I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some young inmates were reading my book, The Soul of Politics, as part of a seminary program in the infamous prison, and they invited me to come discuss it with them. The warden gave me and about 50 young men several hours together, and I will never forget the comment one of them made: “Jim, most of us here are from just five or six neighborhoods in New York City. It’s like a train that starts in my neighborhood, and you get on when you are 9 or 10 years old. The train ends up here at Sing Sing.” But then he said, “Some of us have been converted, and when we get out, we’re going to go back and stop that train.”
That’s exactly what President Obama’s launch of “My Brother’s Keeper” is calling us to do: to stop the train that is taking young men of color from broken economies, schools, families, and lives into despair, anger, disengagement, trouble, violence, crime, prison, and even death at an early age. This is an urgent and long-overdue moral call that must supersede all our political differences.
While the president’s agenda has always included goals intended to help all Americans, this launch was painfully, powerfully, and prophetically specific.
Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I grew up in a small evangelical church that only paid attention to the Christian calendar on Christmas and Easter. But over many years now, I have learned to celebrate the richness of all the Christian seasons from my friends in more liturgical traditions and from marrying a Church of England priest!
Lent offers us the much-needed spiritual preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is the place to begin; and that often includes fasting — in different ways and traditions. At Sojourners, we usually have a big staff pancake breakfast on Shrove Tuesday morning, the day before Ash Wednesday. But today, many of us are fasting.
Ash Wednesday doesn’t begin a hunger strike, but rather a season of self-examination, spiritual reflection, repentance, sacrifice, and focused prayer. Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to.
“Never in my life has my very faith been called into question like this.”
That’s what young evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt told me this week. His statement followed a media firestorm, ignited when both he and Kirsten Powers, weighed in on proposed laws in Kansas and Arizona that would have allowed business owners to deny service to gay couples, based on conservative religious beliefs about homosexuality. Merritt and Powers each suggested that justifying legal discrimination against gay and lesbian couples might not be the best form of Christian outreach and raised consistency issues of whether discrimination would also be applied to other less than “biblical” marriages, or if just gays and lesbians were being singled out.
Their columns in both the Religion News Service and the Daily Beast have provoked intense responses from many Southern Baptists (where Merritt has his own heritage), those who call themselves Neo or “New” Calvinists, and other assorted critics from the political right.
Neither Merritt nor Powers took clear theological positions on all the sexuality issues involved. But both have been stunned by the responses from emails, tweets, and angry phone calls. The 1,200 Twitter notifications, messages, and calls from “leaders” that Merritt has received in the last few days include, “You only pretend to worship Jesus.” “You’re not a Christian.” “You are the enemies of Christianity.” “You’re marginalized now.” “You’re damaged goods.” “You’re on the outs now.”
Merritt and Powers were not questioning the gospel; they were “just asking whether we should discriminate against a whole group of people.” Both columnists believe Christians can honestly disagree on these complicated questions surrounding sexuality, but wanted to raise a discussion about whether passing laws that discriminate based on one religious point of view was wise, especially in this rapidly changing culture.
The problem is the systemic injustice inherent in Stand Your Ground laws: just feeling like you are being threatened can justify your response in “self-defense.” Under Florida self-defense laws now, someone can use even lethal force if they “reasonably believe” it is necessary to defend their lives or avoid great harm. How does a jury decide what a “reasonable person” would do under all the circumstances? Even if Dunn really believed there was a gun in the black teenagers’ car and there wasn’t one, he could still be justified in shooting into the car according to Stand Your Ground. The New York Times quoted Mary Anne Franks, an associate law professor at the University of Miami saying, “This trial is indicative of how much of a problem Stand Your Ground laws really do create … By the time you have an incident like this and ask a jury to look at the facts, it’s difficult to re-create the situation and determine the reasonableness of a defendant’s fear.” And unfortunately, the law creates an opportunity for racial factors — whether they’re conscious or not — to trump facts when even one juror who is sympathetic to a defendant’s “reasonable” fear can prevent prosecution.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, our annual reminder to celebrate the love we share in our lives. While many may be struggling through aisles of candy hearts and bunches of roses, I invite you to flip this day of mandatory public expressions of love on its head.
What if, along with romantic dinners and expensive chocolates, we celebrated those we love by committing ourselves against sexual and domestic violence? This Valentine’s Day, or V-Day, Sojourners is joining with One Billion Rising to speak out on violence against women — the most hidden injustice in our world. We speak out because one in three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. That’s one in three women in my family, in my circle of friends, in my workplace — and in my church.
We speak out because we want a different reality for our daughters.
We speak out because our Christian faith tells us to lift up the voices others would silence.
And we speak out because we must rally our church leaders to commit themselves to do the same.
We are all neighbors now, whether we like it or not.
"We are perhaps among the most included in this global economy. So how will the most included reach out to the most excluded this year?"
Editor’s Note: The following text and video is from Jim Wallis’ closing talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling those in positions of leadership to implement values that benefit the common good.
In our opening session for this 2014 annual meeting, we heard a letter read to us from Pope Francis, a leader who has captured the attention of the world. He called us here to “deeper reflection” and to “reshaping the world.” He said something quite striking, “I ask you to insure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it.”
So, to that deeper reflection: I believe that for many of us here at Davos, there was a moment — a remark from a session, a smaller discussion, a meal interaction, a personal conversation, or a walk in the snow — that made us think and feel some things we don’t normally focus on in our day-to-day environment back home. It could have been an insight, a new angle or framework, a challenge, or a reminder of things lost — something that struck you more deeply than just more talk and made an impact on you. Often these insightful moments are about our values, or challenge our values, or bring us back to a moral compass that we have, or would like to have, or miss from earlier in our lives.
This weekend we’ll commemorate the too-short life and great work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While we rightly celebrate his life dedicated to advancing equality for all, too often we overlook his call to peacemaking. This year, in light of conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, and an often-overlooked war in Central African Republic, we should remember his words.
In his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence,” King opposed the violence, saying:
"To me the relationship of this ministry [of Jesus Christ] to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative?"
Those aware of our long history at Sojourners know that we have always been committed to peace, to opposing unjust wars and finding nonviolent solutions wherever possible. And in all the work we do, we aim to speak out for the least of these, the poorest and most vulnerable.
Watching the news cycle for the past week or so, I have been pleasantly surprised at how much the issue of poverty is being discussed. There have been many analyses of the successes and failures of the War on Poverty, the 50th anniversary of which we marked last week. But there is one report that has particularly fascinated me — and many others — as it describes how women have been struggling the most against poverty in the United States. In partnership with the Center for American Progress, this year’s Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink examines the problem of poverty as it pertains to women and proposes solutions to eradicate it.
Although those of us who have lived and worked in low-income neighborhoods have witnessed firsthand how poverty affects women and their children, seeing the numbers laid out is still overwhelming.
The only way to win the “war on poverty” is for liberals and conservatives to make peace — for the sake of the poor. That would be the best way to mark the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson in his January 1964 State of the Union address. Making peace means replacing ideologies with solutions that actually solve the problems of poverty. With both Republicans and Democrats speaking out on poverty this week, and the recession slowly receding this should be an opportunity to find the focus, commitment, and strategies that could effectively reduce and ultimately eliminate the shameful facts of poverty in the world’s richest nation.
For any proposal, the basic question must be whether it helps more people and families rise out of poverty and realize their dreams. This means setting aside political self-interest and thinking beyond our too often inflexible ideologies.
"Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words" is a quote widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. It also seems to be the motto of Pope Francis. Instead of just talking about abstract doctrines, he consistently lives out his beliefs in public ways that have grabbed the world's attention. His example of humility, compassion, and authenticity resonate powerfully in Washington, where cynicism is rampant, pride remains even after the proverbial falls, and an ideology of extreme individualism has overtaken a significant faction within our politics.
The Pope's words and deeds fascinate us because they are genuine and selfless. How could a leader of global significance spend time cold calling pregnant women in distress, kissing the feet of young Muslim inmates, or embracing a disfigured man? What sorts of values motivate such behavior? These stories touched our hearts, but they appeared irrelevant to our politics.
Then the Pope started talking about our wallets, which, according to a several commentators on the far right, instantly transformed him into a threat to capitalism itself.
We give thanks for how he turned righteous anger into the power of reconciliation.
Five Spiritual Resolutions for 2014: What Elders, Suffering, and Loss Have Taught Me About the Gospel
This past year taught me so much about the gospel and caused me to go deeper into my faith. As this new year begins, here are five spiritual resolutions I learned from last year:
1. Return to the gospel. Gordon Cosby, the founder and pastor of The Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. passed away in early 2013. He was a mentor, elder, and spiritual director to me. I miss Gordon greatly and often have things I would like to talk with him about. But I usually know what he would say to me and it would always be about returning to the gospel. In his last sermon, spoken from his death bed, he spoke of Jesus’ “clear and frightening statement that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
It’s the end of the year and, as always, a great time to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months. I’ve been blessed to have so many talented and diverse writers share their voices and views alongside me on the God’s Politics blog. I want to take this opportunity to share some of my favorite posts from this past year with you, in no particular order.
We had so many great posts this year that explored the different facets of our faith. If you haven’t read them yet, make sure you look at:
What Good is a Ph.D. for reading the Bible? by Rev. Dr. Guy Nave
Five Things That Are Holding Christianity Back by Christian Piatt
10 reasons Why Men Should Not Be Ordained For Ministry by Eugene Cho
Women and Girls
Since the 1970s, Sojourners has been committed to resisting sexism in all its forms, while affirming the integrity and equality of women and men in the church and in the larger world. This year we’ve been even more intentional about looking at these topics through our blog and magazine.
Pope Francis is TIME's Person of the Year. But that is only because Jesus is his "Person of the Day" — every day.
Praises of the pope are flowing around the world, commentary on the pontiff leads all the news shows, and even late night television comedians are paying humorous homage. But a few of the journalists covering the pope are getting it right: Francis is just doing his job. The pope is meant to be a follower of Christ — the Vicar of Christ.
Isn’t it extraordinary how simply following Jesus can attract so much attention when you are the pope? Every day, millions of other faithful followers of Christ do the same thing. They often don’t attract attention, but they keep the world together.
Today I had the great honor of saying a prayer at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the most important political leader of the 20th century. This was an honor, not only because of Mandela’s stature on the world’s stage, but because he was someone I admired very deeply and personally. His fight for justice and reconciliation is one that has inspired me in the work that we do at Sojourners.
There were several highlights of the service today. There were several choirs, two of which brought each mourner to their feet, clapping along to their versions of Shosholoza and Siyahamba. There were many beautiful speeches and recitations, including a reading of Maya Angelou’s poem for Mandela called “His Day is Done.”
But what stood out to me the most was the homily by Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at Christian Theological Seminary, Butler University. As he paid tribute to Mandela’s life and described his “long walk to freedom,” he punctuated his remarks with “it ain’t over, until God says it’s done,” a quote from Maurette Brown-Clark’s song of the same name.
Saying an opening prayer at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Service on Wednesday, in Washington, D.C. was both an honor and a blessing for me. The theme of the homily, by my good friend Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, was “it ain’t over until God says it’s done.”
I sat there listening to those words from an African American gospel hymn in the midst of my own circumstance of being on the ninth day of a water-only fast for comprehensive immigration reform. In my weakened condition, I was grateful that I had done the opening prayer and wouldn’t have to do the closing prayer! But fasting focuses you and it made me consider how Nelson Mandela would feel about a broken immigration system that is shattering the lives of 11 million immigrants, separating parents from children, and undermining the best values of our nation.
In our nightly meeting at what is now a packed fasting tent, I could imagine Nelson Mandela there with us, telling us to never give up until we win this victory for so many vulnerable people reminding us, "it ain’t over until God says it’s done." Or, as he would tell cynical pundits and politicians, “it is always impossible until it is done.” Today, following a procession from the Capitol which will now include many members of Congress, we will go to that tent and proclaim that immigration reform is not over, and we won’t give up until it’s done.
Editor's Note: New Vision Renewable Energy connects Christians with opportunities to provide renewable solar lights to people in the developing world. Their Christmas Lights Advent Devotional features daily readings and questions from prominent Christian thinkers, including Sojourners president Jim Wallis. This Day 10 of Advent devotional from Jim Wallis is reprinted and adapted with permission of New Vision Renewable Energy. You can find the full Christmas Lights Advent Devotional guide and solar light kits here: http://nvre.org/devotional-order.html
Proclaiming Jesus as light of the world is an audacious statement. It directly challenges all those idols that persistently attempt to replace God as the center of our lives and our world. In our culture, a selfishness that denies any obligation to anyone or anything beyond our own self-interest may be the greatest idol of all. It denies that demanding more and more energy at great cost to our environment and the people who live close to the land has problematic consequences. We have lost sight of the common good and the consequences have been devastating.
In many places, hope has turned into despair. Darkness seems to be crowding out light. From where will our help come from?
When racism is tolerated, the reconciling work of Christ on the cross is contradicted.
(Editors Note: This post contains updates from Jim Wallis as he experiences the "Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship," taking place on the National Mall.)
Dec. 10: This is the eighth day of the water fast for me and the 30th day of the Fast for Families with many people coming to participate in the tent — almost 200 so far.
This has become a very spiritual place, even a holy place. And when people come here, including members of Congress, senators, faith leaders, celebrities, heads of organizations, and so many “ordinary” people, and undocumented immigrants themselves, the stories being told are changing people’s minds and hearts.