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01 November 2013

Countering cynicism

Countering cynicism

Daniel Webster, the Alliance’s parliamentary officer, meets US social activist and author Jim Wallis…

I meet Jim Wallis while he’s in the UK to promote his latest book, On God’s Side: What religion forgets and politics never knew about the common good. The book opens with a definition of the common good which is his central theme. To make clear this isn’t a new idea, he emphasises the 1,700 years that have passed since John Chrysostom’s quote with which he opens the book: “This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good … for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors (sic).”

"We’ve lost the common good in our public life, politics and culture,” Jim Wallis tells me. “When we as Christians live by the gospel of the kingdom we create conditions for the common good, which Catholic thought says is the creating of networks and relationships that allow human flourishing: what it means to live in a fully human way. And so just by living by the gospel we can create the common good, and if we can do that, it would just establish a credibility for the churches that we haven’t had for a long time.”

"Cynicism is spiritually dangerous. Cynicism causes us to withdraw, back off, not make commitments."

For Wallis the common good is a concept that arises out of Christian belief but has a far wider impact:  “Jesus brings a new order, and the kingdom of God is meant to change the world and us with it, it reverses the social order, and then the common good is more than just for Christians, it’s what we can create in a society.

“How do you rise above your own interest, your parties’ interest, your social interests and how do we ask what’s good for all of us, how do we treat others as we would like to be treated? I was saying to some folks this week, I was on vacation with my two boys for three weeks, and I found myself just gazing at them. Every parent knows this feeling. I never thought I could love so much as I love my kids, but I have to love other people’s kids as I love my own. That’s what Jesus says, that’s transformational and that’s supposed to be.

“Christians can provide an energising, spiritual, even sacrificial foundation. I mean that’s what [Martin Luther] King did, and the black Church did for the civil rights movement. We can provide sometimes the passion, the fire, the grassroots constituency, the kind of commitment you need to make something happen.”


Wallis has been part of a wide movement of Christians in the United States to put pressure on the government to introduce immigration reform. From all corners of the Church, Christians have taken the biblical idea of welcoming the stranger to heart and placed it at the centre of a call for comprehensive reform. “We had to really establish a strong biblical foundation first of all which we did. This couldn’t be just political, people had to see it as a moral issue, as a gospel issue, as a biblical imperative, so we worked hard at that.

"We've had to persuade the Republicans and the Democrats to support this. I think it's been powerful for everyone to see Sojourners and Southern Baptists get together on this, and the National Association of Evangelicals, and Focus on the Family joined us, so Paul Ryan [Republican Congressman] said, 'you've done something we never had before, you've created a grassroots constituency which can influence the Republicans as well, that's the new factor on this'."

"I've been arrested outside and I've had meetings inside the White House."

I ask Wallis about the apathy and even anger seen on both sides of the Atlantic: “Being sceptical of politics, and of politicians and parliaments, is healthy. But cynicism is spiritually dangerous. Cynicism causes us to withdraw, back off, not make commitments, and not take risks and chances, and surround ourselves with security, and if we think nothing will change then we stop committing ourselves. I think that overcoming cynicism is critical, and the apathy that often comes from cynicism.”

“I love Hebrews,” Wallis goes on. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. I paraphrase that as: hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change. That’s not just a rhetorical act, or a romantic naive thought, we’re seeing that on immigration, we saw it on civil rights, we saw it when Wilberforce abolished the slave trade, we see that personal decisions of people of faith can literally change the world."


Wallis might have remarkable access into Washington politics, but it is from the outside that he sees hope for change: “What impacts politics are social movements from outside of it rather than individuals within it. I do know politicians who will do what is right even if it costs them the next election. I do know some of these. But I don’t know more than one hand count.”

And has he thought of running for political office? “It’s probably more of a temptation than a vocation. People have asked me and I have considered that, but I think that my vocation is leading movements from outside. I’ve been arrested outside and I’ve had meetings inside the White House. The trick is to have the message the same in both places.”

Wallis challenges those who run for election to have the right motivation: “I would always ask them why? Just to be an office holder, or because you want to change something? What do you want to change, where do your gifts allow you to do that best, what’s the most strategic place for you to be?

“For me it’s about what are we changing? Not how am I fitting in. The world always needs changing, and do I do that as an activist, as a lawmaker, as a writer, as a marcher, as a service provider, as a nurse, a doctor, a teacher.”

 On God's Side

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