The Common Good

What's Acceptable? What's Possible?

Sojomail - May 24, 2007


This is a Syrian-Lebanese war and we're the fuel they are burning for this war. The army was bombing us, our houses have been destroyed, we had no food and no water.

- Abdel Hamid Najjar, a resident who fled a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, where an estimated 20-30 civilians have been killed by Lebanese army shelling in battles with the Fatah al-Islam militant group. Najjar and other camp members said that very few of Fatah al-Islam's members were Palestinians, or long-term camp residents, but included Syrians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis who imposed their power by force of arms.(Source: The Washington Post)

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What's Acceptable? What's Possible?

This column is adapted from a commencement address that Jim delivered at Georgetown University on Sunday, May 20.

Each new generation has a chance to alter two very basic definitions of reality in our world - what is acceptable and what is possible.

First, what is acceptable?

There are always great inhumanities that we inflict upon one another in this world, great injustices that cry out to God for redress, and great gaps in our moral recognition of them. When the really big offenses are finally corrected, finally changed, it is always and only because something has happened to change our perception of the moral issues at stake. The moral contradiction we have long lived with is no longer acceptable to us. What we accepted, or ignored, or denied, finally gets our attention and we decide that we just cannot, and will not, live with it any longer. But until that happens, the injustice and misery continue.

It often takes a new generation to make that decision - that something that people have long tolerated just won't be tolerated any more.

So the question to you as graduates, as ambassadors for a new generation, is this: what are you going to no longer accept in our world, what will you refuse to tolerate now that you will be making the decisions that matter?

Will it be acceptable to you that 3 billion people in our world today - half of God's children - live on less that $2 per day, that more than 1 billion live on less than $1 per day, that the gap between the life expectancy in the rich places and the poor places in the world is now 40 years, and that 30,000 children globally will die today - on the day of your graduation - from needless, senseless, and utterly preventable poverty and disease? It's what Bono calls "stupid poverty."

Many people don't really know that, or sort of do but have never really focused on the reality or given it a second thought. And that's the way it usually is. We don't know, or we have the easy explanations about why poverty or some other calamity exists and why it can't really be changed - all of which makes us feel better about ourselves - or we are just more concerned with lots of other things. We really don't have to care. So we tolerate it and keep looking the other way.

But then something changes. Something gets our attention, something goes deeper than it has before and hooks us in the places we call the heart, the soul, the spirit. And once we've crossed over into really seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting the injustice, we can never really look back again. It is now unacceptable to us.

What we see now offends us, offends our understanding of the sanctity and dignity of life, offends our notions of fairness and justice, offends our most basic values; it violates our idea of the common good, and starts to tug at our deepest places. We cross the line of unacceptability. We become intolerant of the injustice.

But just changing our notion of what is unacceptable isn't enough, however. We must also change our perception of what is possible.

In that regard, I would encourage each of you to think about your vocation more than just your career. And there is a difference. From the outside, those two tracks may look very much alike, but asking the vocational question rather than just considering the career options will take you much deeper. The key is to ask why you might take one path instead of another - the real reasons you would do something, more than just because you can. The key is to ask who you really are and what you want to become. It is to ask what you believe you are supposed to do.

You do have great potential, but that potential will be most fulfilled if you follow the leanings of conscience and the language of the heart more than just the dictates of the market, whether economic or political. They want smart people like you to just manage the systems of the world. But rather than managing or merely fitting into systems, ask how you can change them. You're both smart enough and talented enough to do that. That's your greatest potential.

Ask where your gifts intersect with the groaning needs of the world - there is your vocation.

The antidote to cynicism is not optimism but action. And action is finally born out of hope. Try to remember that. At college, you often believe you can think your way into a new way of living, but that's actually not the way it works. Out in the world, it's more likely that you will live your way into a new way of thinking.

The key is to believe that the world can be changed, because it is only that belief that ever changes the world. And if not us, who will believe? If not you, who?

+ Click here to download mp3 audio of the full speech (14MB)

+ Click here to read the full prepared text

+ Read and respond to comments on this article on the God's Politics Blog


Host a Presidential Forum Watch Party

On Monday, June 4, the leading Democratic presidential contenders – Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards – will be joining Jim Wallis for a conversation on faith, values, and poverty broadcast live on CNN. And in hundreds of churches and homes across the country, people of faith will be gathering to watch the candidates address the issues that matter most to them. Organizing a watch party is an easy and fun way to build community, discuss the presidential race with other people of faith, and issue a prophetic challenge to put poverty at the top of the national agenda.

Click here to host a watch party in your area.

And there’s still time to be there in person for four days of captivating speakers, inspiring worship, prophetic advocacy, and hands-on training – but seats are going fast! Join us in making history at Pentecost 2007, June 3-6 in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />Washington, DC.

Register for Pentecost 2007: Taking the Vision to the Streets.


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Since Sept. 11, some Christians have called for an end to the separation of church and state to combat terrorism, claiming a stronger national Christian identity, a "Christian America," is the way to defeat Islamic extremism – a tactic employed by some reactionary European political parties. The Pew study shows that approach is wrong-headed. The path to peace between Christians and Muslims is that of religious freedom, separation of church and state, and appreciative toleration in the best traditions of liberality.

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The immigration system in America is beyond broken; it is in crisis. Because it is not simply a crisis limited to issues of documentation and border enforcement, but rather one that is tearing at the very fabric of individuals, families, and communities, it is a crisis that the church is, in my opinion, compelled to address.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler: Conventional Wisdom Catches up with the Prophetic
Katie Barge at Faith in Public Life has a great compilation of Falwell legacy coverage that demonstrates that the major media seems to be finally "getting it" that evangelicals really are far more diverse and broad in their political interests than previously assumed. ... Of course, we've been proclaiming for a while now that the monologue of the Religious Right is over - but it's gratifying to see that now even the mainstream media are reaching a consensus that this shift has taken place. Of course, evangelicals are still far from consensus on which moral values issues matter most, but the breadth and depth of the new conversation is encouraging. It's nice when the conventional wisdom finally catches up with a prophetic word.

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Years ago my friend Gerry Straub underwent a spectacular modern-day conversion, from successful Hollywood TV producer and practicing atheist to downwardly mobile disciple of Jesus, following his hero, St. Francis of Assisi. Soon, he founded a Franciscan-based non-profit, the San Damiano Foundation, where he now makes groundbreaking films documenting the poorest of the world’s poor. This week, his latest film premieres, touching upon a slightly different topic - of all things, me. It's about my life in the New Mexico desert, my efforts to teach gospel nonviolence, and my tales from 25 years in the Christian peace movement.

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Regardless of the facts of this particular case, moral judgments about war, like all moral judgments, are not primarily a matter of good information. Good information is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for sound moral judgments. Sound moral judgments depend on being formed in certain virtues. Why a Christian should assume that the president of a secular nation-state would be so formed – much less enjoy a certain "charism" of moral judgment – is a mystery to me.

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Audio: Shane Claiborne on NPR's Speaking of Faith
Here's the summary that Speaking of Faith posted about Krista Tippett's conversation with Red Letter Christian Shane Claiborne: "Shane Claiborne is an original voice, a creative spirit, in a gathering movement of young people known as the 'new monastics.' With virtues like simplicity and imagination, they are engaging great contradictions of our culture – beginning with the gap between the churches they were raised in, the needs of the poor, and the 'loneliness' they find in our culture's vision of adulthood."

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Publishing an independent niche magazine has always been a risky business. Many excellent-but-small periodicals in the faith and justice genre have fallen off the cliff of financial precariousness – Christianity & Crisis and The Other Side are two late-and-lamented notables that come to mind. One factor that can make or break small publications is the cost of mailing each issue to subscribers. A few-cents-per-ounce increase in the cost of postage costs a magazine tens of thousands of dollars, which can easily be the difference between breaking even and going bottoms-up. As Bill Moyers points out on his blog, the U.S. Postal Service is about to implement a significant rate increase that threatens to cripple small journals.

Video: Larry King, Jim Wallis, and Others on Faith in Politics
We posted video of CNN's announcement of our presidential forum at Pentecost 2007 from this show earlier this week, but now we thank our friends at Faith in Public Life for posting video of the entire show, which included Rev. Albert Mohler, Jr. of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, David Kuo, former Deputy Director of the Bush Administration's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and David Gergen, former White House Adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton.

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