Internationally renowned author, preacher, faith-based activist and social commentator, Jim Wallis, has consulted with the likes of George Bush, Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair and Bono on issues such as global poverty and the Iraq war.

In Australia to launch his latest book, God’s Politics: Why the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, the 57-year-old spoke at a rally organised by the Micah Challenge in Melbourne on Palm Sunday. Afterwards, he spoke to DAVID ADAMS...

This is your first visit to Australia?
“No, but I haven’t been here for a long time now. It’s great to be back - I’ve got lots of good friends here and lots of great memories. I’ve been all over the country pretty much in the past so I’ve seen a lot of the country but it’s great to be back and show it to my wife and my kids.”

Can you tell us a little about yourself - where did you grow up in the States and did you grow up as a Christian or is that something that came later in life?
“(I grew up in) Detroit, Michigan. I grew up in a Christian home and family and I got kicked out because of race when I was 14. They told me Christianity had nothing to do with racism - that was political, and our faith was personal. I think I left that night in my head and my heart and I was gone in a few years. I found my home in the street movements in my generation, I came back to faith a few years later and I went to seminary. I didn’t have words to go around that experience then but I do now which are that God is personal but never private. The privatising of religion or of faith is a great heresy."

Jim Wallis 2006

 

“It’s never about just me and the Lord. It’s never about this private relationship that doesn’t change anything beyond myself - my own sort of vertical connection to God."

What do you mean by faith never being private?
“It’s never about just me and the Lord. It’s never about this private relationship that doesn’t change anything beyond myself - my own sort of vertical connection to God. Jesus’ opening line was ‘Repent for the Kingdom is at hand’. He didn’t say ‘Repent for a private relationship with the Lord is at hand’. He said the ‘Kingdom was at hand’, a new order about to break in which will change everything - personally, spiritually, politically, everything - so get ready, because the change is about to come.”

(Wallis founded Sojourners - a Christian ministry with a mission of proclaiming and practising the Biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice - more than 30 years ago and is the editor of Sojourners magazine - www.sojourners.com). 

What is the aim of Sojourners?
“We and the movement that we are part of are going to change American politics. The world needs American politics to change and we believe that people of faith can do that. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”

That’s obviously what the book’s all about. What does the subtitle - Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left doesn’t Get It - refer to?
“There’s only two moral issues for the right (abortion and gay marriage) which is Biblically foolish - it’s not credible - but the left just often disdains people’s faith, spirituality and even values. It’s sort of a valueless message - there’s no moral vocabulary, no soul, no heart, no passion - it’s just left wing politics. So there’s a lack of vision and without vision people perish says the Bible.”

It’s often perceived that you’re the left's answer to America's Religious Right.
“The media says there’s only two sides to every issue which, when you think about it, is rather silly. An issue I have worked hard on is youth violence. There aren’t only two sides to youth violence - multiple stakeholders, constituencies and points of view are needed. No, we’re not trying to create a religious left to counter the right but a new moral centre which is a moral discourse on our public life that doesn’t go left or right but goes deeper - what are the issues that lie just beneath the political surface? What are the choices and challenges from a moral point of view? I think people from across the spectrum are hungry for something like that.”

Australia’s last Federal election saw the rise of a party called Family First which describes itself as a party with Christians in it rather than a Christian party 
and weighs up prospective legislation against ‘family values’. Recent years have also seen the creation of an organisation called the Australian Christian Lobby and its aim is to lobby politicians of all persuasions with regard to ‘Christian values’...
“Then the issue is what are Christian values and how narrowly or broadly are they being defined? I’m very pro-family - I’m a dad and I’ve got two young boys. Parenting in America is becoming a ‘countercultural activity’ and parents of all stripes believe that. But let’s talk about the economic pressures on families...let’s talk about the well-being of children but not just a narrow agenda of abortion or gay marriage...I want a consistent ethic of life that looks at all the threats there are to human life - nuclear weapons and HIV/AIDS and capital punishment and unjust wars and poverty and abortion.”

So do you think it’s the case that for too long the church has not engaged enough in many of these issues, that many times it has worked around the edges of what really matters but not dealt with the things at the heart?
“It’s almost like we’ve been offering Jesus without the Kingdom that He came to bring and that’s not what He had in mind. He says 'I’m here to proclaim the new order'. Kingdom was a very political term. There were two processions on Palm Sunday - one was a procession of Jesus’ donkey; the other was a Roman procession. Pilate was processing that day, getting ready for the Jewish festival, the Passover, to make sure no trouble broke out. Two very different processions and Jesus did that deliberately to counterpoint one to the other: one was an imperial, military procession; one was very different, offering a whole new order of things called the Kingdom of God. So there are two processions. Which one are we in is the question.”

Why do you think we’ve seen the rise of movements like the Micah Challenge and Make Poverty History now? Why is it that the issue of global poverty has become so hot?

“Tim Costello said today that ‘Poverty is the slavery of our age'. I think he’s right. Poverty is the new slavery...With Charles Finney in the US and John Wesley and Wilberforce in the UK, the altar call (meant) coming to faith and commit oneself to the movement to abolish slavery. That’s happening now again. I think poverty is becoming perceived now as the new slavery: that extreme, absolute poverty is intolerable, that it’s not necessary, it’s not inevitable, that it’s something we could change and change relatively easily if we ever decided to. And a whole generation now are saying it’s time we make that decision...


“I think the politicians are listening. They had better listen because people of faith are an important constituency and they impact other people - people of faith or not - and I think that if we begin to be outspoken on the issues the Bible speaks clearly about, we could be a very powerful force for change. So we’re talking to politicians on both sides of the aisle on a regular basis. Yes, as the press reports, I do talk to Democrats and leading Democrats but I’m also talking to Republicans who don’t want to be controlled by a narrow, right wing agenda. Republicans aren’t all right wing - there are moderate Republicans who care about fiscal responsibility but don’t want to build that on the back of our poorest, most vulnerable citizens.”

“When one party tries to exploit and manipulate religion for its own purposes - or a candidate - something has gone terribly wrong. God is not a Republican or a Democrat and the idea that God has chosen parties is a terrible heresy, really. So how do we level the playing field? How do we have an agenda that holds both sides accountable? (Martin Luther King, Jr) never endorsed candidates, rather he made them endorse his agenda. So how do we have an agenda that makes both sides accountable to a very different vision of politics?”

I recently heard someone ask ‘How someone could be a Christian and not be right wing?’, a sentiment which you comment on at the start of your book, saying that the leaders of the Religious Right “mistakenly” claimed God took a side during the last US election and that Christians should only vote for George W. Bush.
“When one party tries to exploit and manipulate religion for its own purposes - or a candidate - something has gone terribly wrong. God is not a Republican or a Democrat and the idea that God has chosen parties is a terrible heresy, really. So how do we level the playing field? How do we have an agenda that holds both sides accountable? (Martin Luther King, Jr) never endorsed candidates, rather he made them endorse his agenda. So how do we have an agenda that makes both sides accountable to a very different vision of politics?”

So how can the average person be involved in doing that - is it about writing letters to your MP about the issues, taking part in the Micah Challenge and supporting organisations in tackling issues like global poverty?
“I think it’s all the things that movements do - yes, they write letters, they visit their representatives, they do action alerts, they do vigils, they pray, they march, they organise, they change how people think. At home, we saw very significant involvement by the religious community in the budget debates this last year. We said a budget is a moral document - it reveals the priorities and values of a family, of a church, of a state or of a nation. I had reporters saying to me 'We’ve never had Christian leaders get involved in a budget debate before - it’s always been abortion or gay marriage'. Here we were fighting for nutrition programs for poor families and healthcare and childcare - this is a new phenomenon. But the victories that we won were because of the religious community weighing in with members of Congress and senators. We almost won that debate - we came close to defeating the Bush Administration’s budget as it was really skewed against the poor. And we had people who voted for George Bush in the end getting arrested in a prayerful act of civil disobedience because the budget was contrary to Biblical properties - tax cuts for the wealthy (and) program cuts for the poor while all the rest went to war. These are not our priorities and so we said so.”

The Iraq war and the 'War on Terrorism' are too other issues that you’ve commented on.
“The war in Iraq was a terrible mistake and a distraction from the real battle which is terrorism. It has made us less safe - my kids are less safe now because of the war in Iraq not more safe. We’ve wasted resources, we’ve now created a haven of terrorism in Iraq and I think as the book talks about, we need a moral response to terrorism and we need to change this Iraq policy. Iraq is just sinking into the quagmire of civil war and the American occupation makes it worse. Now Australia needs to be a better friend to America. Friends tell you when you make a mistake and don’t follow you into your mistakes. So we need friends like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK not to follow us blindly when we make mistakes but, in fact, to challenge the mistakes we’ve made - not signing Kyoto, acting like Iraq is working, supporting globalisation which is not respectful of what happens to the poor, to workers and the environment. So we have to change direction and we need good friends like Australia to lead to a different kind of way and not to just mimic US policy.”

www.micahchallenge.org.au