The Common Good

A Shutdown Washington Gets Some Much Needed Prayer: Jarvis DeBerry

The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourners Magazine, has been one of the people of faith at the U.S. Capitol for the last week daily praying and reciting the 2000 Bible verses that mandate concern for the poor. Their prophetic exhortations are particularly relevant now that the government has shut down and so many federal employees have been subsisting without paychecks. But even during less urgent moments, Wallis has routinely put the concerns of the poor in the forefront and challenged our nation's leaders to govern with a sense of compassion.

The daily gatherings that Wallis helped start have come to be called a "faithful filibuster." He said Wednesday morning that it takes seven hours to read through the passages commanding believers to do right by the poor. That makes for a lot of scriptural real estate. So how come so many people who say they're Christian are indifferent, if not outright hostile, toward the poor?

"Isn't that a good question?" he said. "That's the main question of our entire vigil. There are more than 2000 verses on this."

Wallis will lecture at Dillard University Thursday evening about what he says is Americans' increasing failure to grasp and appreciate the concept of the common good. The violence that plagues New Orleans and so many other cities, he said, is a consequence of our neglect of the common good and "a symptom of our brokenness."

In a chapter of his recent book "Conservatives, Liberals, and the Fight for America's Future," Wallis says debates about the size of government miss the point. "A more useful discussion would be about the purposes of government," he writes, "and whether ours is fulfilling them or not. Rather than big or small, we need a servant government."

Though Wallis writes about how Washington has become paralyzed and polarized, subsequent events - the government shutdown, a flirtation with default - may have made him appear to be more prophetic than he was trying to be. "When I wrote the book," he said, "I probably wouldn't have guessed that it would get this bad."

It's rare that anybody is elected to Washington declaring his or her faith. Typically, such leaders profess Christianity. But, Wallis said, "The Bible again and again says something that is completely contradictory to the ways of Washington: The last shall be first and the first shall be last in the kingdom of God."

Our elected officials have been prioritizing "ideology, political ambition, fundraising and building a base for the next election," he said. "It's not about serving the common good."

There seems to be a depressing expectation that being an American also means being a partisan, that everybody's got to be either a Republican or a Democrat. Christians don't appear to be any better than anybody else at resisting partisanship. Wallis said Sojourners used to print a wildly popular bumper sticker: God is not a Republican or a Democrat.