The Common Good

Recent Posts from Jim Wallis

Yesterday a gunman opened fire in Ottawa and killed a soldier at a war memorial. It is a stark reminder of the kind of world we live in every time a life is taken through violence. My prayers are with the victim and his family and for the authorities leading the investigation in trying to understand the shooter’s motives.

Like Ebola and ISIS, the shooting is spreading fear around the world. It is not unnatural to experience fear as a reaction to danger. However, reacting out of fear instead of wisdom is the mistake we must stop making.

What happened in Ottawa is also a reminder for me that while we can’t remove all violence, we can take steps as a country to reduce it. In 2011, the last year complete numbers are available, 32,163 died in America due to gun related deaths. In Canada that same year the number was 781. While gun violence can happen anywhere, as Ottawa shows, it happens much more in the United States than any other developed country.

Why the discrepancy? The full answer is complicated, but one of the driving factors is not.

A Sandy Hook Father’s Plea from Sojourners on Vimeo.

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I and many other faith leaders came to Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday and Monday because of Michael Brown—an 18-year-old black teenager who, though unarmed, was shot and killed by a white police officer on August 9. My first thoughts when I heard the news were about my 16-year-old son Luke. I knew how unlikely it would be that this would ever happen to my white son in America.

Coming to Ferguson was about Michael Brown. But Ferguson has also become a parable for our nation. Jesus often told parables. A parable is just a story, but often one with a simple but important point.

The Ferguson parable is simply this: black lives in America are worth less than white lives—especially in our criminal justice system. And the parable of Ferguson rings true around the nation, with the many young black men who were and have been assaulted, shot and killed before and after Michael Brown.

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Thousands of people from around the country came to Ferguson, Mo., for a “weekend of resistance.” But for faith leaders it was a weekend of repentance. Twenty of us were arrested in Ferguson yesterday for an act of repentance.

I went to Ferguson as a faith leader but, in particular, as a white faith leader. Because the great disparity between how differently young black lives are treated in our criminal justice system than young white lives is a fundamental injustice that must not only be left to black faith leaders to raise up. Repentance must begin in the white Christian community for tolerating this offense to our black brothers and sisters and, ultimately, this offense to God. Let me be as honest as I can be. If white Christians in America were more Christian than white, black parents could feel safer about their children. It’s time for us white Christians to repent — turn around and go in a new direction.

Repentance is a powerful theme throughout the Bible. But its meaning is often not well understood. Repentance is not about being sorry or just feeling guilty. It is about turning in a new direction. The biblical word for repentance in the original Greek is metanoia, which means you are going in the wrong direction, and it’s time to turn right around.

In the case of Ferguson, repentance means more than merely acknowledging the tragic death of an unarmed 18-year-old African-African man named Michael Brown on Aug. 9 — shot and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. Repentance means more than lamenting the loss of another young black man or being sympathetic to his grieving mother. True repentance means changing the direction of the practices and policies that led to his death and so many others. 

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In the past few months, the world has witnessed the worst outbreak of Ebola since the disease was first identified in 1976 — it has already claimed the lives of more than 3,400 people. But while the first cases in the U.S. and Spain have stirred fears over the past week, we don’t need to fear an unstoppable epidemic in developed countries. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim aptly put it in a piece for the Huffington Post:

The knowledge and infrastructure to treat the sick and contain the virus exists in high- and middle-income counties. However, over many years, we have failed to make these things accessible to low-income people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. So now thousands of people in these countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place.

Dr. Kim makes the crucial point here — the current Ebola outbreak is much more than a public health crisis — it is an inequality crisis.

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I eagerly await to see where the "rainbow generation" will take South Africa. 

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As the Washington, D.C., premiere of Warner Bros.’ new movie, The Good Lie, came to a close, I could barely see the credits through my tears, but the noise of the crowd around me erupting into cheers and the standing ovation was impossible to miss. This film really touched me. I knew I had to write about it.

The Good Lie is the story of some of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan — orphans of war, who walked hundreds of miles fleeing violence, only to spend a decade in a refugee camp before finally being resettled in America. But the film is much more than that. It is a story about the power of faith and regular people who do incredible things because there is no one else who can. It is the story of immigrants — a funny and heartbreaking insight into what it is like to be a stranger in America. And it's a story and performance made all the more real because the Sudanese characters are played by actors who were child refugees and child soldiers themselves.

It stars Reese Witherspoon, whose character and role encapsulate so much of why this movie works. She's the headline draw for Warner Bros., but the movie is not about her. She helps the Lost Boys, but as is so often the case when we respond to God's call to care for our neighbor, they probably help her more. No one saves the day in this movie, but they all help save each other.

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We all know that the world is moving down a very dangerous path, and that we must reverse our direction. But so far, the credible and persuasive scientific case hasn’t accomplished that. Sensible economic proposals haven’t halted that direction either. And smart political arguments have yet to reverse our course either. 
Why? Because we are addicted to fossil fuels. The results are planet-threatening climate change and people-threatening terrorism.

We need conversion. Nothing less. Only our conversion could change our dangerous direction.

Two fundamental things could bring the kind of conversion we need. 

One, our faith. 

Two, our children. 

 
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When Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended for only two games for beating his fiancée (now wife), it became a dramatic public example of the lack of accountability for professional athletes. Only when a video came out showing Rice punching his fiancée so hard it knocked her unconscious, and then dragging her limp body from the casino elevator, did the NFL take further action. As new incidents of domestic violence and child abuse come out, many are calling for Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign or lose his job.

But this epidemic is about so much more than Goodell, whose lack of leadership is typical in professional sports. It’s about more than one team, one league, or sports in general.

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That was a bumper sticker Sojourners published at the outset of the Iraq war more than a decade ago. American church leaders had not only opposed the war but offered an alternative: "An Alternative to War for Defeating Saddam Hussein, A Religious Initiative." We not only presented it to Colin Powell’s personal council and Tony Blair, but also printed full-page ads in every major British newspaper the day before their Parliamentary debate and vote on the war. The U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Affairs, Clair Short, told me the only real alternative on the table in their Cabinet meetings was “The American church leaders’ plan,” which, she said, was seriously discussed. U.S. and U.K. leaders showed they were drawn to an alternative plan to war that would remove any weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein might have had (which he did not) and even to ultimately remove him from power but without going to war. Pope John Paul II was also opposed to the potential war. Both the Vatican and the American church leaders warned that the potential costs of a war in Iraq could include increasing the scope and threats of international terrorism. ISIS is that sad prophecy come true; the habit of war prevailed.

I have always believed that any alternative to war must still address the very real problems at hand — just in a more effective way. To say that “war is not the answer” is not only a moral statement but also is a serious critique of what doesn’t work; wars often fail to solve the problems and ultimately make them worse. War has to answer to metrics, just as more peaceful alternatives do. The war in Iraq was a complete failure with enormous human and financial costs; ISIS is now one of the consequences.

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In a township called Khayelitsha, a woman wakes well before dawn to catch a bus that will carry her to the beautiful home in Cape Town where her employer/boss/master wants his tea in bed by 7 a.m. That is what “post-apartheid” South Africa still looks like today.

I just returned from a remarkable month in South Africa—the country that changed my life. I’ve often said that I learned my theology of hope from South Africa, during the anti-apartheid struggle I was thrust into as a young man. South African church leaders invited me in years ago. I got to see and experience the costly movement for freedom in the 1980s, witness the miracle of the inauguration of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation in 1994, and later join a wonderful reunion of South African activists, many of whom had been in exile or in prison, along with some of us international allies. So when I set out on a South African speaking and book tour 20 years after the new democracy, I didn’t know what to expect.

This time, I brought my family so they could see the country that had meant so much to me. What I discovered was a new generation of South African leaders ready to define their own vocation and mission as they help build a new nation. I quickly came to understand that making a deep connection with them was the real reason that I had come back. It’s tough to be in the shadow of a heroic generation of leaders like Desmond Tutu whose agenda has been the political liberation of South Africa—accomplished to the amazement of the world. On this trip, 20 years later, I saw the incredible freedom of movement now for all the former racial categories—but also how the systemic geography of apartheid was still painfully evident.

Economic inequality in South Africa is now greater than it was even during the days of apartheid, and gender violence is rampant. So these are the new agendas of a new generation: economic liberation and gender equality, with a commitment to lead on both in the churches. The rainbow of young people who turned up in such great numbers at all of our events truly want a new South Africa— a society yet to emerge.

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“There is nothing quite like the African bush to sooth and rejuvenate.” That experience was conveyed to me by a South African church leader who has been helping plan the speaking tour I just arrived for here in this beloved country.

My wife, Joy, and I decided to use this wonderful speaking invitation to South Africa as an opportunity to take our annual August family vacation here. We arrived for a week of rest before the tour began and spent a few beautiful days on the lovely beaches of the Indian Ocean, still warm even for this end-of-winter period. But then the last two days, our Washington, D.C.-based family did something we have never done before — visited the game park and wetland reserve to see some of God’s most extraordinary creatures. Of course we’ve seen these animals in zoos before, but we now had the opportunity to see them roam freely in their natural habitat. For a bunch of city kids like us, it was truly amazing.

In Hluhluwe Game Reserve, beautiful zebras slowly grazed with a South African sunset behind them over the mountains. There are no more graceful creatures than giraffes, elegantly tasting the leaves on the tallest trees as they wander together at peace. Buffalos with great horns shared the terrain with antelopes that showed us their speed when they decided to run. And hyenas really do laugh off in the distance.

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"When I claim to be a Christian, it should be a radical statement."

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The horrible human costs and increasing danger the world is now facing in Gaza, Ukraine, and Iraq show the consequences of not telling the truth. And unfortunately, we seem to mostly have political leaders who are unwilling to admit the truth of what’s happening, deal with root causes instead of exploiting symptoms, and then do everything possible to prevent the escalation of violence and further wars. Instead we have politicians who are mostly looking for opportunities to blame their political opponents, boost their own reputations, and protect business interests. As people of faith, we are called to speak the truth in love.

It’s time for some truth telling.

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I met my wife, Joy Carroll, at Greenbelt, a summer festival of faith, arts, and justice held annually in England. It was August 1994. A few months earlier, in May, Joy was one of the first women to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England. We were both speakers on a panel one day at Greenbelt, in a tent with 5,000 young people. Afterwards, we met for coffee. Joy had been an ordained deacon in the church for six years and was a leader in the movement to recognize all the gifts women had to offer both to the church and the parishes they served. She was the youngest member of the General Synod that decided to ordain women, and she was there for the historic vote in Church House Westminster in London. That cup of coffee eventually led to our marriage in 1997.

I have a vivid memory of returning to Greenbelt as speakers in 2002 with our almost 4-year-old son Luke. It was Sunday morning, and Joy was up on the worship platform celebrating the Eucharist for 20,000 people. My little boy was sitting on my lap watching his mom lead worship up on the stage. Luke looked up at me and said, “Daddy, can men do that too?”

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Vincent's warmth lifted the temperatures of those around him.

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The horrible events in Murrieta, California on Tuesday reminds of the most important immigration talk I’ve given this year—the one I gave to my son’s fifth grade class. 

 

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America is stunned by what is happening in Iraq right now, and happening so quickly. We may be facing the worst terrorist threat to international security so far — despite all we have done and sacrificed. Both our political leaders and media pundits are admitting there are no good options for the U.S. now. But there is an option we could try for the first time: humility. Let me turn to two biblical texts that might provide some wisdom for both the religious and non-religious.

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:20–21)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

All nations use propaganda to tell half-truths and spread misinformation about their enemies, which should be honestly challenged. Even so, it is also true that we have real enemies in this world, as individuals, groups, and nations. To assume otherwise is foolish, from the perspective of history, certainly, but also in light of good theology about evil as part of the nature of the human condition. According to the Bible, even our faith communities will encounter enemies. Jesus’s teaching assumes that we will have enemies, and he teaches us how to treat them. In the passages above, Jesus and Paul the Apostle offer guidance for more effective ways of dealing with our enemies. It seems to be clear that our habit of going to war against them is increasingly ineffective. For the past several years, we have found ourselves in a constant state of war with “enemies” who are very hard to find or completely defeat.

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The stunning primary defeat of Eric Cantor could be a blessing for passing immigration reform. Cantor, as Majority Leader in the House and the number two Republican, was no ally of immigration reform and was likely an obstacle to crucial bi-partisan action. Always lurking in the shadows and clearly hoping to be the next Speaker of the House, Cantor was a threat to John Boehner. Apparently, continually working the inside game to become the Speaker, instead of being a member of Congress who represented his district was one of the biggest reasons Cantor lost his election.

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Last week, I celebrated my birthday. This annual occurrence has taken on new meaning in light of what happened last year around the same time. I had major surgery for prostate cancer. The diagnosis was quite unexpected, with absolutely no signs or symptoms beforehand. But my health provider, Kaiser Permanente, caught it in time and the doctors at the National Institutes of Health performed a very successful operation that removed all of the cancer. So far, regular tests have shown there is no more cancer in my body and for that, our family is very grateful.

Gratitude is the right word and the deepest feeling I had while celebrating my birthday, one year after the cancer surgery. The emotion of that gratitude went even deeper when we lost one of my dearest friends, Christian ethics professor Glen Stassen, just a few weeks ago — to prostate cancer that spread outside of his prostate. They didn’t catch Glen’s cancer in time.

I vividly remember my response after the surgery last year — a new recognition of how fragile and utterly precious life is and especially how utterly priceless your closest relationships are — the ones you love most in the world. For me that’s my wife Joy, and my sons Luke and Jack. My larger family got included in that too, my dearest friends where I live and work, and around the world, my extended community.

I resolved to operate every day with that recognition of how precious my life and relationships are to me. 

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On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, I thought of my father, who died several years ago. James Emerson Wallis, Sr. was commissioned in the Navy, graduated from college at the University of Michigan, and was married — all on the same June day in 1945! After a very quick honeymoon, my Dad was sent out almost immediately to the Pacific as the engineering officer on a destroyer minesweeper. I heard most about that day, and the days that followed, while sitting with my father on the benches at the World War II Memorial shortly after it opened in Washington, D.C. I soon realized why there were so many benches there — so old war veterans could sit down for a while, even for hours, to remember and tell their stories to the ones they most love.

For his 80th birthday, our family invited my dad to go anywhere in the world he wanted to go. He said he wanted to go to Oxford, England, to see the where his favorite Christian author C.S. Lewis lived — and then he wanted to go to Normandy, where so many of his high school buddies died on D-Day. He wanted to go to those beaches and to that special place himself to see the memorials to his friends. So we did both. My father got to sit at the desk of C.S. Lewis with a big smile on his face. Then I took my dad and my father-in-law to that very solemn place where American and Allied soldiers paid such a heavy human cost in perhaps the most historically significant military action in history.

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