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Sojourners editor applauds efforts to bridge polarities


Sojourners editor and author Jim Wallis came to Spokane last spring to reinforce the efforts of Coexist, a Gonzaga University group that builds bridges to overcome the polarization of students of differing opinions and faiths.

He sees the group as part of a movement to help people overcome violence and apathy.
Introducing Jim for the lecture at St. Aloysius Church, the Rev. Pat Lee, S.J., Gonzaga’s vice president of mission, said the university urges civil, political and theological discourse in which students interact with respect, searching for truth by examining different sides of issues.


Jim Wallis speaks with people after speech.

Bringing polarized people together does not mean they will agree, but might mean they would put the best interpretation on what someone else says, he said.

Anna Gonzales, coordinator of Coexist, said the group plans to meet again this academic year, to find ways for people to listen to and learn from each other.

Interspersing his life insights through his talk, Jim told of growing up in a Christian family that believes the church and justice are incompatible. So when justice claimed his heart, he left the church for a while.

“It’s sad when justice cuts into young people’s heart, and they become unsure about religion. It’s sad because religion provides the moral foundation that leads to a hunger for justice,” he said. “Too many young people don’t know they can be Christian and care about poverty, the environment and the war in Iraq.”

Now his favorite subjects are two taboos: religion and politics.

“The idea that religion is on one or the other side of the aisle—Democrat or Republican—is silly. God challenges politics and politicians for failing to address the biggest issues of our time: Thousands of children die every day because they lack clean drinking water,” Jim said. “Millions lack food. Global warming is changing our climate. There is genocide in Darfur. Women and children are being trafficked. There are threats of terrorism and disaster from endless war.”

Politics is broken, he said, because it fails to address the major issues of life and the world. Instead of solving problems, politicians use issues to stir people’s fears, blame the other side and then take a poll to see who won.

“The country is hungry for political solutions and hope,” he said. “Social movements with spiritual bases are arising.

The political and religious left and right prevent us from solving problems,” said Jim, whose book says, The Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. “People are no longer looking to the left or right. They want to go into the moral choices behind political debates to find ‘a moral center.’

“Faith helps us when things seem insurmountable. To promote social justice, we need a revival of faith,” he said. “To do justice, we need spiritual power.”

When Jim was 20, he began asking why white and black people in Detroit lived in such different ways. He was told he was too young to ask such questions.

“I thought racism was political, and religion was personal. God is personal, but not private. God knows all about us and still wants a relationship,” he said.

“We think the choice is between belief and secularism, but it’s between hope and cynicism. Cynics see the world realistically and may try to change bad stuff for a while. When it doesn’t change, they become discouraged, feel vulnerable and step back into cynicism, as a buffer against commitment.”

Jim said hope is a decision made in faith: “Hoping for the impossible, we see evidence that makes us unsure, but, by persisting, we can watch evil change.”

Jim saw such change in South Africa when Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for solidarity to help end apartheid. Jim joined clergy coming from around the world for a rally. When police canceled it, the archbishop led worship in St. George’s Cathedral. Outside were three times as many police in riot gear. As Tutu began to preach, some came in and lined the walls, holding notepads and recorders to record what he said.

“You’re powerful, but you’re not gods,” Tutu told them “I serve God, and God will not be mocked.” Then he smiled at them and said, “So we invite you to join the winning side.”

Ten years later Nelson Mandela was released from prison and inaugurated as President. Jim was there then, too. In his inauguration speech, Mandela turned to Tutu and said: “Today they joined the winning side.”

“We could not see that 10 years earlier, but our faith led to hope that led to action and brought change,” Jim said.

Young people face a choice between career and vocation, he said, differentiating the two: A career involves putting one’s assets on a resume and deciding what ladder to climb. Vocation involves discerning one’s gifts from the soul, the heart and the gut.

He knows the pressures that graduates face. Leaving college in debt, they are tempted to find careers to earn money, rather than taking time to choose a vocation by participating in internships and volunteer opportunities.

“You may lose track of time as you begin discerning where your gift meets the crushing needs of the world,” Jim said.

He made a discovery while preaching as a young, white pastor in the late Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, pulpit in Atlanta. He felt jittery as he began to preach, almost stuttering about “j-j-justice and p-p-peace.”
A voice said, “Help him. Lord.” Then it said, “Well, me!” Then, “Preach it!”

Soon Jim was “preaching it.” Afterwards he met Deacon Johnson and said, “You pulled the sermon out of me.” The deacon said, “I’ve done it many times.”

Jim said bad religion “pulls out fear, prejudice and inability to talk about issues with civility. It pulls out hate, and soon we kill each other over religion. Good religion pulls out compassion, hunger for justice and willingness to listen.

“Whenever people say a problem is too big, a budget is too small and there is no Martin Luther King, Jr., we need to know we’re not too small,” Jim said. “Hope means believing in spite of evil and then watching evil change. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

“The end of the war in Iraq will take an act of faith. It will happen when citizens form a bipartisan movement that changes politics as usual,” he said, urging faith and community groups to partner and form a public movement. “We are to be prophetic, the wind that changes direction.”

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Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - Copyright © October 2007