The Common Good

Recent Posts from Jim Wallis

What is the best meaning of the word “evangelical?" Perhaps this: a deep belief in Jesus, a consistent commitment to follow Jesus, and a real love for Jesus — one who applies Jesus’ life and teachings to their everyday lives. By that definition, Glen Stassen was an evangelical — the best kind. If more evangelicals were like him, the term would have an enormously better image in our society.

Glen Stassen died on April 26 from an aggressive cancer. He leaves a great deficit in the church’s integrity and our nation’s ability to think and act ethically, as he influenced countless believers’ understanding of the gospel of the kingdom of God. I count myself among them. Glen was a dear friend, a kindred spirit, a key ally, and beloved member of Sojourners Board of Directors.

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This Holy Week, I realized God's hope in a place other than church.

Proclaiming that the tomb is empty – that Jesus has risen from the grave – is the most powerful witness any Christian can offer. But if our Easter celebration stops at proclamation then we’ve shortchanged the world of the hope and joy it sorely needs. The resurrection must also be about embodiment. It should change the way we live and move and have our being. Easter should transform and strengthen us to participate in God’s reconciling work in the world.

That’s why I chose to spend this Easter worshipping in a very different way and in a very different place. There was no midnight watch service or large family dinner, but there were countless moments of hope and an abiding trust in the possibility of new life.

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There’s an old hymn that many Christians have sung for nearly a century. “How Great Thou Art” celebrates the glory of God while considering, “all the works thy hands have made.” It reminds me of the psalm that reads, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.”

Creation, therefore, is a witness to the wonder and awe of God. Although humanity has been given the honor of bearing God’s image, the earth shows God’s creativity and ingenuity. Over the years I’ve heard so many stories of people finding faith in God, not because of brilliant arguments, but because they are in awe of the complexity and glory of the created world.

But creation is not just a unique witness to God’s glory — it is, as the apostle Paul wrote, “groaning” waiting also for its redemption. This past Easter Sunday, Christians all over the world sang joyful songs of resurrection and renewal. Many of these songs proclaim freedom for all of creation — not just for humanity. One church I know of even sang “Joy to the World,” in celebration that the power of Christ’s resurrection extends “far as the curse is found.”

It’s hard to face, but humanity — image bearers of God — is largely responsible for destroying much of this great witness to God’s glory. 

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But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him." Matthew 28:5-7

“Christ is risen!” That is the Easter greeting that Christians around the world have used for generations. It is one of my favorite parts of Easter — I love to hear the words “He is risen.”

But for so many of us, Easter is not just a religious holiday — it is a personal celebration and re-commitment. How do we personally experience the resurrection? Every year, as I hear and say “He is risen,” I remember that it’s not just a theological affirmation, but something I need personally.

Because I need — I think we all need — to remember and celebrate the hope that those words proclaim. “He is risen” is much more than an optimistic expression. It is not an empty platitude or wishful thinking, but the assertion of that in the midst of all the personal and collective pain, brokenness, injustice, and oppression that we see or experience, Christ is victorious. And we start over every Easter with a new affirmation and conviction of the hope that will always change both our lives and the world.

As I’ve been personally reflecting on the resurrection, I wanted to share an adaptation from the last chapter of my book, The Call to Conversion that explores what “Christ is risen!” meant to the earliest disciples. I hope that it will help you this Easter, as you celebrate the fact that “He is risen, indeed!” and reflect upon what this day of hope means for you.

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Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the closest American prelate to Pope Francis, took nine other bishops to the Mexican-American border for three days of listening to the stories of people who are suffering from America’s horribly broken immigration system. The bishops celebrated a dramatic mass with hundreds of Mexicans, taking communion through slats in the security fence, and laid a wreath at the border commemorating the estimated 6000 people who have died trying to cross. 

“We can no longer tolerate the suffering caused by a broken system,” the Cardinal said. “The suffering and death must end.” 

When asked how important immigration reform now is to the Catholic Church, O’Malley replied, “It’s another pro-life issue.” 

Indeed it is.

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Oh my, did I need Opening Day this year. Opening Day, of course, is the first day of the baseball season. For baseball fans, it is a time when hope comes alive again, after a long winter of waiting.

On Opening Day, every team starts with a clean slate, all the win/loss records are 0-0 , and, as they say, “hope springs eternal.” There is talk in every baseball town and among all baseball fans of how we really could win this year if only this or that goes right, if our players could live up to their real potential, if we could finally “gel” as a team, and if all the things we can’t control could go well for us and not so well for the other teams. “Have you seen that new rookie?” And “that trade we just made could make all the difference now!” Everybody is a believer on opening day.

The Boston Red Sox need to throw off the long-lasting “curse” of the Bambino, which still lurks around Fenway Park despite their recent successes. The hated New York Yankees still stand in the way of another World Series ring. The Cubs fans in Chicago, with a record that would cause mere mortals to despair, have actually learned to nurse an almost eschatological hope of victory that might require the second coming of Christ to fulfill — but nonetheless, you hear chatter all over the north side of the Windy City about how it could happen “this year.” Just think of what finally going all the way “this year” could mean to my suffering hometown of Detroit, which we could do if Miguel Cabrera stays healthy. And, just so you know, the starting pitching rotations of both the Washington Nationals (the adopted team of everyone who lives in D.C.) and the Tigers are simply the best in baseball. But, I may be a bit biased.

Opening Day always comes, and I believe not accidentally, during the end of the holy season of Lent (marked by waiting in disciplined reflection, sacrifice, and even suffering), and always close to Easter and Passover — when hope comes alive again.

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As a Christian, I grieve over the unspeakable violence wrongly done in the name of faith.

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I live in Washington D.C., a city in which mistakes are messaged and shortcomings are spun. True confession and true repentance do not occur — unless it is politically advantageous. Naturally, cynicism runs rampant.

In this environment, though we all know our own weaknesses, grace is rarely offered for failures.

Which is why Lent is such an important season on the Christian calendar. It is an opportunity to pause and reflect, to examine our hearts, and to acknowledge the ways in which we have fallen short. But we don’t confess our failures to a public waiting to crucify us. Instead, we confess our sins to one who loves us and was willing to be crucified in order to reconcile us once and for all.

Lent is rarely talked about as a celebration, but it is an opportunity to revel in the joy of forgiveness.

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Fred Phelps died early Thursday morning. Phelps was best known for his deeply rooted hatred and promulgating the tasteless slogan “God Hates Fags.” His little group of mostly extended family members that comprised the 59-year-old Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, carried their signs with such ugly and painful statements all over the country. Phelps’ small cult got the most attention for their protests of military and other high-profile funerals, claiming that the slain soldiers deserved to die as a consequence of God’s judgment against America’s tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Such shameful and angry messages, understandably, caused great pain among the mourners and family members grieving their loved ones.

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I don’t typically watch much television. But when I can, I watch The Daily Show. Jon Stewart brings humor, satire and truth telling to the news of the day — qualities also characteristic of the Hebrew prophets. When I once suggested that to Stewart, he immediately denied any similarity, saying, “No, no, no, I’m just a comedian from the Borsch Belt!” But further discussion revealed a selection of topics that evoke his moral passion and even a righteous anger at political hypocrisy.

That was on vivid display in a spotlight on what Fox News commentators were saying about food stamp recipients. It began with Fox saying how families who receive support from SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) should use their food stamps, and even what they should and should not be eating, which led to repeated condemnations of poor people.

The clips from those Daily Show commentaries are below and I suggest you take a few moments to watch them. They reveal what I am calling Fox News’ “preferential option for the rich,” which is in stark contrast to the gospel’s “preferential option for the poor” and what Pope Francis is now calling the church back to. Fox News’ repeated preference for the rich and condemnations of the poor is not just a political or economic issue, but a moral and religious failure. The faith community, in particular, should take note.

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Today the world celebrates Pope Francis’ first year. Notice I didn’t say the church is celebrating, but the world. The pope has graced the covers of every magazine from TIME to Rolling Stone over the past year. People all over the world are delighted by the breath of fresh air he has brought. His popularity has moved beyond Catholics to Christians of all kinds, believers from other faith traditions, agnostics, and the “nones,” who are very drawn to this pope who emphasizes love and simple living.

But the pope said last week that he is not a “ superman” and does not want to be a celebrity. He is just trying to talk and live like Jesus, a point he makes repeatedly to shrug off his media darling standing. From the moment he took the name Francis, he made clear his, and thus the church’s priorities: the poor, peace, and the creation. Francis is now challenging the most powerful people and places in the world, as well as a popular culture that mostly asks how we can serve ourselves.

Pope Francis is right: it is not about him; it’s about the Christ he follows. Everything Francis is saying and doing is aimed at pressing this question: Are Christians going to follow Jesus or not? That should be the question on the first anniversary of this new pope. Are we Christians ready and willing to follow Jesus? How can we then serve the world?

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I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some young inmates were reading my book, The Soul of Politics, as part of a seminary program in the infamous prison, and they invited me to come discuss it with them. The warden gave me and about 50 young men several hours together, and I will never forget the comment one of them made: “Jim, most of us here are from just five or six neighborhoods in New York City. It’s like a train that starts in my neighborhood, and you get on when you are 9 or 10 years old. The train ends up here at Sing Sing.” But then he said, “Some of us have been converted, and when we get out, we’re going to go back and stop that train.”

That’s exactly what President Obama’s launch of “My Brother’s Keeper” is calling us to do: to stop the train that is taking young men of color from broken economies, schools, families, and lives into despair, anger, disengagement, trouble, violence, crime, prison, and even death at an early age. This is an urgent and long-overdue moral call that must supersede all our political differences.

While the president’s agenda has always included goals intended to help all Americans, this launch was painfully, powerfully, and prophetically specific. 

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Changing the world requires the leadership of women.

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Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I grew up in a small evangelical church that only paid attention to the Christian calendar on Christmas and Easter. But over many years now, I have learned to celebrate the richness of all the Christian seasons from my friends in more liturgical traditions and from marrying a Church of England priest!

Lent offers us the much-needed spiritual preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is the place to begin; and that often includes fasting — in different ways and traditions. At Sojourners, we usually have a big staff pancake breakfast on Shrove Tuesday morning, the day before Ash Wednesday. But today, many of us are fasting.

Ash Wednesday doesn’t begin a hunger strike, but rather a season of self-examination, spiritual reflection, repentance, sacrifice, and focused prayer. Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to.

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“Never in my life has my very faith been called into question like this.”

That’s what young evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt told me this week. His statement followed a media firestorm, ignited when both he and Kirsten Powers, weighed in on proposed laws in Kansas and Arizona that would have allowed business owners to deny service to gay couples, based on conservative religious beliefs about homosexuality. Merritt and Powers each suggested that justifying legal discrimination against gay and lesbian couples might not be the best form of Christian outreach and raised consistency issues of whether discrimination would also be applied to other less than “biblical” marriages, or if just gays and lesbians were being singled out.

Their columns in both the Religion News Service and the Daily Beast have provoked intense responses from many Southern Baptists (where Merritt has his own heritage), those who call themselves Neo or “New” Calvinists, and other assorted critics from the political right.

Neither Merritt nor Powers took clear theological positions on all the sexuality issues involved. But both have been stunned by the responses from emails, tweets, and angry phone calls. The 1,200 Twitter notifications, messages, and calls from “leaders” that Merritt has received in the last few days include, “You only pretend to worship Jesus.” “You’re not a Christian.” “You are the enemies of Christianity.” “You’re marginalized now.” “You’re damaged goods.” “You’re on the outs now.”

Merritt and Powers were not questioning the gospel; they were “just asking whether we should discriminate against a whole group of people.” Both columnists believe Christians can honestly disagree on these complicated questions surrounding sexuality, but wanted to raise a discussion about whether passing laws that discriminate based on one religious point of view was wise, especially in this rapidly changing culture.

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The problem is the systemic injustice inherent in Stand Your Ground laws: just feeling like you are being threatened can justify your response in “self-defense.” Under Florida self-defense laws now, someone can use even lethal force if they “reasonably believe” it is necessary to defend their lives or avoid great harm. How does a jury decide what a “reasonable person” would do under all the circumstances? Even if Dunn really believed there was a gun in the black teenagers’ car and there wasn’t one, he could still be justified in shooting into the car according to Stand Your Ground. The New York Times quoted Mary Anne Franks, an associate law professor at the University of Miami saying, “This trial is indicative of how much of a problem Stand Your Ground laws really do create … By the time you have an incident like this and ask a jury to look at the facts, it’s difficult to re-create the situation and determine the reasonableness of a defendant’s fear.” And unfortunately, the law creates an opportunity for racial factors — whether they’re conscious or not — to trump facts when even one juror who is sympathetic to a defendant’s “reasonable” fear can prevent prosecution.

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Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, our annual reminder to celebrate the love we share in our lives. While many may be struggling through aisles of candy hearts and bunches of roses, I invite you to flip this day of mandatory public expressions of love on its head.

What if, along with romantic dinners and expensive chocolates, we celebrated those we love by committing ourselves against sexual and domestic violence? This Valentine’s Day, or V-Day, Sojourners is joining with One Billion Rising to speak out on violence against women — the most hidden injustice in our world. We speak out because one in three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. That’s one in three women in my family, in my circle of friends, in my workplace — and in my church.

We speak out because we want a different reality for our daughters.

We speak out because our Christian faith tells us to lift up the voices others would silence.

And we speak out because we must rally our church leaders to commit themselves to do the same.

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We are all neighbors now, whether we like it or not.

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"We are perhaps among the most included in this global economy. So how will the most included reach out to the most excluded this year?"

Editor’s Note: The following text and video is from Jim Wallis’ closing talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling those in positions of leadership to implement values that benefit the common good.

In our opening session for this 2014 annual meeting, we heard a letter read to us from Pope Francis, a leader who has captured the attention of the world. He called us here to “deeper reflection” and to “reshaping the world.” He said something quite striking, “I ask you to insure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it.”

So, to that deeper reflection: I believe that for many of us here at Davos, there was a moment — a remark from a session, a smaller discussion, a meal interaction, a personal conversation, or a walk in the snow — that made us think and feel some things we don’t normally focus on in our day-to-day environment back home. It could have been an insight, a new angle or framework, a challenge, or a reminder of things lost — something that struck you more deeply than just more talk and made an impact on you. Often these insightful moments are about our values, or challenge our values, or bring us back to a moral compass that we have, or would like to have, or miss from earlier in our lives.

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This weekend we’ll commemorate the too-short life and great work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While we rightly celebrate his life dedicated to advancing equality for all, too often we overlook his call to peacemaking. This year, in light of conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, and an often-overlooked war in Central African Republic, we should remember his words.

In his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence,” King opposed the violence, saying:

"To me the relationship of this ministry [of Jesus Christ] to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative?"

Those aware of our long history at Sojourners know that we have always been committed to peace, to opposing unjust wars and finding nonviolent solutions wherever possible. And in all the work we do, we aim to speak out for the least of these, the poorest and most vulnerable.

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