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Jim Wallis: An Interview on Social Justice & Partisan Politics

Jim Wallis is a New York Times best-selling author, theologian, and international speaker and commentator on faith and public life, culture, and politics. He has written twelve books, including America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America and On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good. Wallis has also written for major publications including The New York Times and Washington Post, and has appeared on news shows including CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. He has also served on President Obama’s White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Values. Wallis is the founder, current president, and editor-in-chief of Sojourners, a publication which investigates the intersection of faith, politics, and culture and whose mission is “putting faith into action for social justice.”

This past fall, Wallis came to Vanderbilt to speak as part of the Chaplain’s Speaker Series, and Synesis was privileged to speak with him. The following is a revised transcript of our conversation.

As Christians, how should we respond to social justice issues in the midst of political polarization and partisan politics?

We shouldn’t politicize Christian faith the way I think people on the religious right have done. I’m saying don’t go right, don’t go left: go deeper.

For example, during the civil rights movement, the black church wasn’t politicizing the gospel; it was taking the gospel into the world. Theologically, they were right and the white churches were wrong. My white evangelical church missed the gospel, and I left it because of that issue. Even today, many pastors are afraid to take a stand on racial justice for fear that it’ll divide their congregation. I call that the white veto - a white veto of racial justice.

Another issue we should consider is how we welcome the stranger. Jesus says the way you treat the stranger, which means, in the Biblical Scriptures, the refugee and the immigrant, is the way you treat me. Now, does that mean that out of the scripture there is a [specifically outlined] immigration policy? No, but it means that the stance of welcoming the stranger is a religious issue, a gospel issue, and not just a political issue.

So, how do we not divide over particular points of policy? The thrust, the energy, the vision has to be consistent with Jesus. And what are the priorities of Jesus? The Biblical prophets say that kings, rulers, governors, and legislators will ultimately be tested or judged by one factor: how they treat the most vulnerable. It’s not their gross national product, not their military firepower, not their popular culture being the envy of the world. It’s how they treat the most vulnerable; that’s the test.

So for me, these political issues are literally faith issues. For example, [supporting] a bill that is hopefully coming up soon global food security shouldn’t be a partisan issue. There were Republicans and Democrats who were supporting that. People of faith should want to invest the small amount of money in programs that literally keep people alive. How can you say you care about the hungry while cutting food stamps so you can cut taxes of the wealthiest? I mean, that’s really what’s happening.

I often feel politically homeless as a Christian because there’s not any party that represents what Christians ought to do in their public life. In some ways, Christians should be the ultimate independents, looking at how policy affects the poorest and most vulnerable.

What position should Christians take, then, if they share your same sense of political homelessness? If, for example, a Christian supports both racial equality and the pro-life movement, should he/she remain politically independent and weigh the costs and benefits of both sides, or remain politically absent?

No, not politically absent. For example, the New York Times had a story today by Elizabeth Dias about how evangelical white women in Texas are breaking from the right-wing politics of their megachurches by saying things like “I care about babies at the border no less than babies in the womb.” So on one side, Democrats are talking about babies at the border, and on the other side, Republicans are talking about babies in the womb. Why aren’t we talking about both, both babies at the border and babies in the womb? Why are we selecting which lives we care about? Are we really pro-life, or just pro-birth? What about the lives of poor babies after they’re born? Where is the concern for those kids on the political right? It’s not there.

But from a purely political standpoint, when someone votes, he or she does not have the option to make an effective vote that is “pro-life consistently”--

But we shouldn't accept that. We shouldn't accept binary politics. Let’s care enough to get into the issue.

You will see for example, all the data shows that when you support low-income women in their healthcare, and in their nutrition, and in their economic livelihood, the abortion rate goes down, consistently. So you can’t support a pro-life candidate who is going to take away support and funding for healthcare, nutrition, and economic livelihood for poor women. That’s not pro-life. They can be against abortion, but they’re not pro-life. Now, I press Democrats, on the other hand, to talk about how as a goal we have to reduce abortion. Couldn't both sides agree to reduce abortion in this country? And I find Democrats sometimes resist that when we shouldn’t. We could come together and say we have different political philosophies but at least all try to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortion.

So we shouldn't accept the binary political rhetoric and ideologies of the left and right. That’s why I say don’t go left, don’t go right; go deeper. There’s not an easy answer, but we should be asking different questions.

The Bible calls us to be bold in our faith, to live a life that is not of the world. At the same time, we are called to be submissive to governing authorities, recognizing that God has instituted our leaders. What are you thoughts about the balance between radical faith, and maybe radical social movements and civil disobedience, and maintaining this humble, submissive posture?

Romans 13 of the Bible says that political authority is meant to reward the good and protect us from evil. But Romans 13 was invoked by United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump to separate children from their families. It was an abuse of scripture justifying the abuse of children. Romans 13 does not justify that kind of behavior: stripping children from their parents because they’re strangers, refugees seeking asylum. Governments should serve the common good, and that wasn't happening.

The Christian’s obligation to the government and to God are not equal. When the government is doing something that is legitimate, we should be supportive; but when it’s not, we are loyal to God first. So when dictators and strong men all over the world violate the whole vocation of Romans 13 by their dictatorial, autocratic, authoritarian behavior - violating rights, punishing the very people that Jesus tells us to protect, the least of these - to obey God rather than government is an important thing to do, but respectfully, because government has a role. But we have the deeper obligation to obey what God says.

When I protested family separation at the border at the White House with other church leaders, I was arrested. Did I violate Romans 13? No. But when you break the law, you are responsible, whatever the punishment is. When this country was supporting apartheid in South Africa, all the Christians there - like Desmond Tutu - were fighting against it, while here our government was defending it, calling it constructive engagement. So many of us went to the South African embassy as Christians, black and white, and said this is wrong. And we were arrested.

Remember that several of the epistles preserved in the Bible were written to us from prison, and we see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Christians who, for the sake of their faith, have stood up against things that were wrong and for things that were right. To me, holding the government accountable for what it is supposed to do, reward the good and punish the evil, is really in keeping with what Romans 13 says.

As college students and followers of Christ, what can and should we do to pursue justice in our everyday lives?

I taught faith and politics at Georgetown and Harvard, and the last class I love to teach is about vocation. Vocation and career aren’t the same thing. Career is when you total your assets, put them on a resume, and see where you can find a niche in the ladder of success that’s going to help you start out on the highest rung possible and be as successful as you can be - that’s career, it’s skills.

But vocation is different. It’s about calling. It’s not just a resume, it’s what you want to do with the gifts God’s given you. And I think where the crying needs of the world meet the gifts God has given to you - that’s your calling, your vocation. So that means that the choice of what you’re going to do the rest of your life is not just an economic decision or a career decision, it’s a faith decision. We need people in law, in medicine, in business, in non-profit organizations, and in social services and teaching, in all kinds of things, who put others ahead of their own profits and self-interest. So to me it’s a vocational question. It’s more than just voting, which is still very important. It’s what we do with our lives, our vocations.

Ultimately, we’re going to be tested by what we do for others, and not primarily what we do for ourselves. If we’re Christians, followers of Jesus, what we do for our neighbor, for others, for those who are particularly vulnerable - that is the test. And that can be medicine, law, nursing, doctoring, teaching, social services, business… but we must ask ourselves how we can serve others with the gifts God’s given us. And what do I mean by gifts? What do you lose track of time doing? What’s your passion? What were you probably put on this planet for? What are you really good at?

And how can you use that to make this world a better and different place? For Christians, that means how can we seek God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven? If we’re followers of Jesus, our loyalty is first of all to the kingdom of God, the new order that Jesus brought. Because [salvation] wasn’t just to change us individually, it was to change the world, to change us in order to change the world. So how do we do that in our personal lives and then in our vocational lives, and in our public life as well?

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