Brian Draper meets Jim Wallis, a modern prophet calling for joined-up
spirituality, personal morality and social actionCreating a cross-shaped
movement for justice
JIM WALLIS likes to make connections. For a start, he tries to join top to
bottom: the pastor, political commentator, author, and Harvard lecturer
breakfasts with President Bush and the singer and campaigner Bono, but lives
with the poor in Washington, in the Sojourners community he founded 30 years
He also likes to join left to right. "We have been buffeted by private
spiritualities that have no connection to public life, and a secular politics
showing disdain for religion or even spiritual concerns," he observes. "That
leaves spirituality without social consequences, and a politics with no soul."
This helps to explain why he is regarded as both an inspiring agitator for
left-wing radical social action, and a firm believer in the kind of personal
morality so beloved of and monopolised by the religious and political right.
But it’s one further connection in his distinctive brand of Christian
thinking, this time between poverty and global security — a link he makes
directly from the book of Micah — that has nurtured a mutual admiration between
him and Gordon Brown, and thrust both into media attention this week.
From the Today studio to the broadsheets, Mr Wallis has been courted by
commentators eager to know whether Mr Brown’s public endorsement of his book
God’s Politics — which criticises the Iraqi invasion — means that the
Chancellor is trying deliberately to distance himself from the military action.
Predictably, Mr Wallis will not be drawn on Mr Brown’s views (though he
offers details in the book of Tony Blair’s soul-searching consultation with
Christian leaders before going to war). He is keen, however, to clarify his own
public praise for Mr Brown.
"The media is making a big thing about our relationship," he sighs. "I love
what Gordon Brown says on poverty; I don’t agree with him on the war on Iraq.
But I never said that ‘Gordon Brown is a modern-day Micah.’ Instead, I said: ‘I
hear the tones of Micah in Mr Brown, Bono, and a generation of young people who
are making the connection between global security and poverty.’
"Brown gets that, regardless of what his own personal pilgrimage of faith is
What he "gets", according to Mr Wallis, is the fact that Micah’s words about
beating "swords into ploughshares" are followed, immediately, by the vision
that "every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree" — in other words,
that security comes when there is enough to go around. "Gordon Brown sees the
Micah connection — you’ve got to worry about buying some fig trees if you’re to
beat swords into ploughshares."
It’s a connection that he thinks his President, George Bush, has yet to
make. "When I saw him last week, he had just given the State of the Union
speech. He said, in that speech, that the US would focus all of our attention
and resources on the threat of terrorism overseas. . . We had a ten-minute
exchange, but he just wasn’t connecting."
Mr Wallis believes that President Bush has a sincere, yet theologically
flawed faith, which has far-reaching consequences. "The theology of war
emanating from the White House at the moment is very alarming. A theology of
war, and a language of empire, is being used without apology."
Mr Bush is mistaken theologically, he believes, in two ways that affect not
just the US but the rest of the world. The first is over poverty. "I think, in
his heart, Bush cares about poor people. But for him, it’s about charity. It’s
a matter of: ‘I was making bad choices, too, until the Lord got a hold of me;
God can get a hold of them, too.’ But the Bible talks about justice, not
charity. Bono made that clear to him at the prayer breakfast recently.
"Second, it’s one thing to say that on 11 September we saw the face of evil.
But to say, ‘They are evil and we are good,’ is bad theology. Solzhenitsyn was
clear about evil running through the heart of every nation and individual.
Ronald Niebuhr was clear. Jesus was clear. And George Bush doesn’t see it."
In order to create a movement, which Mr Wallis unashamedly says he’s trying
to do through the book, you need a vision. "Protest is a good thing. Having an
alternative is better," he emphasises. "We’ve got to ‘write a vision’ for this
generation, as it says in the book of Habakkuk, and make it plain. Being
against bad stuff isn’t enough."
This is where faith connects with politics, and politics with people.
"Social movements change history and politics, but the best ones have a
spiritual foundation," he explains. They are not based upon a private faith,
such as the kind his church espoused when its elders rebuked him, aged 14, for
trying to oppose racism in his home town of Detroit ("God is personal, but
never private," he often repeats) — but a faith that brings public hope,
especially for those who need it most, the hopeless.
"The biggest choice of our time is not between belief and secularism," he
continues, "but between hope and cynicism. With cynicism, you address the bad
stuff, but you don’t believe things will ever change. It’s a buffer against
commitment. Faith, on the other hand, is a choice for hope.
"I was at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. You had to believe that day was
possible way back, when no one else believed it would ever come. You see it
from the eyes of faith, and bet your life on that decision. That’s what Desmond
Tutu did. He said, ‘We are prisoners of hope.’"
Mr Wallis’s vision now is to see the "common good" spread primarily through
fair trade. "Christian Aid is right to make trade justice the moral touchstone.
Trade, finally, is the way the poor are going to pull themselves out of
That vision will succeed only if it provokes change from below. "Bono now
understands that celebrity won’t be enough to change history, to eradicate
poverty. The movement is needed. All the politicians are walking around with
wet fingers in the air. You’ve got to change the wind. You’ve got to change
what political reality is. King did that. Gandhi did that. The great
social-movement leaders changed what reality is, or how it’s meant to be."
The connections he makes between top and bottom, left and right, trace the
shape of a cross, of course, which remains at the centre of Mr Wallis’s
political vision. "They trampled and killed Jesus. They wouldn’t have if they
didn’t believe he was some kind of threat.
"Sometimes you break through," he reflects, "and that’s the whole point of
everything we do. The powers-that-be may reject it and crush it because they’re
afraid. At the same time, others listen. The disciples and women at the foot of
the cross, Joseph of Arimathaea, Nicodemus . . . Who do you break through to?
That’s always the issue."
God’s Politics: Why the American Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t
get it (Lion Hudson, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 0-7459-5224-0).
To place an order for the above book, contact