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.

Mark Thomson
Rev. Jim Wallis: The bestselling author and evangelical preacher is trying to strengthen the traditional link between spirituality and commitment to confronting moral issues like poverty.
Kevin Wolf/AP/FILE
Wallis in Washington: The founder of Sojourners spoke out against cuts in Medicaid and other programs in 2005.

Jim Wallis is known internationally as a bestselling author, preacher, faith-based activist, and sought-after commentator on religion and politics.

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.

But crisscrossing the country over the past few years, Wallis is exhilarated by what he sees happening in the evangelical community – and, broadly, among young people. The National Association of Evangelicals has officially stepped out to embrace a broader agenda, including poverty and environmental action.

"Jim is one of the people who's inspired Bible-believing Christians to see the connection between justice for the poor and Christian faith," Mr. Beckmann says.

And youths have been showing up at his talks eager to get involved in social justice issues, from HIV/AIDS to Darfur to poverty. They are mostly Christians, but also Jews, Muslims, and even atheists.

One Muslim youth leader who's been strongly influenced is Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. In a Washington Post online column, Mr. Patel writes of seeking out Wallis and going to hear him many times in recent years. He calls himself a member of "the Jim Wallis generation," and says, "we are ready to change the world."

Some Evangelicals have criticized Wal­lis as a liberal who's not vocal enough on issues like abortion. In his book, he says people are tired of right and left and hungry for "a moral center" focused on the common good and getting things done.

In an interview, Wallis says he's talked with both Democrats and "compassionate conservative" Republicans, seeking a bipartisan way to put poverty and the UN's Millennium Development Goals on the public agenda. The day his new book came out, he says delightedly, Congress passed a resolution committing to the goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years.

"It's a nonbinding resolution, but you can build on it," he says. "Britain has made that commitment and already cut it by 7 percent."

But he isn't likely to focus his time lobbying Congress or getting involved in partisan politics. Experience tells him that nothing will change on the big issues until there's strong public pressure on politicians to make them accountable. That's where a new social movement comes in.

Wallis is clear that a "vision without a strategy is like faith without works." He has a plan for galvanizing people into action – and it looks a lot like that of his 19th-century heroes.

He proposes a set of "Justice Revivals" in various US cities. In what he calls "a combination of Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr.," they'll involve a call to faith, but lead to specific actions.

Next month in Columbus, Ohio, he and local pastors from various denominations will hold the first week-long revival in the city's largest megachurch. Along with preaching, they'll discuss how to commit to having a long-term positive impact on the city. People of other faiths will be welcome.

What makes him feel this will work?

In all his travels, he says, it's what he hears from the young people. They know what they think is wrong in society and they're eager to do something about it.

Even the children. A third-grade girl at one speech particularly touched him. "When you talked about that 'silent tsunami' that is killing so many children every day because of poverty – children like me ... I started to think to myself, 'If I'm a Christian, I better do something about that,' " she told Wallis afterward, according to an account in his book.

A movement happens, he says, when people change their minds about what is acceptable in the world, and have faith that what needs to be done is possible.

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