ideological sides have lined up, and the arguments rage about the size of government: how big, how small should it be? Some famously have said government should be shrunk so small that it "could be drowned in a bathtub."

But I want to suggest that what size the government should be is the wrong question. A more useful discussion would be about the purposes of government and whether ours is fulfilling them. So let's look at what the Bible says.

The words of Paul in the 13th chapter of Romans are perhaps the most extensive teaching in the New Testament about the role and purposes of government. Paul says those purposes are twofold: to restrain evil by punishing evildoers and to serve peace and orderly conduct by rewarding good behavior. Civil authority is designed to be "God's servant for your good" (13:4). Today we might say "the common good" is to be the focus and goal of government.

So the purpose of government, according to Paul, is to protect and promote. Protect from the evil and promote the good, and we are even instructed to pay taxes for those purposes. So to disparage government per se  to see government as the central problem in society — is simply not a biblical position.

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