Thoughts on Jim Wallis in Atlanta

February 6, 2010

activism / books / spirituality

Lastnight, we had the opportunity to see Jim Wallis of Sojourners in Atlanta on the book tour for his new book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street. We were a little late, and since the main room was full, he was broadcasted into an overflow room where we sat.

I’ve been a fan of Sojourners and Jim Wallis for almost ten years, but I’d never met or seen him in person, so this was a great experience for me. We listened to his talk, and then we almost accidentally bumped into him when everyone was heading into the lobby. We bought his new book, and got to shake his hand and thank him for coming, and he asked us a couple of questions, and then we left.

When we first came in, he was talking about the excessive bonuses that bankers from the biggest Wall Street firms recently received. He spoke of all of the things that the hundreds of millions of dollars could have done instead, and also of the folks who have been foreclosed upon because of their unjust practices (people who had enough money for a house loan but were tricked into dangerous loans, for example). He compared the story of these bankers to the parable of the unjust servant that Jesus told. The bankers were given extraordinary grace, in that sense, when we bailed them out; but they have refused to extend that same grace to folks who have been affected by their own choices.

Moving on from the specific example of the bankers and their bonuses, he spoke profoundly about the condition of which the bankers are a symptom. Our need to have everything, focus on ourselves, and only worry about the present has led us into the present economic crisis, and we can either (gradually) go back to the way we were, and at some point find ourselves in another crisis, or we can be truly affected by where these things have brought us, and move somewhere else. We can realize that “enough is enough,” “we are all in this together”, and think about “the seventh generation out,” as he reminded us.

He spoke of the winds of change that are occurring, speaking of his experiences at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he had conversations about values and morality in our economic system with folks ranging from Eric Schmidt to Barney Frank. He spoke of his own travels around the country, speaking with folks who have the two great hungers he sees – spirituality and social justice – and the desire for something to bring them together.

He constantly reminded us that religion does not have a monopoly on morality, but that faith traditions offer practices and perspectives and histories to achieve these kind of changes. He reminded us of the need for a hopeful populism. If you know of Jim Wallis, you know that he is not a Tea Partier, and he recognizes that they have affected our perception of the word populism, and reframed it differently than the focuses that they have into something that is much more concerned with justice, the poor, and hope.

After talking for an hour or so about these kind of things, he answered several questions and then went into the lobby to hang out with folks. Not having read the book yet, I’m not sure how much of his talk was from it and how much was just informed by its concepts, but either way I’d encourage you to see the tour if it comes near you, and pick up the book. I disagree with him from time to time, as I often lean more toward the Anabaptist way of looking at culture, but he is an important voice for those of us who want to see spirituality and justice come close.