The Common Good

Recent Posts from Jim Wallis

This is a very personal column. In December of last year, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. There were no symptoms or problems, just some results from a routine blood test that needed to be checked out. I remember being on a conference call when I saw the doctor was phoning with the results of a biopsy, but continued on with the other call assuming I could return it later to hear that there were no problems. There were problems, he told me, and I would need to see a surgeon.

Surprise was not the right word — not even shock. The news felt incredulous to me. I was about to launch a new book tour early in 2013 and everything seemed to be in control. And Sojourners was involved in intense advocacy work around immigration reform, gun violence, and the budget/sequester battles. There had to be a mistake, or surely some convenient treatment that would suffice. Certainly, I would work this all out privately, and stay on schedule for everything else. But then the conversations started, as did meetings, further testing, time-consuming activities, discussions of medical options — and a deepening anxiety began to grow over the next several weeks.

The book tour for On God’s Side, both U.S. and U.K., had to be postponed and reset without saying why. I kept the health news and discussions in a small and close circle of family, friends, and senior staff. And I did my best to go on as if this wasn’t happening. But it was.

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After traveling the country this spring — while keeping an eye on Washington, D.C. — I am more convinced than ever that our personal decisions, choices, and commitments will change the world more than our politics. The message in the Epilogue to On God’s Side says this as well as I could do again. It’s short and very practical. Here it is:

The common good and the quality of our life together will finally be determined by the personal decisions we all make. The “commons” — those places where we come together as neighbors and citizens to share public space — will never be better than the quality of human life, or the human flourishing, in our own lives and households.

Here are ten personal decisions you can make to help foster the common good.

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Religious extremism will not be defeated by a primarily military response.

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On Memorial Day weekend, our family of four participated in six baseball games! Having just returned from a six-week book tour, it was such a refreshing change from discussing our nation’s politics, which is all the media wants to talk about and is more and more well, disgusting.  

A sign outside our home’s front door says, “This family has been interrupted by the baseball season.” Both of our boys play, I coach, and my wife Joy Carroll is the Little League Baseball Commissioner — cool job for a Church of England priest!

On Saturday, we played in the Northwest Little League All Star game, which I got to coach with my son Jack on one of the teams. Our team came out on top, and Joy made 100 hotdogs for a celebration after the game. Our last victory cheer was “1, 2, 3, HOTDOGS!” The picture here shows the enthusiasm of the 9- and 10-year-olds I get to coach every single week. It’s what keeps me grounded in real life — amid the politics of this dysfunctional capital city — and it’s what gives me joy. Coaching baseball has also kept me deeply connected to my two sons, as I write about in my new book.

We had just helped save an immigration reform bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee — advocating for 11 million undocumented people who Jesus calls the “strangers” against the special interest politics of both left and right — when I entered the field for our Little League Tigers game on Friday night. It was just what I needed.

Here is a great baseball story that explains why I love Little League Baseball.

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What I have heard after visiting 18 cities in six weeks is that people around the country believe that nothing can happen in Washington, D.C. They are basically right. So I am very grateful today to report the one exception.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a new comprehensive immigration reform bill with a bipartisan vote. Did you hear that: “bipartisan.” Amid heartbreaking news of the destruction, grief, and heroism we have seen in Moore, Okla., from one of the worst tornados in American history, millions of Americans found a reason to be hopeful.

This historic immigration bill now goes to the full Senate, where it has a real chance of passing and changing the lives of 11 million aspiring Americans. These are the “strangers” talked about throughout the Bible, and about whom Jesus said, in Matthew 25: how we treat them is how we treat him. That realization has caused a literal biblical conversion in the evangelical Christian community, which with the help of law enforcement officials and business leaders has done the impossible — changed Washington, D.C.

Self-interests, special interests, and even conflicting principles all put this life-changing proposal in grave danger. But in a town defined by gridlock, a group of eight senators crafted a bipartisan proposal that passed with only minor change. The bill reflects agreements reached by the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce; imagine that. It isn’t perfect and no single legislator got everything she or he wanted, but the key elements that many of us have been fighting for are intact. That really is a triumph of the common good.

Now, I am asking you to write your senators and ask them to support this bill on the Senate floor.

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Violence against women is the most prevalent and the most hidden injustice in our world today. From rape as a weapon of war, to human trafficking, to the attack of a young girl seeking an education, the treatment of women and girls across the globe is in a state of crisis.

And we don't even need to leave our own shores to encounter staggering statistics. Here in the U.S., 1 in 5 women have been raped in their lifetime — a number that only jumps when you realize that 54 percent of sexual assaults are never reported. More than 1 in 3 women have experienced some kind of intimate partner violence. Sexual assaults in the U.S. military continue to rise — with an estimated 26,000 in 2012 alone — even as its leaders claim to be addressing the epidemic. 

As I lay out in my book On God’s Side, what has been missing from this narrative is the condemnation of these behaviors from other men, especially men in positions of power, authority, and influence — like those in our pulpits. In a section of that book, I say we need to establish a firm principle: the abuse of women by men will no longer be tolerated by other men. The voices of more men need to join the chorus to make that perfectly clear.

It's time for all people of faith to be outraged.

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Thanks be to God for the life of Gordon Cosby.

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The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world — about 1.6 million people in 2010. Mass incarceration in our country is a problem, one that too often serves to line the pockets of for-profit prisons while tearing families apart and targeting people of color disproportionately. 

Beyond Bars — a project to curb mass incarceration in the U.S. — produced the following video that puts faces to that problem. Watch the moving video below, and ask yourself the question: would putting them in prison serve the common good?

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This week marked six months since Superstorm Sandy left entire communities devastated, families homeless, and many with little hope. But in the midst of this natural disaster, many banded together. As is true with many of our nation's tragedies, recent and throughout our history, communities form and hope emerges amid struggle. Sandy taught us about resilience. It showed us what it truly means to reach out, serve, and love our neighbor. 

One young filmmaker in New York, Farihah Zaman, caught that resilience and acts of service on video. Here, she shows us how tragedy can turn into a joint effort to acheive the common good. 

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Stories are what change the world, more than just ideas. And that’s what I am seeing and hearing on the road — stories that will change people for the common good. Nobody outside of Washington trusts Washington because there are no more human stories — just money and the calculations of power.

But even Washington can be affected by the stories outside of Washington — take immigration reform for example, which will happen despite the political paralysis. People of faith are telling their stories of conversion to what their Bibles say about “the stranger.” They are telling stories of new relationships with their “undocumented” brothers and sisters. And their stories are changing Washington.

So rather than just offer you more “ideas” about the common good, we are going to offer you some stories about how ordinary people are creating it. 

Some talented young filmmakers have created stories to inspire you. This first video tells in beautiful scenes, the story of how a group in the Dominican Republic is using a recycling program to fund senior services. It’s about community and about serving our neighbors. It is a real inspiration for working within our own spheres of influence for the good of all.

Watch. Listen. And then create your own story for the common good.

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I hear it over and over again both during my conversations on the road, and as I skim the headlines each day, that we are in a battle for the common good.

I learned about the Boston bombings as my plane landed in Portland, Ore., traveling for an 18-city book tour to spark a conversation on “the common good.” As I read and watched more about the tragedy, there unfolded such a stark and brutal contrast between the explicit intent to kill, hurt, and maim others, and the actions of those who rushed toward the blast, risking their own lives to help the wounded. One act of vicious violence was aimed to destroy the common good and create a society based on fear. The others displayed the highest commitment to redeem the common good and insist that we will not become a nation based on fear, but on mutual service and support.

When real or imagined grievances combine with rage, religious fundamentalism, political extremism, mental illness, or emotional instability, we lose the common good to dangerous violence, fear, and deep distrust in the social environment. But when grievances lead to civil discourse, moral engagement, and even love and forgiveness, different outcomes are possible.

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Today, on the National Mall, I stood with fellow faith leaders, including clergy from Newtown, to remember lives lost at Sandy Hook elementary school and the 3,364 gun deaths that have happened since.

We stood in front of a field of crosses, Stars of David, and other grave markers, and it broke my heart to think that each one stood for a life ended too soon. It doesn’t have to be this way. Commonsense steps to reduce gun violence are within our reach. Just today the Senate voted to begin the debate. But there is much work to do. Lawmakers need to hear from you.  

This is one of the clearest examples of a stark democratic choice: the old politics of guns or the morality of the common good. The clergy are here today for the common good.

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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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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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"This is not merely a philosophical enterprise; it is an urgent matter that requires moral courage."

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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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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 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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Christianity is a call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships.

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The need for the common good has never seemed so timely.

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