The Common Good

Recent Posts from Jim Wallis

(Editors Note: On Nov. 12, faith, immigrant rights, and labor leaders launched the “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship,” taking place on the National Mall. The following remarks are from Jim's speech given at the event.)

Despite the overwhelming public support — among all political stripes — to fix our broken immigration system, Washington's utter political dysfunction is blocking change.

It is time to pray and fast for a change that now feels like a "miracle." And that's what we now pray for. Pray against the racial fears and messages that are being used against immigration reform. Pray for courage and character on all sides — for Republicans who believe in an inclusive party and nation to stand up to Republicans who want an exclusive party and nation and for Democrats not to use this as a political issue for their self-interest. Pray for political leaders to do what few of them do well — to put other people's needs, especially poor and vulnerable people's needs, ahead of their own political agendas.

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In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there is a Psalm that proclaims: “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). There is no part of this world that God is not aware of, cannot lay claim to, and does not rule. Christians affirm that as people of faith we’re called to be stewards over creation, answering one day for how we’ve treated the earth.

And part of that stewardship means understanding how this world works and what it needs in order to thrive. Unfortunately the din of our political ideologies has too often drowned out the biblical calling to care for creation.

In Texas, the State Board of Education will recommend new textbooks for all its students—and because it has such a large population, what they decide could determine what students in other states learn about science. There are several ideologues submitting textbook critiques to the board and their reviews will factor into each book’s overall score and likelihood of being approved by the school board. These ideologues could block the use of textbooks that teach the reality of climate change for the whole country’s public school students.

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To feel the pain of the world is to participate in the very heart of God.

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For many, including myself, the past few weeks have been discouraging, given the state of our politics and culture and what many vulnerable people across the country are experiencing. But despite the frustration and even grief sometimes I have been reminded of the importance of “saving faith.”

My favorite Twitter response last week said this, “If all American Christians behaved as you do, I wouldn’t have to be such a huge a**hole of an atheist.” (Edits mine.) It came in response to a column I wrote about the new film, 12 Years A Slave (see it if you haven’t yet!), the continuing realities of racism in America that we still tolerate, and the need for churches to provide leadership in the changing demographics of the country by becoming the multiracial faith communities we were intended to be.

The week before saw many of faith leaders, pastors, and young people out in the rain at the U.S. Capitol during the government shutdown in a “Faithful Filibuster,” reading each day through the 2,000 verses in the Bible that speak of how we should treat the poor and vulnerable. One of those nights a family friend, the father of one of the boys I have coached in Little League baseball, came over to our house. He said, “You know I am an atheist, but I really admire what you are doing at the Capitol — that’s what Christians ought to be doing.”

Right after the government shutdown ended, Sojourners had our annual staff orientation. The program included each staff member telling their story of when and why they came to join us. Listening carefully, I was struck by how many Sojourners staffers recalled times in their lives when they were about to lose their faith, but rediscovered it after stumbling upon Sojourners. In my remarks to them that day, I also told stories of a few of the legion of people who have told me over the years of how they had lost or were about to lose their faith until they heard the messages about a faith that does justice.

It has all reminded me again how Sojourners began.

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The most controversial sentence I ever wrote, considering the response to it, was not about abortion, marriage equality, the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, elections, or anything to do with national or church politics. It was a statement about the founding of the United States of America. Here’s the sentence:

"The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another."

The comments were overwhelming, with many calling the statement outrageous and some calling it courageous. But it was neither. The sentence was simply a historical statement of the facts. It was the first sentence of a Sojourners magazine cover article, published 26 years ago titled “America’s Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism.”

An extraordinary new film called 12 Years a Slave has just come out, and Sojourners hosted the premiere for the faith community on Oct. 9 in Washington, D.C. Rev. Otis Moss III was on the panel afterward that reflected on the film. Dr. Moss is not only a dynamic pastor and preacher in Chicago, but he is also a teacher of cinematography who put this compelling story about Solomon Northup — a freeman from New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery — into the historical context of all the American films ever done on slavery. 12 Years is the most accurate and best produced drama of slavery ever done, says Moss.

In her New York Times review, “ The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias,” Manohla Dargis says, 12 Years a Slave “isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” Instead of the Hollywood portrayal of beautiful plantations, benevolent masters, and simple happy slaves, it shows the utterly brutal violence of a systematic attempt to dehumanize an entire race of people — for economic greed. It reveals how morally outrageous the slave system was, and it is very hard to watch.

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Watching the dysfunction in Washington over the past two weeks has been painful. Our leaders have grown too comfortable with pushing the limits, and we let a few dozen of our own representatives — the people elected to promote the common good, or “general welfare,” as the Constitution calls for— hold the nation's economy hostage for the sake of their political self-interest.

But after the storm comes the promise — the hope of lessons learned and new ways forward together. A few key groups of people have renewed my faith that this is possible.

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During a sunrise vigil at the U.S. Capitol this morning, three senators unexpectedly joined us. They were all women, all Republican and, it turns out, all Catholic. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire are part of a new 14-senator bipartisan, women-led group engaged in their own kind of vigil: trying to end the government shutdown and prevent the nation from going into debt default.

chuckling comment from a male colleague in the Senate perhaps expresses a hope in the midst of this incredibly dangerous political crisis: “The women are taking over.” This morning, the senators walked over to thank us for praying for them and the government at this critical moment and told us how much they felt the need for our prayers right now. The looks on their faces showed us the seriousness of their plea for prayers.

People of faith are instructed to pray for their political leaders, and their need has never been more evident in this completely dysfunctional Capitol City. For the seventh day now, faith leaders, pastors, young people, and passersby lifted up prayers for the common good across from the Capitol. Until this morning, there was no response from our elected officials or the national media pundits.

But the #FaithfulFilibuster has taken off across the country through word of mouth and social media — our prayers are trending.

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Editor's Note: Not in D.C., but want to join in the #FaithfulFilibuster? Click HERE to make your voice heard, and spread the word on Facebook by sharing HERE.

On our way over to the Capitol, I re-read the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. I was struck by the phrase of those building the tall tower "we'll become famous." That sounded a lot like lawmakers and politicians in Washington — it seems that they all want to become famous. In the story, the people were confounded by speaking different languages and their words went past each other. The words of the politicians and pundits are going past each other and their words are not really meant to be understood. They're not meant to find solutions or common ground. These are words that are meant to fight. To win. To defeat. Even, it seems, to foster hate.

The words we're hearing are of politics and punditry, meant to divide and not to unite. The words coming from the top have consequences for those at the bottom. And like Babel, these words are just babble.

We're hearing lots of babble at the Capitol, but across the street, we're trying to hear the word of God — what God says about the people, families, and children who will suffer the most because of Washington's babble. These words aren't just directed to churches and charities about what we should do with the poor. They're about the obligations of kings, rulers, and government to protect the poor.

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It’s time to end this shutdown. I’m standing in full view of the Capitol Building with a group of clergy and faith leaders who are here to offer a “Faithful Filibuster” of the government shutdown – and we’re going to keep talking until things change.

We know that this shutdown disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in our society. So our words will not be wasted diatribes or placements of blame. Rather, we will use God’s own words – reading the more than 2,000 Bible verses that speak to God’s justice for the poor and vulnerable – until this shutdown ends.

And while we recite the verses to bear witness for those suffering, we want to make sure that every single member of Congress can read them too. It is our goal to send each member a copy of the Poverty and Justice Biblewhich highlights each of those 2,000 verses. Our elected officials need this reminder now more than ever.

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One of the most depressing things I heard on the first day of the government shutdown was that it was a record fundraising day for both parties. Washington, D.C., is no longer about governing; it is just about winning and losing. But the people who will lose the most during a government shutdown — and then an impending United States government default on paying its debts — are those who live day to day on their wages, those at the lower end of the nation’s economy, and the poorest and most vulnerable who are always hurt the most in a crisis like this. And what happens to those people is the focus of the faith community; that is our job in politics — to talk about what happens to them. Faith leaders have been meeting to discuss what we must do in response to this political crisis brought on by absolute political dysfunction

The government shutdown seems to have gotten the attention of the nation. And if this ends in a default on our debt, the potentially catastrophic crashing of the economy will certainly wake us up. The only positive I see in this crisis is that the right issues — the moral issues — might finally get our attention.

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The words of Jesus are either authoritative for us or they are not.

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Suddenly, unexpectedly, and almost miraculously, the values of simplicity, humility, welcome, and the priority of the poor have burst on to the international stage. A new pope named Francis is reminding us that love is also a verb — choosing the name Francis because of his commitment to the poor, to peace, and creation in sharp contrast to the values of Washington, D.C.  

Last week the House of Representatives voted to cut food stamps. The previous week marked the 5th anniversary of the financial collapse, and showed more American inequality than before the recession. And now we face a threatened shutdown of the government unless the health care promised to tens of millions of uninsured people is repealed.  

Pondering all that, I saw the interview with Pope Francis in America magazine and his profile in the new issue of Sojourners. And from every direction, things that the new pope was saying were breaking through the political news cycle. Even my students at Georgetown were telling me that their young friends, Christians or not, were putting Francis quotes up on their Facebook pages.  

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If you know the facts and faces of the hungry families that are helped by SNAP, I believe it is a moral and even religious problem to vote to cut them. The Bible clearly says that governmental authority includes the protection of the poor in particular, and instructs political rulers to promote their well-being. So the argument that the poor should just be left to churches and private charity is an unbiblical argument. I would be happy to debate that with any of our conservative Congressmen who keep telling our churches that we are the only ones who should care for the poor. To vote against feeding hungry people is un-Christian, un-Jewish, and goes against any moral inclination, religious or

Finally, for politicians to defend these SNAP cuts because of our need to cut spending generally is un-credible and incredible.

These same politicians are not willing to go to where the real money is: the Pentagon budget, which everyone knows to be the most wasteful in government, or the myriad subsidies to corporations, including agribusiness subsides to members of Congress who will be voting to cut SNAP for the poor.

Tea Party-elected Rep. Stephen Fincher, (R-Tenn.), who likes to bolster his anti-poor rhetoric with misused Bible verses, collected $3.5 million in farm subsidies between 1999 and 2012, according to the New York Times. Fincher is helping to lead the effort to cut food stamps to working families with children by illogically quoting: “The one who is unwilling to work should not eat,” all the while collecting millions of dollars in agricultural subsidies. Congressman Fincher's position is hypocritical — and it's this kind of hypocrisy that makes Christians look bad and turns young people away from the church.

You see, for many House conservatives this isn't really about SNAP, but about their opposition to the idea that as a society we have the responsibility to care for each other, even during the hard times or when resources are few. Conservatives know their ideas for privatizing Social Security or cutting funding to Medicare and Medicaid are politically unpopular, but their ideology of individualism that borders on social Darwinism remains unchanged. SNAP is the perfect target for them. The image of what it does and whom it serves has been widely distorted by the media, while the people who benefit from it have little influence in the halls of Congress and pose little risk to the political careers of Republican members. 

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I have been literally disgusted at how “politics” has dominated the media’s response and coverage of the Syria crisis. Millions of lives are at stake, as is the security of one of the most critical regions of the world. But all many of our media pundits can talk about is how this affects politics — i.e., how this could weaken President Obama’s second term or what this might mean for Obamacare.

I heard the same media blathering when I was in London last week when the Syria chemical weapons crisis broke through. “Does the vote in Parliament hurt the Prime Minister and help his opposition?” “Is the Labor Party now up, and the Tory down?”

Who cares?!

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When a head of state is responsible for the deaths of 100,000 of his people and has used chemical weapons against innocent civilians — the world needs to respond. In one massive attack, the evidence appears to show that 1,429 people, including 400 children, suffered horrible deaths from chemical weapons banned by the international community. That is a profound moral crisis that requires an equivalent moral response. Doing nothing is not an option. But how should we respond, and what are moral principles for that response?

For Christians, I would suggest there are two principles that should guide our thinking. Other people of faith and moral sensibility might agree with this two-fold moral compass.

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On Wednesday, President Barack Obama said that if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against innocent civilians, there must be “international consequences.” The president is right. But what should those consequences be?

The issue here, again, is one that we have not decided how to deal with: terrorism. The definition of terrorism is deliberate and brutal attacks upon innocent people — whether by individuals, groups, or heads of state. By that definition, Assad is a terrorist. And terrorists who possess weapons of mass destruction and demonstrate their willingness to use them are most dangerous ones. But how should we respond?

I am in in the U.K., where political leaders last night backed off the decision to make immediate “military strikes” while the U.S. and other nations are considering them. The feeling here is that international and legal legitimacy need to be established first, that the U.N. inspectors should finish their examinations in Syria before any actions are taken, and that all other means of response should be fully explored first. These are good decisions.

Why is there such public “war fatigue” in the U.K. and the U.S. in light of Iraq and Afghanistan — and why is that creating reluctance to more military action? Because wars and military solutions have FAILED in response to terrorism — failed to achieve what they were purported to do.

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Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of a day that changed America, changed the world, and changed my life forever. I was fourteen years old on Aug. 28, 1963, in my very white neighborhood, school, church, and world. But I was watching. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became a founding father of this nation on that day, so clearly articulating how this union could become more perfect.

He didn’t say, “I have a complaint.” Instead, he proclaimed (and a proclamation it was in the prophetic biblical tradition), “I have a dream.” There was much to complain about for black Americans, and there is much to complain about today for many in this nation. But King taught us that day our complaints or critiques, or even our dissent will never be the foundation of social movements that change the world — but dreams always will. Just saying what is wrong will never be enough the change the world. You have to lift up a vision of what is right.

The dream was more than the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which both followed in the years after the history-changing 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It finally was about King’s vision for “the beloved community,” drawn right from the heart of his Christian faith and a spiritual foundation for the ancient idea of the common good, which we today need so deeply to restore.

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We should always be open to what God is speaking to a new generation of Christians.

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The battles over immigration reform and race have weighed heavily on me this summer. They have each become a symbol and a test, for me, of whether we can resurrect “the common good” in this nation.

I say that having just met with virtually all the key decision makers on when, how, and even if our nation’s politicians have the capacity to reform our terribly broken immigration system and help heal the nation from all the pain it has caused. Almost two-thirds of the country — both Democrat and Republican — is for reform, but this ideological impasse is now the greatest threat to our 11 million undocumented friends and neighbors in this country. I have met with both Republican and Democrat senators and members of Congress, including their leaders, the president and his leadership team, law enforcement officials, business leaders, and hundreds of pastors and Christians across denominations and backgrounds — all of whom want to repair this deeply flawed and cruel system.

There is so little substance to oppose reform. It’s good for the economy, for law enforcement, for families, communities, and congregations, and for the moral fabric of our nation — as a place of diversity, growth, and welcoming.

You see, politics really isn’t the problem here. Nobody wants to talk about what is at the very heart of the problem: race.

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Eventually, Butch invited me to come to his home and meet his family. I felt deeply honored and very eager to go. But every time I asked him to write directions to his place, he would change the subject. Finally one day with pen and paper in hand, I sat him down and said, "Look, Butch, how do you expect me to get to your house if you don't write out directions for me?"

Awkwardly he began to scribble on the paper. I was deeply sad when I realized the reason he had hesitated before was that he could barely write; I was ashamed at my insensitivity.

That small incident was very significant to me. I went home that night and both cried and cursed. I could not believe that someone as bright as Butch had hardly been taught to write. I was furious at a system that had given me so much and him almost nothing, simply by virtue of our skin color. By accident of birth, I had all the benefits and he all the suffering. I vowed again through angry tears to do everything I could to change that system.

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