Creating a cross-shaped movement for justice

02 November 2006

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 ago.

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 or isn’t."

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 poverty."

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 CT Bookshop

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