The Common Good

Jim Wallis Blog Entries

Who's in Control?

I just returned from Davos, Switzerland, where the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is held each year. Leaders from business, government, and civil society all gather here to engage each other, make connections, and, hopefully, make progress on the mission statement of the WEF: “Committed to Improving the State of the World.”

I reflected on that mission statement last year in my remarks to all the attendees at the event’s closing session. I said the deeper meaning of leadership is sacrifice and not just skills — and that the most included people on the planet who were sitting in that famous Congress Hall will be morally evaluated by their relationship to the most excluded, who, of course, are never in that grand auditorium. Many individual leaders in attendance wanted to discuss that challenge further, and those conversations continued this year.

One session this year that drew many people off site was called “Struggle for Survival” — an intense simulation of how 3 billion people in our world actually live each day. Half of the global population exists on less than $2 per day. Run by the Crossroads Foundation, Struggle for Survival was a much more emotional experience than the rest of the sessions at Davos.

My wife, Joy, and I participated in this simulation, and the people running it told us that several CEOs seemed quite affected by the very powerful dramatization of real-world injustice and poverty. It took people out of their heads into stunning revelations of how the excluded really live, prompting feelings of guilt, pain, anger, empathy, and compassion — and then a call to commitment.

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Divesting from Fossil Fuels: We're Putting Our Money Where Our Faith Is

We’re a few weeks into 2015, which means many of us are striving to keep our New Year’s resolutions while others have already seen their best intentions collapse under the pressure of daily routines. Every year, we make promises to be better — we’ll go to the gym, save more money, slow down. But for Christians, every day is an opportunity to make resolutions. We call that repentance.

And this year — today — I am repenting of my dependence on fossil fuels.

While many associate repentance with sorrow or guilt, the biblical meaning of the word is to stop, turn around and go in a whole new direction. Repentance means changing our course and embarking on a new path.

For Christians, humanity’s failure to care for God’s creation warrants our repentance. This is not just a theological claim but a practical moral imperative when it comes to fossil fuel consumption. American Christians need to repent — and quickly!

Our society’s addiction to fossil fuels has had an unconscionable impact on the state of our Earth and on future generations. Coal-fired power plants are giving people cancer and asthma. Oil pipelines are spilling and destroying sacred lands. Natural gas fracking waste is leaking underground, threatening water sources. Through our consumption of coal, oil, and gas, we have enabled this toxic activity.

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State of the Union and Inequality: What Are You Going to Do Now?

This week, there was a lot of commentary about the State of the Union, the title of the president’s annual January speech before a joint session of Congress. I thought it was one of Obama’s best addresses recently because he focused on what is real for this country — growing economic inequality where only a few are doing “spectacularly well” while many families are still struggling just to get by.

The wife and mother from one of those families wrote the president a letter that seemed to have moved him, so he lifted up her “tight-knit family” trying to get through “hard times,” as she sat up in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama. Her family became a parable for the nation that is starting to do better economically but still faces hard choices that the president sought to address with very practical suggestions to support what he called “middle class economics."

Obama’s proposals for shifting tax breaks from the very wealthy to the middle class, to make possible child tax credits, days for sick leave, assistance with child care, and some relief from expensive educational costs are all proposals not likely to be supported by the new Republican Congress. But the speech begins to set what could be a long-term agenda to deal with our massive economic inequality — finally. Even the Republicans now might have to face up to the increasingly visible, embarrassing, alarming, and morally indefensible gaps between a small elite and the rest of the country.

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Je Suis … [?] How People of Faith Should Respond to Paris

Our first response to the horrible and frightening violence of Paris should be grief. False religion always makes the religious grieve, but when it engages in ghastly violence against other human beings who are made in God’s image, it should break our hearts as it breaks God’s.

These hateful terrorists, masquerading as religious believers, said on video they were the “avengers” of the prophet Mohamed. As such, they murdered cartoonists in the office of a magazine they identified with blasphemy. What these killers, and those like them, don’t understand is that they are the real blasphemers now by forcing their false and murderous distortions of Islam on the world and on other children of God. Their religion is now violence itself, a blasphemous interpretation of Islam, which in its truest expression is a religion of peace. Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, from the Reformed Church in America, has called Paris an “identity theft” of the Muslim faith. Several Muslim leaders have said that the damage terrorists like these do to the image of the Prophet Mohammed is much greater than any cartoonist could ever do.

While the tenet of freedom of speech has been invoked throughout the media coverage of the attacks, the religious implications here run much deeper. They are about how we in the faith community should respond when we are attacked by those who disdain us, disrespect us, distort us — as many believe the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo regularly did — and even viciously attack us. The magazine has often crudely, provocatively, and even gleefully satirized all religions in very offensive ways, suggesting that the fundamentalisms in all our religious traditions completely define the meaning of faith. Charlie Hebdo is apparently driven by its own ideology of secular fundamentalism, which regularly strikes out at all people of faith.

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'Selma's David Oyelowo on Playing MLK and What It Means to Be a Christian

“I do know the voice of God.”

That’s what David Oyelowo, the actor who beautifully portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the new film Selma, told me last night. It’s that voice, he said, that called him to play the role.

I was at the December preview of Selma in Washington, D.C., and then took my family to see it at an early showing on Christmas day. I sometimes respond emotionally to films, but Selma made we weep. It also made me grateful that for the first time in 50 years, a big studio had finally made a film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the people in the movement around him in Selma. I believe this movie, unlike most others, could actually change the nation’s conversation about race and reconciliation at a crucial time, perhaps even providentially.

On the premiere night, I met David Oyelowo, who spoke publically after the film about his faith. I don’t hear that kind of talk very much in D.C., but David was open and forthright, saying that playing the great Christian leader became part of his personal calling as a Christian.

In our conversation afterward, I asked David what he meant by those words. His answer prompted me to ask for an interview with him before the film, which debuts this weekend, came out. He and I talked last night (listen to the full interview below).

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10 Resolutions for 2015

Some people don’t like the idea of New Year’s resolutions, but I do. We often only use the word in the context of this season, but “resolution” is a nuanced noun. Some of its definitons include:

A firm decision to do or not to do something — see: intention, resolve, plan, commitment, pledge.

The quality of being determined or resolute — see: determination, purpose, steadfastness, perseverance,tenacity, tenaciousness, staying power, dedication, commitment, stubbornness, boldness, spiritedness, bravery, courage, pluck, grit.

The action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter — see: solution to, settlement of, conclusion to, “the peaceful resolution of all disputes.”

In a world of seemingly endless conflicts, I sure like the sound of that. We need more of all of these qualities just now. All three meanings of resolution are wonderfully attractive to me — and timely for this brand new year. So here are my 10 resolutions for this 2015:

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Campfires of Hope

Hope is not a feeling. It is a decision — a choice you make based on what we call faith or moral conscience, whatever most deeply motivates you.

I have said that for many years, but this Advent and Christmas season tests my words — even in my own heart.

This is not a time that many of us are feeling a great deal of hope. I hear that from many friends and allies as well.

In fact, many events this year feel like they have sucked the hope right out of us.

And yet, even in the midst of terrible events and stories, the possibilities of hope still exist depending on what we decide to do for reasons of faith and conscience. In fact, people of faith and conscience are already making a difference in the most difficult situations and places.

And that gives me hope. This season of Advent, in the Christian tradition, is a call to patient waiting.

Christmas is the celebration of God literally coming into the world in order to change it.

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The Myth of Crying Rape

The fact that the journalistic “scandal” got more public attention than the original story should give us pause. And the narrative that is playing out in the story’s wake — the one that says the college campus rape crisis is nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by the left — is disturbing.  

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A Pastoral Letter to White Americans

The stories of young black men being killed by white police are sparking a national conversation. However, public responses to these painful stories reveal an alarming racial divide. From an unarmed teenager killed in Ferguson, Mo.; to a 12 year-old boy shot dead in Cleveland; to a white police officer on video choking a black man to death in New York City; and a startling series of similar stories from across the country and over many decades — our reactions show great differences in white and black perspectives.

Many white Americans tend to see this problem as unfortunate incidents based on individual circumstances. Black Americans see a system in which their black lives matter less than white lives. That is a fundamental difference of experience between white and black Americans, between black and white parents, even between white and black Christians. The question is: Are we white people going to listen or not?

White Americans talk about how hard and dangerous police work is — that most cops are good and are to be trusted. Black Americans agree that police work is dangerously hard, but also have experienced systemic police abuse of their families. All black people, especially black men, have their own stories. Since there are so many stories, are these really just isolated incidents? We literally have two criminal justice systems in America — one for whites and one for blacks.

Are there police uses of force that are understandable and justifiable? Of course there are. If our society wasn’t steeped in a gun culture, many of these shootings could be avoided. But has excessive, unnecessary, lethal force been used over and over again, all across the country, with white police killing unarmed black civilians? Yes it has, and the evidence is overwhelming. But will we white people listen to it?

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America, We've Got a Problem

I was in Ferguson Wednesday when it happened: In a morally stunning decision, a Staten Island grand jury announced it would not bring criminal charges against a white police officer who choked a black man to death during a brutal incident last July. Stopped for allegedly selling some loose and therefore untaxed cigarettes, officer Daniel Pantaleo put a “chokehold” on Eric Garner, despite the fact that the move is against NYPD rules. Video of the incident shows Garner uttering his last words, “I can’t breathe.” New York’s medical examiner officially called this a “homicide,” but the grand jury said no charges will be made.

Of course, this comes just 10 days after the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict another white police officer, Darren Wilson, for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown on Aug. 9. Sojourners had convened a retreat in Ferguson for both national faith leaders and local pastors to look deeply at the historical and theological foundations of the Ferguson events and reflect upon how the church must respond. Emotional calls from pastors in New York City came with the horrible news, and people just began to weep — one young man wailing, “This time it was all on video …. and it still didn’t matter! How can I as a black man bring a black son into this world?” Lament and prayers followed with a resolve from an extraordinary two days on the ground in Ferguson — to act.

Local experts in St. Louis County helped us understand the damage done to their local communities for decades that led to the response that erupted after the killing of Michael Brown. We walked silently and prayerfully alongside the memorial to the slain teenager on West Canfield Avenue with black parents imagining their own sons lying there, and white parents realizing this would never happen to our kids. We kept looking at the street where this bloody incident had taken place, feeling more and more doubt about the narratives the county prosecutor had used to exonerate and excuse the white police officer from any responsibility — or at least a trial to publically sort out “conflicting testimonies.”

We met in a church with seven young leaders of the Ferguson protest movement. In just 116 days, these young people had become self-educated and extraordinary leaders, and we listened to a compelling analysis of their urgent situation and how they were trying to apply the history of social movements to change their oppressive circumstances. Their chilling stories of police harassment and brutality, preceded by a narrative of the educational and economic brutality that black young people like them experience daily were transforming words for those of us who listened, spellbound. As I listened, I realized America would be converted by these young people’s honest and earnest conversation — they would win the national debate about our criminal justice system’s response to young people of color.

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A Sad Night for America

Many black families woke up this morning knowing that the lives of their children are worth less than the lives of white children in America. The deep distrust of law enforcement in their own communities that so many African Americans feel just got deeper last night — 108 days since the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown — when the prosecuting attorney announced the decision not to subject the police officer who killed Brown to a trial where all the facts could be publically known and examined.

We now all have the chance to examine the evidence — released last night — in the grand jury’s decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson, who fired multiple bullets into Michael Brown. But the verdict on America’s criminal justice system is already in for many Americans: guilty, for treating young black men differently than young white men.

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Putting People Before Politics

Tonight, faith leaders and all those who have spent years trying to fix our broken immigration system should feel gratitude toward President Obama. In a primetime address to the nation, the president announced he was taking executive action to relieve some of the suffering caused by the failures of the status quo. Millions of families will no longer live under the daily threat of having their lives torn apart by senseless deportations, which is something all Christians – whether Republican or Democrat – should celebrate. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, who have spent significant portions of their lives hiding in the shadows, can now enjoy the flourishing God intends for us all. Their joy and well-being must inform our judgments of the president’s action, especially in light of the biblical call to “welcome the stranger.”

Unfortunately, the president’s compassionate actions are creating a political firestorm among some Republicans in Washington. Their anger and antipathy toward the White House are blinding them to the positive effects these measures will have for our society. Even after decades living and working in our nation’s capital, I’m still amazed at the many ways political ideology can prevent us from having “eyes that see” and “ears that hear.” I lament that our political discourse has come to this.

Everyone agrees the only way to find sustainable, long-term solutions is through Congress passing bipartisan legislation. The Senate did exactly that more than 500 days ago, but their honest efforts have languished in the House of Representatives because of Republican intransigence. GOP leaders promised alternative policy ideas; reform garnered widespread, nationwide support — including among a majority of Republicans; faith leaders were hopeful after countless positive conversations with members of Congress; the president even told me that he was “optimistic” about reform after conversations with Speaker John Boehner; the country, and, more importantly immigrant families, patiently waited — yet, the House failed to act.

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An Open Letter to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon

An imminent grand jury verdict in St. Louis County will determine whether to indict Ferguson police office Darren Wilson on criminal charges for shooting Michael Brown. News reports have detailed the expectation of violence in the St. Louis area after the decision is handed down and the mobilization being planned by law enforcement in response. This is an open letter to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon urging him to maintain peace and protect those exercising their right to free speech. I encourage you to read the letter and join me and others across the country in signing it now. Your voice can make a difference. Sojourners will send the letter and signatures to the Gov. Nixon. – Jim Wallis, Sojourners

Dear Gov. Nixon,

For the last several months, the nation’s eyes have been on Ferguson, Mo. Few had heard of this small St. Louis suburb until Michael Brown was shot and killed by a member of the city’s police department — whose mission is supposedly to serve and protect. Now this community is an infamous global symbol of the nation’s continued struggle for racial equality and the troubling trend of police militarization.

Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” These are not idealistic thoughts or nice sentiments to be dismissed when tensions and conflict arise. Rather, they are wise words of truth that should guide our thinking in moments of distress. We need to make Jesus’ instruction real and consider Dr. King’s words a practical exhortation for the ensuring peace and public safety in Ferguson once the grand jury has made the decision of whether to indict Darren Wilson.

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Election 2014: Here's What You Missed

In Tuesday’s elections, most voters didn’t see their candidates as leaders. Americans are cynical about politics, exhibited by the broad-based discontent with both parties, the president, and Congress. Nearly two thirds of the electorate didn’t even vote — turnout this year was likely lower as a percentage of the electorate than any time since 1942. Negative campaign ads reached depressing lows, directly appealing to Americans’ fears and anxieties, and most people don’t think the results of the election will change political gridlock in Washington. This election campaign was a loss for the common good.

We seem to have become cynically resigned to politicians always blaming the other party for every problem instead of solving them and alleged political leaders pursuing a 24/7, 52-week strategy of winning instead of governing. There are no more off election years to make society better; every day and every decision is just a part of the next campaign.

The campaigns and the media coverage were all about polls, attacks, and sound bites. The Republican campaign message was simply: vote against President Obama. And the Democrats deserted him, wouldn’t discuss either his accomplishments or his failures, and had no message of their own that got through. The campaign wasn’t about the most important issues facing the country. Here’s what we should be talking about.

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What Can Mandela's Jail Cell Teach Us About Leadership?

I believe that Nelson Mandela was the greatest political leader of the 20th century — because of his 27 years of spiritual formation in prison. Visiting Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island was the most emotional moment of my visit to South Africa this past summer. How could such a small place so change the world?

I found this quote by Mandela when I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on my last day in South Africa. It’s about how “the cell” drove him much deeper into his interior life. I think his words are a good reflection for us as we choose our elected leaders next week:

“The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”

Let’s reflect on that quote, both personally as leaders in the faith, and politically as we confront a very depressing election.

Know yourselfThat is such different advice from what our candidates and other leaders get from their advisors and pollsters and boards of directors who want them to know their audience, their constituency, their potential voters or consumers — but not so much themselves. Leaders are often being told to “be who they need you to be,” and seldom are they invited to go deeper into themselves.

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WATCH: The Gun Conversation We Need to Have

Yesterday a gunman opened fire in Ottawa and killed a soldier at a war memorial. It is a stark reminder of the kind of world we live in every time a life is taken through violence. My prayers are with the victim and his family and for the authorities leading the investigation in trying to understand the shooter’s motives.

Like Ebola and ISIS, the shooting is spreading fear around the world. It is not unnatural to experience fear as a reaction to danger. However, reacting out of fear instead of wisdom is the mistake we must stop making.

What happened in Ottawa is also a reminder for me that while we can’t remove all violence, we can take steps as a country to reduce it. In 2011, the last year complete numbers are available, 32,163 died in America due to gun related deaths. In Canada that same year the number was 781. While gun violence can happen anywhere, as Ottawa shows, it happens much more in the United States than any other developed country.

Why the discrepancy? The full answer is complicated, but one of the driving factors is not.

A Sandy Hook Father’s Plea from Sojourners on Vimeo.

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It’s Time for Whites to Accept Responsibility for Racist Systems

I and many other faith leaders came to Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday and Monday because of Michael Brown—an 18-year-old black teenager who, though unarmed, was shot and killed by a white police officer on August 9. My first thoughts when I heard the news were about my 16-year-old son Luke. I knew how unlikely it would be that this would ever happen to my white son in America.

Coming to Ferguson was about Michael Brown. But Ferguson has also become a parable for our nation. Jesus often told parables. A parable is just a story, but often one with a simple but important point.

The Ferguson parable is simply this: black lives in America are worth less than white lives—especially in our criminal justice system. And the parable of Ferguson rings true around the nation, with the many young black men who were and have been assaulted, shot and killed before and after Michael Brown.

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Arrested in Ferguson in Act of Repentance

Thousands of people from around the country came to Ferguson, Mo., for a “weekend of resistance.” But for faith leaders it was a weekend of repentance. Twenty of us were arrested in Ferguson yesterday for an act of repentance.

I went to Ferguson as a faith leader but, in particular, as a white faith leader. Because the great disparity between how differently young black lives are treated in our criminal justice system than young white lives is a fundamental injustice that must not only be left to black faith leaders to raise up. Repentance must begin in the white Christian community for tolerating this offense to our black brothers and sisters and, ultimately, this offense to God. Let me be as honest as I can be. If white Christians in America were more Christian than white, black parents could feel safer about their children. It’s time for us white Christians to repent — turn around and go in a new direction.

Repentance is a powerful theme throughout the Bible. But its meaning is often not well understood. Repentance is not about being sorry or just feeling guilty. It is about turning in a new direction. The biblical word for repentance in the original Greek is metanoia, which means you are going in the wrong direction, and it’s time to turn right around.

In the case of Ferguson, repentance means more than merely acknowledging the tragic death of an unarmed 18-year-old African-African man named Michael Brown on Aug. 9 — shot and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. Repentance means more than lamenting the loss of another young black man or being sympathetic to his grieving mother. True repentance means changing the direction of the practices and policies that led to his death and so many others. 

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Ebola Is an Inequality Crisis

In the past few months, the world has witnessed the worst outbreak of Ebola since the disease was first identified in 1976 — it has already claimed the lives of more than 3,400 people. But while the first cases in the U.S. and Spain have stirred fears over the past week, we don’t need to fear an unstoppable epidemic in developed countries. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim aptly put it in a piece for the Huffington Post:

The knowledge and infrastructure to treat the sick and contain the virus exists in high- and middle-income counties. However, over many years, we have failed to make these things accessible to low-income people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. So now thousands of people in these countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place.

Dr. Kim makes the crucial point here — the current Ebola outbreak is much more than a public health crisis — it is an inequality crisis.

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How to Save Each Other

As the Washington, D.C., premiere of Warner Bros.’ new movie, The Good Lie, came to a close, I could barely see the credits through my tears, but the noise of the crowd around me erupting into cheers and the standing ovation was impossible to miss. This film really touched me. I knew I had to write about it.

The Good Lie is the story of some of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan — orphans of war, who walked hundreds of miles fleeing violence, only to spend a decade in a refugee camp before finally being resettled in America. But the film is much more than that. It is a story about the power of faith and regular people who do incredible things because there is no one else who can. It is the story of immigrants — a funny and heartbreaking insight into what it is like to be a stranger in America. And it's a story and performance made all the more real because the Sudanese characters are played by actors who were child refugees and child soldiers themselves.

It stars Reese Witherspoon, whose character and role encapsulate so much of why this movie works. She's the headline draw for Warner Bros., but the movie is not about her. She helps the Lost Boys, but as is so often the case when we respond to God's call to care for our neighbor, they probably help her more. No one saves the day in this movie, but they all help save each other.

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