Hearts & Minds

Jim Wallis 9-18-2017

Image via Mark Fisher/Flickr

MONUMENTS TO the heroes of the Confederacy that stood for decades in Southern parks and streets went unnoticed by many white people, but black Americans have always experienced them as insults and threats. Since Charlottesville, whether to take them down has become the focus of a national debate. After the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in August, cities across the former Confederacy and in border states—including Baltimore, Durham, N.C., and even Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital—have taken action or indicated plans to relocate their monuments.

The argument made by proponents of keeping Confederate statues in place—that they represent Southern heritage and we must not “erase history”—is patently false when one looks at why the monuments were erected. Most Confederate monuments were built during the Jim Crow era of the early 1900s and as a backlash to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. They were never just about history or heritage, but rather were meant as a sign of resistance to black citizenship in America and a clear signal threatening terror against African Americans.

These monuments were built explicitly in defense of segregation and to glorify white supremacy. As such, they are and were always meant to be a racial rejection and assault to every black American who had to walk in their shadows, as well as all who fought to end slavery and discrimination during the Civil War and ever since.

Jim Wallis 7-25-2017
Hernán Piñera / Flikr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hernán Piñera / Flikr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

PRAYER, FASTING, and advocacy are all spiritual disciplines—ones that we need right now. Several faith leaders came together this spring to call our brothers and sisters in our diverse faith communities to tie these three spiritual disciplines together “for such a time as this.”

What kind of time is this? We are living in a time when vulnerable people in the United States and around the world are facing tremendous threats from this administration and this Congress—threats that will be on vivid display in the budget debates that will consume Congress after Labor Day:

Jim Wallis 7-05-2017
Avivi Aharon / Shutterstock.com

Avivi Aharon / Shutterstock.com

FOR MANY OF US, how people treat the Earth goes far deeper than “politics.” Our relationship with God’s creation is, at heart, a theological matter.

The Paris climate accord is not perfect—it does not go far enough and it is not binding. Nevertheless, it was a giant step forward to have 195 countries commit to curbing the carbon emissions that are endangering the planet and the people who live on it, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. That step was very important, the result of decades of hard work and diligent diplomacy.

Therefore, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the agreement is a theological failure and an abdication of American leadership on perhaps the most important crisis facing the world today. Politically, it was enormously shallow, arrogant, and truth-less: three words that sadly characterize many of the bombastic statements and decisions the administration has made.

Jim Wallis 5-30-2017

ELECTIONS HAVE consequences. It’s a phrase we hear all the time, generally from whichever party won a recent election and is claiming a mandate to fulfill campaign promises.

Sometimes, for those observing Washington from the outside, the truth of this statement can get lost. People see partisan gridlock and say to themselves, “Nothing ever gets done in Washington. Both parties have all sorts of problems. Why should I even bother to vote?” Yet the truth is that all elections—local, state, national—matter. They all have consequences. And in 2017, we are seeing this play out in particularly dramatic and alarming ways.

There are countless examples, but I want to focus on the Department of Justice. While most employees there are career civil servants who stay in their positions regardless of who is president, new presidents get to fill many of the top positions with political appointees. Presidents can pick whoever they want to fill these posts (some must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate), and they can be fired by the president at any time, for any reason. FBI directors serve 10-year terms to insulate them from political pressure, but as we saw in May with James Comey, they can also be fired by the president at any time.

Jim Wallis 4-25-2017

LIVING IN THE United States in the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency often feels surreal, disorienting, and overwhelming, including to some people in positions of considerable responsibility and influence.

There are, of course, many reasons for this, and those who regularly read my columns can no doubt list many of the things that most perturb and anger me about this administration. Many of us are focused on our solidarity and support for those who are most vulnerable in the face of the new political realities. We have lifted up the Matthew 25 Pledge movement aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants threatened with deportation, African Americans and other people of color threatened with racialized policing, and Muslims threatened with xenophobic hatred and discrimination.

But a unifying theme of all of Trump’s outrages and threats is his brazen assault on the very concept of truth and objective, knowable facts. Amid everything that’s going on, consuming and interpreting the news each day is considerably more exhausting than it should be because it has never been more difficult to sort fact from fiction. While this isn’t entirely Trump’s doing, his almost daily falsehoods have the large platform and weight of the presidency to prop them up and pound the American people with persistent and pervasive lying.

This spring, the news cycle was thrown into turmoil for more than a month by Trump’s evidence-free allegations that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had illegally wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. The president lied, accusing his predecessor of a serious crime with no justification or evidence. Rather than retracting it and apologizing, Trump has tasked his administration and the intelligence community with finding any shred of evidence to retroactively justify his lie.

Jim Wallis 3-21-2017
JP Keenan / Sojourners

JP Keenan / Sojourners

MANY PEOPLE IN our nation, and indeed around the world, are frightened by the things happening in Washington, D.C. Those most affected by the actions of this administration are especially afraid—and so far the fears of those who were directly targeted by President Trump during the campaign have proven all too justified.

Immigrant families are faced with an administration crackdown on undocumented people. Children are afraid to go to school, families avoid medical facilities, and some people have even expressed their fear of going to church, where they might be targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents—whose numbers Trump and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly have promised to increase by at least 10,000 as part of a deportation force.

In just one of many disturbing examples, in February ICE officials surrounded, questioned, and detained six Latino men who had just left the hypothermia shelter run by Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church in Alexandria, Va. It is difficult to overstate the outrage and betrayal felt by so many that a church shelter for the homeless was targeted by the government to locate and detain undocumented immigrants. Amid these threats, people of faith are pledging to protect and defend undocumented immigrants under attack.

Many others are afraid too. Every black parent I know is afraid for their children, and that is a fact that white Christians, many of whom voted for Trump, must understand. Black pastors are concerned about the young people in their communities and their interactions with police. Racial policing is obviously not a new problem in America, and Trump didn’t start it, but the racial rhetoric of his campaign and the appointments he has made have struck fear into the hearts of many. The president promotes “law and order” and “stop and frisk” in familiar coded language that racial minorities understand. If there is no accountability from the administration or the Justice Department for those who would use excessive force against citizens of color—and especially young people—churches and clergy are pledging to hold their police departments accountable.

Jim Wallis 2-22-2017

THE RICHEST EIGHT people in the world, according to an Oxfam report this January, own more wealth between them than the poorest 50 percent of humanity—3.6 billion people.

Let’s make that clear: Eight people own more wealth than 3.6 billion people. That is simply grotesque. And it is the type of fact that needs to break through the complacency and routine of our daily lives, and the latest outrages of the U.S. president, and spur us to demand effective collective action to change course.

Many people don’t spend much time thinking about the difference between income inequality and wealth inequality, but it’s important to understand that wealth inequality is both harder to fix and harder to justify, and it has enormous consequences that resonate over multiple generations. The reality that the Oxfam report makes plain is that even while global extreme poverty has seen dramatic reductions over the last couple of decades, global wealth continues to be concentrated at the very top, into fewer and fewer hands.

The recovery of global financial markets since the crash of 2008 has been very good for the already wealthy, but for those who didn’t have many assets to begin with, the recovery of the stock market has benefited them far less. To put it bluntly, the class of the people who had the most to do with causing the crisis ended up benefiting the most from it.

Jim Wallis 1-24-2017
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com 

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA has only been out of office for a few weeks, but his legacy is secure in ways that are critical to our national identity—and quite separate from his policy successes and failures.

One lens through which we can understand Obama’s relevance and lasting historical legacy is found, surprisingly, in the book of Genesis. Genesis 1:26-27 gives us the first biblical description of human origin: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. ... Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them.’”

This text is foundational to how we understand God’s purpose for the world and for human beings. Perhaps most important, it establishes the foundational value of every human as being made in the image of God ( imago dei).

This biblical revelation—and America’s racial history—is why the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008 is of such lasting importance. The United States was founded on the original sin of white supremacy, which declared that some people were less human than others; the nation was built on the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans and the displacement and eradication of Native Americans. In the process, the founders of our nation cast aside the notion of imago dei. The Constitution enshrined the notion that African slaves could be considered three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional representation (and Native Americans counted not at all).

Choosing an African-American man for the highest office in our nation—making him the most powerful person in the world for eight years—was and is a fundamental blow to white supremacy. The Obama presidency marked a historic era in the longstanding and ongoing movement to undo white supremacy and privilege.

Jim Wallis 12-19-2016

THOSE BEARING witness at Standing Rock have become some of the most important, and most prophetic, leaders protecting God’s earth in America today—especially given the threat to our environment that Donald Trump represents.

There is no better example of what the struggle to protect God’s creation looks like now, and may look like in the future, than the “water protectors” at Standing Rock, who have put their bodies on the line for months to stop the Dakota Access pipeline from being built on sacred tribal lands and endangering the water supply of Indigenous people. Native Americans have been joined by people of every color and creed, including clergy (see “A Chorus of Resistance” in this issue) and military veterans, to prevent the construction from moving forward, despite brutal attacks from private security forces and state law enforcement.

The decision by the Army Corp of Engineers in early December to deny an easement for the pipeline route across Lake Oahe on the Missouri River, adjacent to the Standing Rock reservation, will temporarily halt the construction. But the head of the company building the pipeline has been a major contributor to Trump’s campaign, and with perhaps the most anti-environment president in memory about to enter office, the struggle is far from over.

“It is a temporary victory,” Denise McKay, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux told the Washington Post. “We’ve got to stay put and stay united.” Her daughter, Chelsea Summers, added, “everybody is still here for the long haul.”

Jim Wallis 11-30-2016

AFTER A LONG and extraordinarily toxic election, white people elected Donald Trump president of the United States. They weren’t the only ones voting, but the white vote—coupled with efforts to suppress minority voters along with diminished enthusiasm and turnout among all voters—was enough to make the difference. After beginning his political career with a racist birther campaign against the first black president, then starting his presidential campaign with a speech that viciously denigrated Mexicans and immigrants, Donald Trump won the election not in spite of but because of his bigotry.

One of the important moral discussions that will take place over the coming months is around the questions “Who did evangelicals vote for in 2016, and why?” White evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump, but evangelicals of color did not. In light of these results, we need to step back and ask much-more-basic questions, such as “What is an evangelical?” “What do evangelicals look like?” and “What issues motivate evangelical voters?” The answers are more complicated and more encouraging than what the media and pollsters have traditionally described and what the votes of white evangelicals in this election painfully showed.

In 2016, the conversation about who evangelicals are and what issues motivate them began to change. An influential declaration signed by 80 racially diverse evangelical leaders focused on their rejection of the racial and gender bigotry of Trump. It clarified the fundamental differences between older white evangelicals and a new generation of multiethnic evangelical leaders and what they care about.

One sign of progress is that when the media discuss religious voting preferences, they are now more likely to use the phrase “white evangelicals” as a category rather than assuming that the term “evangelicals” applies only to white people.

Rose Marie Berger 10-25-2016
Northfoto / Shutterstock.com

Northfoto / Shutterstock.com

I OPENED MY first savings account at Wells Fargo in Sacramento, Calif., when I was 8 years old. I remember the bronze stagecoach penny bank they gave me to help me practice saving. When I moved to Washington, D.C., I put my money into a D.C.-based bank, soon bought out by Wells Fargo. But it wasn’t the same Wells Fargo I’d grown up with.

In 2012, the Justice Department found Wells Fargo guilty of discriminating against both African-American and Latino borrowers during the subprime mortgage heist. It’s one of the top two banks invested in the Corrections Corporation of America, which is one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the U.S. In 2015, Wells Fargo was the world’s largest bank.

This fall, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, who abruptly resigned in October, was called before a congressional investigative committee to answer accusations that thousands of Wells Fargo employees secretly opened 2 million fraudulent accounts without customers’ permission or knowledge, and were incentivized by the company to do so. Employees opened false banking and credit card accounts, transferred funds, and created phony access codes and email addresses. “The frauds violate federal and state statutes against bank fraud and identity theft,” William K. Black Jr., white-collar criminologist and cofounder of Bank Whistleblowers United, told Sojourners. Customers incurred charges and fines; in some cases, their credit ratings were damaged.

CEO Stumpf accepted “full responsibility for all unethical sales practices in our retail banking business.” (John Steinbeck once called this kind of thing a successful combination of “piracy and puritanism.”)

Wells Fargo claims that it has fired 5,300 people since 2011 related to these practices, but details are vague; the fraud investigators were hired by Wells Fargo. We don’t know how many were fired because they couldn’t fulfill the extortionate sales quotas.

Jim Wallis 10-25-2016
Irina Mos / Shutterstock.com

Irina Mos / Shutterstock.com

OUR NATION needs to begin healing the deep wounds that this election cycle has caused and exacerbated.

What wounds are these? Deep down, our country has developed a very large empathy deficit. The unprecedented toxicity of the rhetoric that came from Donald Trump emboldened many of his supporters to become vile and even violent in their characterizations of Hillary Clinton, her supporters, and anyone who didn’t agree with them.

The anonymity of the internet and the nature of social media helped fuel the rise of the alt-right, a catch-all term for extremists that encompasses white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and virulent misogynists, many of whom were Trump supporters. The CEO of his campaign, Steve Bannon, was one of the alt-right’s most prominent boosters. These supporters embraced Donald Trump with cult-like fanaticism and used their online anonymity to hurl violent invective, peddle conspiracy theories, and even make death threats to people who opposed Trump or who were perceived as being biased against him. (Mainstream journalists, especially those who are black, Latino/a, Muslim, or Jewish, were the most frequent targets.) There was a complete lack of empathy from the alt-right for the feelings and motivations of anyone who did not support Trump or who belonged to one of the many groups he insulted.

Trump’s campaign lifted a rock in American life, and all sorts of ugly things crawled out from beneath that rock. They denied the image of God in the people they targeted.

Many left-leaning partisans responded by demonizing not just Trump but everyone who supported his candidacy, and often in similarly toxic language. In some ways, liberals made a major mistake in the way they caricatured conservatives and previous Republican nominees. Speaking in apocalyptic terms about decent people such as Mitt Romney, whose positions they strongly disagree with, has made it more difficult to break through to both the media and rank-and-file conservatives about the clear and present danger of Trump’s candidacy. And while Clinton’s famous “basket of deplorables” comment was taken out of context to feed a perception that she had no empathy for any of Trump’s supporters, many people on the left make precisely this mistake. They view all of Trump’s supporters as ignorant racists and dismiss the real economic and social forces that have left many working-class whites behind, alienated and angry.

Jim Wallis 9-29-2016
Darryl Brooks / Shutterstock

Darryl Brooks / Shutterstock 

“WE CAN'T LET our status as nonprofits turn us into non-prophets.” My old friend Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church, said that at a town hall meeting on racism that we had in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church last spring, on the anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

In McDonald’s “prophetic” way, he was pointing to a real dilemma that many of us as church leaders are having with this election. Namely, how do we speak to the clear Christian issues involved in this election without violating our status as a nonprofit organization? (Under IRS regulations, so-called 501(c)(3) organizations such as ours are prohibited from participating in political campaigns.) How do we raise up a morally independent stance, as opposed to a politically partisan position?

Sojourners has always sought to change the conversation of election debates by lifting up the voices and interests of those outside of traditional political discourse: the most vulnerable, who are often of least interest to those looking for votes or campaign contributions. We have never endorsed a candidate for president but have always raised the moral issues of poverty, peace, justice, and the dignity of every life during election campaigns and asked Christians to vote according to those values.

I spent three days in early September with three different groups of faith leaders who were trying to bring their faith to bear in this election. These meetings, which featured leaders from many faith traditions, ethnicities, and theological backgrounds, focused on how to respond to the divisive and dangerous racial rhetoric in this presidential election campaign. We sought to discern how to remain independent of partisan political causes, faithful to the transcendent Christian values that are clearly at stake in this election, respectful of Christians who are led to different voting preferences in every election (which is a healthy thing), and civil in our own public discourse in an election environment that seems to have lost all civility.

Jim Wallis 7-26-2016
jorik / Shutterstock

jorik / Shutterstock

WHEN WE chose the name “Sojourners,” we didn’t realize how often we would end up earning that brand. We’re on the move again. Sojourners is moving our office to the Stanton Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., a five-minute walk from the U.S. Capitol.

A move like this always makes me reflect deeply about our vocation in reference to our location.

When Sojourners moved to D.C. from Chicago in 1975, we deliberately moved to one of the poorest parts of the city and consciously compared our new location to the “catacombs,” which were the poorest sections in Rome. We would move to the outside of power, “the other Washington,” and from there seek to relate to the insiders of political power in official Washington.

Right away, we got very involved in those poor neighborhoods with our new neighbors, whose needs and voices directly shaped our work. We also traveled all over the country and around the world to places where people were asking for help in putting their faith into action, especially in the many places where marginal people had been left out, forgotten, and oppressed. Both locally and globally, it was the poor and vulnerable and those working alongside them whose “voices in the wilderness” filled the pages of Sojourners magazine and, eventually, our digital spaces.

During those years, our voice became increasingly heard in the public square, regularly listened to by millions of people in the media and those in Washington, both in Congress and the White House. This has now become an important expression of our mission.

Jim Wallis 6-29-2016

IN 1978, a Sojourners subscriber sent me this quote from a European newspaper reporting on Billy Graham’s visit to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland: “The present insanity of the global arms race,” Graham said, “if continued, will lead inevitably to a conflagration so great that Auschwitz will seem like a minor rehearsal.” The U.S. media had not reported on Graham’s statement.

I wrote to Billy Graham and asked if what he said, after visiting Auschwitz for the first time, indicated a change of heart for him on nuclear weapons. Billy wrote back to say it did. He agreed to an interview with Sojourners to explain how his thinking had changed about the nuclear arms race, saying that it felt to him like a moral and spiritual question and not just a political issue.

August marks the 71st anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. When President Obama visited Hiroshima earlier this year, he encouraged leaders to “pursue a world without nuclear weapons” (which is sadly and dangerously ironic coming from a president who is overseeing a 30-year, $1 trillion upgrade of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal).

Billy Graham, in that 1979 interview with Sojourners, was clear in his view of the threat posed by nuclear weapons:

Is a nuclear holocaust inevitable if the arms race is not stopped? Frankly, the answer is almost certainly yes. Now I know that some people feel human beings are so terrified of a nuclear war that no one would dare start one. I wish I could accept that. But neither history nor the Bible gives much reason for optimism. What guarantee is there that the world will never produce another maniacal dictator like Hitler or Amin? As a Christian I take sin seriously, and the Christian should be the first to know that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, as Jeremiah says. We can be capable of unspeakable horror, no matter how educated or technically sophisticated we are. Auschwitz is a compelling witness to this.

Jim Wallis 6-02-2016
John M Anderson / Shutterstock

John M Anderson / Shutterstock

THE GREAT POLITICAL and historical reality behind the incendiary rhetoric and conflict we have been experiencing in our country is this: In just a few decades, America will no longer be a white-majority nation; we will instead be a majority of minorities.

Some of our citizens, especially many older white Americans, are deeply fearful and resentful about the potential loss of white supremacy and privilege. They will not let this happen without a fight. Already there is a clear strategy to try to ensure that the changing demographic does not change America. There is a five-part strategy in place to delay, obstruct, and veto the new America.

First, gerrymander congressional districts. Second, shift the goal of immigration reform away from full citizenship, preventing the enfranchisement of 11 million new voters. Third, incarcerate mass numbers of citizens, leading to their political disenfranchisement. Fourth, put in place new voting regulations that make it harder for many people to vote. Fifth, elect a strong-man candidate who promises to do to “whatever it takes” to ensure that America does not change.

GLOBALLY, those who are on the “wrong” side of the categories, the most marginalized, find themselves most vulnerable to the devastating impacts of climate change, war, displacement, and poverty. As conflict rages in the most fragile countries, millions of people, many of them women and children, are displaced from their homes. The global response has been unacceptable. In Europe and the United States, politicians have stoked xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments to block refugees seeking asylum. Walls are being built to keep the “others” out. Aid and relief to these areas are being cut in favor of expanding military budgets. Race sits at the intersection of all of these issues.

Jim Wallis 4-28-2016
William Perugini / Shutterstock

William Perugini / Shutterstock

WHAT ISIS AND other terror groups who share their views want is precisely to terrorize us. They want to turn our fear of them into fear of everyone who looks like them, and everyone who follows the religion they are trying to hijack. They want us to suspect, fear, and hate the 1.6 billion people of the world who practice Islam—including millions of Muslim Americans. They want to provoke us to anger, and they hope that in our anger and pain we will overreact.

Right now, unfortunately, they are succeeding with too many of our fellow Christians, and even with some of the candidates for our highest political offices.

When ISIS terrorists succeed in provoking Islamophobic responses, they come closer to their goal of dividing the world into two categories—Muslims and non-Muslims—which also brings them closer to their goal of claiming the mantle of being the only “true defenders” of Islam. Islamophobia thus directly helps the terrorists recruit more young Muslims to their cause and makes it harder for other Muslims to work against them.

Here are some ways that we can deny the terrorists their victory:

FIRST, WE MUST focus on life and the terrible human suffering that these attacks are causing all over the world. When you add up all of those killed, maimed, wounded, and traumatized—and all their family members, friends, fellow congregants, and co-workers—the number of human beings impacted by terrorist violence is almost countless. We must also include the impact on all of our children whose fears these attacks kindle, and the fears we in turn feel for them.

Jim Wallis 3-22-2016
Lauren Simmons / Shutterstock

Lauren Simmons / Shutterstock

WE ARE A baseball family, with our two boys playing on many teams over the years with multiracial teammates, coaches, and leadership in the organizations shaping those programs. I have long been a Little League baseball coach, and my wife, Joy, has been commissioner at every level too.

In baseball, talent and teamwork are the metrics and measuring sticks, not the race of one’s teammates. For both of my boys, their teammates are their closest friends.

Being a Little League coach (for 11 years and 22 seasons!) has given me a place to reflect on our nation’s racial issues. Playing baseball brings you closer together. My son Luke often says his high school teammates are the best friends he’s ever had, and at every level of Little League, my players always testify in our final team meeting of the season how they have become such close friends. Being teammates really does help overcome racial bias and prejudice, because it is the issue of proximity that finally helps human beings understand one another and learn empathy. On Little League teams we are all cheering for one another, looking out for one another, picking one another up when we fall down or make a mistake, and learning to be positive as we work together for our common goals.

One of the best things to watch over the course of a season is how, across racial lines, the parents of players become friends as well. It is especially interesting to see how the conversation topics develop over time, moving from “just baseball” to school and future, to work and family, to sharing of life experiences, and even to national events, which sometimes includes race. What becomes clear is that we all care more about our children and their future than anything else, and beginning to talk about our kids’ futures together can be a very powerful moment.

Jim Wallis 2-29-2016
JP Keenan / Sojourners

JP Keenan / Sojourners

TRAVELING AROUND the country this winter has given me a tremendous opportunity to promote multiracial truth-telling in many local communities as well as to foster multiracial commitments to action in service of racial justice.

During the first two weeks of the “town hall” tour around my new book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, we engaged an audience of tremendous diversity—multiracial, intergenerational, interfaith, secular, and intersectional. The audience and panelists at these forums have been baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, and again and again we’re seeing new insights and directions as a wide variety of people and perspectives are brought into the dialogue.

In Baltimore, leaders who were in the streets with their congregants following the death of Freddie Gray, such as Revs. Heber Brown III and Brad Braxton, talked about the lessons they learned from the protests and how those lessons must be applied across the country in the days to come.

In New York, Heather McGhee, president of the public policy organization Demos, said that successfully navigating our country into the new demographic reality—in a way that removes both privilege and punishment based on skin color—could be the first opportunity to truly realize our “American exceptionalism.” I often speak against the notion of American exceptionalism, but I wholeheartedly agree with McGhee’s assessment.

Jim Wallis 1-28-2016
Gina Jacobs / Shutterstock

Gina Jacobs / Shutterstock

EARLY THIS YEAR, I was invited to the White House for an important meeting. A young couple entered at the same time I did, carrying their baby—which struck me as unusual for a meeting with leaders at the White House.

They introduced themselves and their 15-month-old daughter. Then the couple told me this: “Her 6-year-old sister was shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.”

Then I understood. They were there for the same meeting I was—President Obama’s announcement of new executive actions on background checks and other gun enforcement and safety issues.

The East Room of the White House was full of the victims and family members of victims of mass shootings, which occurred 372 times in 2015, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870. (As defined by the Mass Shooting Tracker, a mass shooting is any in which four or more people are shot.)

Many families that had lost children or parents were there. Former member of Congress Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, were there. Many remember the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in which a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia shot 19 people, including Rep. Giffords, six of whom were killed, including a 9-year-old girl.

IT WAS THE PEOPLE and the faces that most moved me—and moved the president. Much was made the next day of his emotional response. When he said, “Our unalienable right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness—those rights were stripped from college kids in Blacksburg and Santa Barbara, and from high-schoolers in Columbine, and from first-graders in Newtown,” he had to wipe tears away from his eyes.

“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Obama said. “And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”

I have seldom seen President Obama so emotional. I know the hardest day of his presidency was when he had to go to Newtown to meet and talk to the families of the 26 students and teachers who had lost their lives to another mass shooter. And it is clear to me that Obama was responding as a dad who has two girls of his own.

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