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Jim Wallis on religion, activism, and the state of U.S. politics

Reverend Wallis is a theologian, peace activist, author, the founder of Sojourners magazine and a frequent commentator on international events. He believes America is in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis.
Christian writer and political activist Jim Wallis, best known as the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine and as the founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Christian community of the same name. (Sojourners)

Jim Wallis, one of the most outspoken and respected religious leaders in the United States, has grave concerns about the current state of political discourse in his country. In fact, he believes his country is in the throes of what he calls "a profound spiritual crisis."

Reverend Wallis is the president and founder of Sojourners, a community of evangelical Christians based in Washington, D.C., who devote their energies to working and advocating for the poor, the marginalized and the forgotten of society. He is also the founder of Sojourners magazine, and a New York Times best-selling author. His most recent book is The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided. He is a theologian, and international commentator on ethics and the public life. Wallis has been arrested 22 times for acts of civil disobedience, and is the recipient of many awards and honours.
Jim Wallis at a news conference in 2005, protesting proposed Republican cuts to Medicaid and other programs for the poor. (Credit: Kevin Wolf/AP Photo)

Reverend Wallis visited Canada in November to deliver the First Annual Henri Nouwen Lecture at the University of Toronto, and he stopped by The Sunday Edition studio to talk to Michael Enright. 

The two men have known each other for a long time. Michael recalls sitting in Reverend Wallis's Washington living room, watching George Bush give his State of the Union address. "Suddenly I heard what sounded like gunfire, very close by. I asked Jim, 'Is that gunfire'? 'Sure it is', he replied, 'but I wouldn't worry about it.'"  

"He's that kind of man," says Michael. "He used to think that given a little faith, a lot of energy, and a healthy dose of optimism, there is very little to worry about."

But Reverend Wallis's outlook has changed. He says he is witnessing the deterioration of civil discourse in the political life of his country. 

"Political debate, disagreement, argument, is a good thing, that's what democracy is supposed to be," he says. "But I'm disturbed by the way we make our opponents into enemies and want to dehumanize whole groups of people, and even sometimes our political adversaries. Republican and Democrats shouldn't regard each other as enemies. People working together to solve things is what government is supposed to be about."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds up a Bible he says was given to him by his mother. (Credit: Kevin Wolf/AP Photo)
The United States is a very religious country, with nearly three-quarters of Americans identifying themselves as Christians. Evangelical Christians in particular, punch above their weight when it comes to politics. The current crop of candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination, vie to outdo each other with protestations of faith.

Despite Reverend Wallis's own affiliation as an Evangelical Christian, it concerns him when Donald Trump boasts that he is a "great Christian." 

"That needs a serious fact check," says Reverend Wallis. "Trump's values are really an antithesis of Christian values in almost every way. So the people Jesus says we should welcome, Trump demonizes, such as the immigrants."

Wallis says the celebration of individualism, the pursuit of wealth, and the love of power are symptomatic of this spiritual crisis. He believes that what is needed is a renewed sense of the 'common good', an idea he explores in his latest book. Wallis is a firm believer in the gospel message of caring for the poor and less fortunate, and is deeply concerned by growing income disparity. "Ninety percent of the wealth in the United States is controlled by .01 percent of the population. You've got the top richest four hundred people making more than the bottom 90 percent. So something has gone terribly wrong. I would say that in God's economy, there is enough if we share it."  

People may invoke their religion, but there is a difference between thumping the Bible and reading it. I teach a class of college students. I told them that there are 2000 verses in the Bible about the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. And some of these students just found that astonishing! They had never heard that from Bible-believing Christians.- Jim Wallis, Founder and president of Sojourners community in Washington, D.C.

Jim Wallis believes there are profound moral and ethical choices facing all Americans. "What does it mean to welcome or not welcome refugees? What does it mean not to deal with eleven million undocumented people in our country? What does it mean to always pursue the same foreign policies of war, even as we keep failing over and over again?"

You can listen to Michael Enright's interview with the Reverend Jim Wallis here; it was first broadcast on The Sunday Edition on December 27, 2015.


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