September 16, 2013 / Praxis
An art exhibition at a church attempts to bridge the gap between the academy and community in a North Carolina university town.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In this issue of The Other Journal we are looking at the surging new atheism in the west so I thought we would start the interview on the topic of atheism.
You mention in The Great Awakening that the early Christians were known as atheists because they didn’t serve the gods of the Roman empire. What are the gods of the American empire? How successful are American Christians in resisting those gods?
Jim Wallis (JW): Our gods are materialism and consumerism. The Churches are not resisting those very well at all. In fact they are often reproducing theological versions of those false gods—it is called the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is a heresy and it could only of been created by an affluent society that is addicted to consumerism and materialism. So that is one.
Another one of our gods is our whole notion of America as having divine providence in the World. It is what I would call American exceptionalism. There is absolutely no biblical justification for any kind of American exceptionalism and the Body of Christ around the world thinks it is ridiculous and they don’t believe it. They don’t believe that God has a special role for America in the world anymore than God does for Austria.
I was at a World Vision meeting in Singapore and I said that we are Christians first and Americans or whatever tribe either 2nd, 3rd or 4th. African Christians came up to me afterward and said that is an extraordinarily revolutionary concept for them as tribal people to say we should be Christians first.
But that is really as hard for us as it is for Africans because often American Christians think that our American tribe is more important than being in the Body of Christ. They think you are American tribal people first before you are Christians, so that’s why you support the war in Iraq. No one around the world, the vast majority of the Body of Christ around the world, supports the war in Iraq. The vast majority. Why do we support it? Because in our idolatry, we are tribal Americans before we are Christians.
So those are two gods right there.
TOJ: I watched Bill Moyers give his reflections on the Reverend Wright controversy a week after he had interviewed him on his own show. Moyers was quite critical of the media’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, insatiable need to have a new story with a new scandal. He identified the media as a key factor in our nation’s inability to talk about religion and politics.
As you have watched the Reverend Wright story unfold over the last two months, leading to Barak Obama effectively denouncing his pastor, do you think the conversation around faith and politics is changing, or is this more of the same inflammatory dialogue we’ve come to loath? How should or can Christians work to change the rhetoric of the politicians and the media around issues of religion in public life?
JW: I think what we saw was—you can see it with Jeremiah Wright, or you can see it in the Compassion Forum that was held at Messiah College on April 13th, or you can see it in the Sojourners event last June called Pentecost 2007—in most of those forums the religious questioners of the candidates asked questions of substance and of depth and were non-sectarian. The media questions across the board were shallow, silly, trivial and divisive. CNN’s questions were bad and the religious leaders’ were good, almost all the way across the board. I mean, their questions were like, “Hillary, when did the Holy Spirit last appear to you?” Our questions, on the other hand, were about policy issues and all the rest.
So the media handles religion very badly and the Jeremiah Wright and Barak Obama issue is full of all kinds of nuances that were ignored. This was a generational conflict in a black church, it is a family issue, in a particular church, between the two most prominent people in the church, and all being broadcasted by Fox News very poorly.
The media puts everything in left and right categories; they show just two sides to every issue. It isn’t just Jeremiah Wright. Patriotism, for instance, is a very different question in black America than it is in white America and to not understand that is really foolish. So nuance, education, depth, texturing—the media doesn’t do that well. With the media, everything is caricatured, including Jeremiah Wright. And then Jeremiah Wright, sadly, became a caricature of himself at the press conference in Washington. But the media created the climate of caricature, and he responded badly to it, with almost a caricature of a caricature.
TOJ: So then how do we as people of faith start to keep the media accountable?
JW: Well, I think we have to be very clear ourselves so there is more depth, nuance and more understanding and education in the way we speak about faith in public life. A number of people are doing that better and better. It is a broader dialogue. The monologue of the religious right is finally over and now it is a dialogue. This is a healthy change for the churches and for the country.
I think we need to have our own media channels, our own new media venues and channels so people can hear from us. We also have to find the sympathetic venues. I think Bill Moyers did a good job with his interview of Jeremiah Wright where it wasn’t just sound bites but a serious conversation. Where else are you going to get an exposition on Psalm 137 in relationship to September 11th? All you had was the conclusion on the tape, but you had the exegesis on Bill Moyers. It was pretty powerful.
I think we do have to hold the media accountable the best we can.
TOJ: With the Wright controversy and with Obama being in the fore of the presidential election, race is another key factor in this year’s election. Throughout your ministry you have intentionally committed yourself to racial dialogue and reconciliation. What opportunities do you see this election providing for further racial healing to take place?
JW: I have said this on TV, but I would ask every American to sit down with their children and watch Barak Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race and then to ask “Is that the kind of future you want for your children?” And then ask your children, “Is that the kind of future you want for yourselves?” And then I would leave it at that.
TOJ: Will Sojourners endorse a candidate for this election?
JW: No, we don’t endorse. We defend when that feels necessary, but we don’t endorse. I talk to them all, we ask them to support the agenda of the movements we are a part of. Martin Luther King, Jr. never endorsed a candidate, but made them support the agenda of the movement he was a part of, so that is what we’re trying to do. We’re taking his advice on that.
TOJ: You mentioned clearly in your book, as well as just now, that we are in a new post-Religious right era. In this era, you are not asking evangelicals to switch to the democratic party, but instead, to affirm that neither party owns the religious vote and take more seriously that spiritual faithfulness has radical social implications. Yet there are only two parties and you have been a leader that has shown the Democratic Party as a viable option for evangelical Christians. We’re starting to see a fairly substantial exodus of young evangelicals to the Democratic Party. Do you consider yourself more in line with Democratic Party and how have you stayed bipartisan in such rigidly partisan times?
JW: Politics is broken and politics is failing to resolve or even address the biggest issues of our time. Both parties are broken. When that happens social movements rise up to change politics, and the best ones have spiritual foundations, almost always. People of faith should be on both sides of the political aisle; they should be in no one party’s political pocket. We should hold both sides accountable to our moral compass. More importantly we should be a part of social movements that really hold politics accountable and change politics.
For example, the Democrats give a lot of lip service to the issue of poverty but they haven’t led on an issue in years. The Republicans kind of have it easier, of course. So the question is how do you change the lens of politics in Washington? That will happen more effectively through social movements than with identifying with one party or another. God is not a Republican nor a Democrat, we say that again and again, it is a bumper sticker now, but God’s politics, if you will, challenges the selective moralities on both the left and the right. So how do you be prophetic but not partisan? Politically? Yes. But political in a prophetic sense and that is always a challenge.
TOJ: Do you think Sojourners has done a good job of that?
JW: I can say that we work hard at that, but you make tough choices. I’m on no Democratic advisory groups or commitees or candidates’ advisory teams. I talk to them all. Anyone who wants to talk with us can talk with us, but I go out of my way not be identified especially with either party.
TOJ: You mention in your book that you are somewhat of a convert to Catholic social teaching. Perhaps the core of the Christian witness in our political time is whether we are fostering a culture of life or one of death. How do the current candidates, John McCain and Barak Obama, stack up in their commitment to building a more whole, consistent culture of life?
JW: A consistent ethic of life, which the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago talked about, a seamless garment he called it, is what I believe in. And that challenges the selective moralities of the left and the right. You can’t say you have an ethic of life, pro-life and continue to prosecute a disastrous war. So I think John McCain’s culture of life is violated every day in Iraq, the more he continues to support it.
I also think the Democrats saying a woman’s right to choose is the only issue in abortion is also a violation of the culture of life, because there are other lives involved here. So democrats who talk about the moral issue of abortion ought to at least talk about abortion reduction as a party and policy.
So both sides have some inconsistencies that they need to reconcile here.
TOJ: What about Obama specifically, have you been encouraged about what he has said about the conversation around abortion?
JW: In his book Obama talks about being open to a better conversation about abortion. He wants people to be less knee-jerk that how liberal Democrats have been in the past about abortion.
I don’t think he’s figured out how to do that yet. I think congressman Tim Ryan, a pro-life Democrat from Ohio, and Rosa DeLauro, a pro-choice Democrat from Connecticut, have put together this abortion reduction language in the house that I feel is very hopeful. I would like to see more Democrats embracing some of that.
TOJ: The Iraq War is a key factor in this year’s election. You rightly point out in your book that the Iraq War was not a just war by just war standards (although numerous creative interpretations of the just war doctrine were floated before the invasion) and now we are seemingly stuck there without a clear way forward. How are you resisting this war in your ministry, and yet being considerate of our soldiers and the Iraqis who are suffering right now, those who are really being affected? How have you been able to creatively resist such a messy situation?
JW: The American occupation of Iraq is not the solution to Iraq; it is the problem in Iraq. So that American occupation continues to threaten the lives and futures of our soldiers and of the Iraqi people. So we have to end the American occupation and resolve Iraq’s genuine security issues and the need for political solutions in other ways, with the international community playing more of a role in both security and political resolutions, and that won’t happen as long as you have the occupation of Iraq by the Americans.
And so the occupation has to change. To protect the troops you want to keep them out of harm’s way, to protect the Iraqi people you want to find some security answer that isn’t dependent on American occupation. So we’re not moving away. I’ve suggested a number of things that can move us away like giving up on any notion of permanent military bases, renouncing those intentions, giving up any prior claim or access to Iraqi oil, committing ourselves to rebuilding ourselves without any unique access to the contracts of that job. We need to have the Iraqis and other nations rebuilding instead of American companies. If we have those three things we would see an influx of a national community back into Iraq to help resolve issues of security and finding a political solution.
TOJ: Now in your proposal of those three things, is there a faith coalition behind those three principles that is working to advocate for those?
JW: There is not a coalition behind those three principles, or suggestions, but there are a number of people who would agree with all or some of them.
TOJ: Who have those been proposed to, how have you advocated for those positions then?
JW: Well, you speak to them when no one pays attention, but no one pays attention in this administration. And then you speak to them at the level of congress. John McCain is not going to do that, so you try to get the Democratic candidate to take a strong position on extricating American soldiers and replacing that with an international presence for both security and a political solution.
TOJ: Poverty and the violence and sickness that come with it remain an important issue to address internationally and domestically. One thing that I appreciated about your book was your point that if you want change, you must embody the change that you want. As 30,000 kids die of poverty every day, tell me how we as American Christians can embody a way of life that resists the advancement of poverty on a local and global scale? How do we embody change when it comes to issues of poverty?
JW: There are clear policy goals that would help to significantly reduce or eliminate extreme poverty in this world and most of them are summed up well by the millennium development goals, the MDGs, that most of the world has endorsed but has yet to operationalize. Those kinds of policy goals would be very effective as far as ending extreme poverty.
The Civil Rights law of 1964 and Voting Rights of 1965 were the result of literally millions of personal and communal decisions and commitments on the part of millions of people. So we have to act on these things very personally at home and on the home front, in our families and at work in our vocation, our lifestyle, our choices, where we work and how we live, how our congregation’s lead in our neighborhoods should demonstrate solutions by enacting them at the level of community. And then together that builds momentum to policy change, which will also be finally necessary, because you can’t keep pulling bodies out of the river without sending somebody up stream to see what is throwing them. Because budgets are moral documents finally in the end.
So it has to be a movement, not just a set of policies, because culture drives policy, you have to change the culture on the issue of poverty and I think that policy will follow.
TOJ: You recently featured some young leaders in the last issue of Sojourners, are you encouraged by those leaders in this regard of changing the culture?
JW: Very much so, because many of them are making those changes and leading creative innovative projects. They are social entrepreneurs and young pastors and most of them are involved in advocacy as well. I am very hopeful about this next generation and we’re turning the corner here. Poverty is the new slavery and it is the new altar call for a new generation of abolitionists.
TOJ: We talk a lot about theology at TOJ and I enjoyed in your book the fact that you drew upon many individuals who were theologians or who had profound theological insights such as John Howard Yoder, Jacques Ellul, MLK and N.T. Wright. Social action needs a good theological base and a spiritual core. You think about where we are at with Iraq and some other political crises and you can see how bad the theology has been to get us to this place. This is a very open ended question, but how do we avoid bad theology, what are some indicators in that regard?
JW: Well you know bad theology leads to bad foreign policy and bad politics. So theology is key. Thinking theologically and behaving spiritually are really important things because politics cannot solve anything by itself.
Theology is remembering who we are and who God is. It is remembering to whom we belong, that we are a people of God. Our identity is critical, in the kingdom of God, in how then faith relates to public life. So we get off base when we abandon theology for politics in a partisan kind of way. When people say I support the war because people believe that George Bush is really a Christian, I think the better discernment would be what would Augustine say about the war? What would Jesus think about the war?
When we are not asking theological questions or the Jesus questions we resolve these issues on the basis of culture or politics. Christians aren’t the people who are supposed to be resolving things on those issues. So having a good theological debate about whatever we are involved in is vital. What is more important is the question of what it means to follow Jesus. That is the most important theological question for a Christian.
TOJ: And what does it mean to be the Church as well?
JW: Yes, Jesus came to proclaim a new order called the Kingdom of God and it entered the world with explosive force. I mean, why do we restrict God to just changing our inner lives when God wants to change neighborhoods and the nation and the world? The church is that counter-cultural community that lives by the values of the Kingdom of God. It is a whole new order, and that’s how we are supposed to be and I think getting back to that helps straighten out a lot of these confusions.
TOJ: So if we are living by the Kingdom of God the anti-Christian practices of Christian war and exploitative economic practices become more unintelligible?
JW: Yes, those things as well as becoming advocates for creation care and so on.
TOJ: For younger evangelicals who consider themselves conservative radicals, this is an interesting time in history. Just this morning I was reading the Evangelical Manifesto that you and a diverse group of American Evangelical Christians signed to affirm what it means to be an Evangelical. Was this an important step for Evangelicals? Why? And what does the next generation of Evangelical leaders need to learn from this manifesto?
JW: Well I think the manifesto is important because of what we were just talking about, that we have to define ourselves theologically rather than just culturally or politically. And when Evangelicals become just a culture or a sub-culture or worse yet a kind of political voting bloc, we have lost our way.
So how do we return to the more theological and biblical sense of ourselves as biblical people? And what does it mean to enter the public square with the priorities of Jesus? I mean it talks about the poor all the way through the manifesto. I think it is a needed corrective to the kind of image problem the church has now gotten itself into. You know, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons ‘s book, unChristian, reports that young people inside and outside of the church don’t view Christianity in a favorable way anymore. It is too judgmental, hypocritical, otherworldly, too partisan, all those things they reported.
So how do they change the image? How do we recover ourselves away from the cultural captivity and political partisanship? The Evangelical world has been suffering from both. So the manifesto is meant to be a corrective to reassert our proper identity and find our way again as a prophetic force in the public square.
TOJ: I was struck by the language in the manifesto of dialogue and coexistence rather than maybe overtaking other people, is that language a new indicator in Evangelical discourse that is important?
JW: I think it is a sign of humility and strength; it takes both of those things to renounce triumphalism. Triumpalism is just not a Christian virtue, particularly in a world that is ripped apart by conflict, particularly religious conflict. That doesn’t mean you apologize for who you are. I am unapologetically Christian.
I just had a wonderful conversation with a young Muslim man named Eboo Patel who was in the office here. He spoke at the Q gathering hosted by the Fermi Project a few weeks ago, a young Evangelical forum, and he said as a Muslim do you have room for me, will you talk to me, can we have a dialogue? And he was very compelling. He is the sort of person I want to talk to because for him the common point is one of compassion. It is compassion for the world around us and the most vulnerable around us.
It will finally be our integrity which is evangelistic, not our power.
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.
Jim Wallis is President and Executive Director of Sojourners Magazine. He is a bestselling author, public theologian, speaker, preacher, and international commentator on religion and public life, faith and politics. His latest book is The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post–Religious Right America (HarperOne, 2008).