Emory Report
January 23, 2006
Volume 58, Number 16


Emory Report homepage  

January 23, 2006
Wallis calls for 'new dialogue' on faith

BY catherine harris

As it celebrates the 77th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., the nation desperately needs a new national dialogue on the role of faith in the public sphere and the true meaning of moral values, said writer, minister and activist Jim Wallis to a packed Glenn Auditorium on Tuesday, Jan. 17.

Delivering the keynote address of Emory’s King Week celebration, the author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, urged those in attendance to renew their commitments to achieving social justice, but to pursue “discourse” across political and religious divides instead of looking for victory at the opposing side’s expense.

“Dr. King did that so well,” Wallis said. “He brought different people together and convened a national dialogue on the issue of race. We need a new dialogue now.”

A graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, Wallis and fellow students founded a small magazine and Christian intentional community in 1971 dedicated to peace and social justice. That group evolved into the national organization Sojourners: Christians for Peace and Justice. Wallis also is the founder of Call to Renewal, a national federation of faith-based organizations from across the theological and political spectrum working to overcome poverty.

Touring in support of his book in the wake of the 2004 election, Wallis said he’s met many people alienated by the rhetoric of leaders of the so-called “religious right,” but also left wanting by liberal progressives who seem to reject spiritual faith.

Most of this country’s major social movements, Wallis said, have been led by religious leaders, of which King is one example. “Antislavery, child labor, women’s suffrage—all of these movements were grounded in spiritual and religious values,” he said.

Recently, however, the national conversation about “values” has been dominated by a narrow focus on personal morality, further boiled down to two issues: abortion and gay marriage. While these are two important social questions that should be addressed, a discussion of moral values cannot begin and end with them alone, Wallis said.

“As a Christian, I see 2,000 verses in the Bible that talk about poverty, and that tells me poverty is a moral issue,” he said. “How and when the nation should go to war, and whether it tells the truth about the reasons for going to war, are profoundly moral issues, too.”

People of all faiths need to start a new dialogue, not merely oppose the existing one, Wallis said. They need to “dig deeper,” challenging themselves to discern their calling and how their deeply held beliefs compel them to act, he argued, instead of using religion as a prop for justifying their particular political position.

Even those who have warmed to his messages about progressive Christianity should take heed, he warned.

“If you just want to hear that it’s OK to be Christian and not support the war, then fine, but that’s not personal,” he said. “If you just want to hear a sermon that fits in with your particular world view, then OK. But that’s not personal.

“For faith to really change the world, it must be personal.”

Recalling the time he spent working with anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, mesmerized by the unwavering faith of religious leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Wallis emphasized that faith is the one thing that can sustain a movement for social change, even when obstacles seem insurmountable. The activists in South Africa danced and sang—under threat of death, torture or exile—always believing that one day their world would be different. Years later, Wallis watched as many of those same activists were elected to positions in the South African Parliament.

People who didn’t live through the civil rights movement may look back on desegregation and the Voting Rights Act and say change was inevitable, he said. But for the people who lived through it, those changes once seemed impossible.

“Faith is for the big stuff—the things we think can’t be changed, that seem impossible,” Wallis said. “It is faith that makes the impossible into the inevitable.”