Rev. Jim Wallis searches for old-time justice
The author and activist aims to strengthen the link between spirituality and commitment to moral issues like poverty.
Jim Wallis is known internationally as a bestselling author, preacher, faith-based activist, and sought-after commentator on religion and politics.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet he calls himself "a 19th-century Evangelical born in the wrong century." His heroes are the faith leaders who ignited the social movements of their day, transforming America by ending slavery and child labor. Evangelist Charles Finney, he explains enthusiastically in an interview, linked religious revivals directly to the antislavery cause by signing up new converts immediately to the abolitionist campaign.
For the ebullient Reverend Wallis, faith isn't full-blown unless it goes beyond being a private matter to pursue the public good.
"What became of religion that believed its duty was to change society on behalf of justice?" he asks in his new bestseller, "The Great Awakening."
Could it be that its time has come again? Signs grow that a shift is under way in this direction within the evangelical movement, and particularly among the young. At the same time, Wallis's last bestseller – "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" – helped nudge Democratic presidential candidates into articulating a connection among their faith, values, and policies.
Currently on a 20-city book tour, the voluble white-haired preacher scoots from speeches in packed churches to radio and TV interviews, pressing his message that a new social movement is indeed stirring to address the moral issues of today.
To a Sunday-afternoon crowd at Trinity Church in Boston, he talks of faith's role in overcoming cynicism and bringing about societal change.
"Hope is a choice made because of faith; believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change," he says. "The best social movements have spiritual foundations."
Wallis could be his own best example. Until recently, he felt like a man born out of time because for decades, evangelical fervor has focused predominantly – and often angrily – on issues of personal morality, such as abortion. It ignored what Wallis considers the concerns central to Jesus' teachings. At the top of his list: care for the poor.
When he was a seminary student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago in the 1960s, Wallis and his classmates searched the Bible for references to poverty. When they turned up thousands, it sparked a personal "awakening" that has guided his life ever since.
"God hates injustice," he says. He founded Sojourners, a social-justice ministry and magazine, and began what has become three decades of living in low-income communities in Washington, D.C.
"Your perspective is shaped by what you see when you get out of bed in the morning," he says, quoting a truism from the civil rights movement.
When the religious right was at full throttle in the 1990s, Wallis started Call to Renewal, a network of pastors from across the United States (mainline and black Protestants, Roman Catholics, evangelicals), to work toward overcoming poverty.
"The Call to Renewal effort was very productive in making it clear the religious right didn't speak for all churches," says the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a nonprofit, "and also making it clear to churches they needed to speak out."
It was at a 2006 Call to Renewal conference that Sen. Barack Obama gave his major speech on faith and politics.
This country has not conquered poverty, Wallis believes, because most Americans don't have any relationships with poor people. "Lack of relationship leads to lack of understanding, empathy, and urgency, and creates stereotypes, myths, and excuses," he says. Instead, the bureaucracy has "serviced" poverty.