Reflecting on Jim Wallis in New York

About a week ago I went to see Jim Wallis at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. After reading his best-selling book God’s Politics, What the Right Gets Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get, I became interested in the non-profit he founded, Sojourners. For years, it provided excellent insights and featured the contributions of Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren, and many others. While it still provides quality discussion from the many new(er) voices like Julie Clawson,…. However throughout 2009, I had become increasingly frustrated and perhaps a bit bored by their current trajectory.

From where I sit, Wallis and much of the content was becoming overly preachy and perhaps a tad exclusive. As a reader, I feel that I am no longer being invited to consideration and discussion but in so many words, being told how a Christian should think.

While Wallis and Sojourers have always been progressive, they carried with them a sense of patience and fairness. Then, along with this past fall’s attacks on the Fox News personalities (O’Reilly, Hannity, Beck), they seemed to have crossed a threshold that had little room for nuance and moderation. Now I am not a Fox News fan. In fact, I think those aforementioned names are not helpful while I concede they occasionally make a good point. Sort of like the broken clock that’s right twice a day if you know what I mean.  But what i am not looking for is the Religious Left’s answer to the Religious Right.

So that night listening to Walls became important for me as I needed to hear Wallis and attempt to understand him before dismissing him as the Jerry Falwell of the Left. (Back off, I went to Falwell’s school – I’ve earned the right to say that ;-). Truth be told, I’ll always love Falwell and Wallis as I regard them as Christian brothers but I’ve resolved for years to guard my thinking from those whom I perceive to be angry and self-righteous).

So as I mentioned, the gathering took place at the Riverside Church in Manhattan.  A bit of context. There were about 200 people gathered. Many from excellent NY organizations like NY Faith and Justice, the Latino Leadership Circle and a couple others. Also, tonight was a stop on the new book for the recently released Rediscovering Values – On Wall Street, Main Street, Your Street.

After a series of introductions, Wallis came up, cheerful, optimistic, but resolute. As the night continued, my respect for him resumed. Perhaps I had been too hard on him. Maybe his charm was getting the best of me. Maybe I’m not angry enough. Maybe they have adapted their marketing schemes to my mentality and they are out-maneuvering my skepticism. They must think very highly of me. What was in that Chai tea I got earlier in the Village?

Here were my notes from that night:

I wanted to launch my book in Detroit (my hometown).
The logic of this in a town with a 40% unemployment rate is a bit off. But this is exactly what the book is about. So Simon & Shuster donated hundreds of free books. 500 people showed up. Many of them were grass-roots social organizers)

The first chapter is about Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer and it’s called Sunday School with Jon Stewart.
You can download that first chapter at this link.

When then are no values the market devours other sectors.
What has happened is that market has become our nation’s god.
He referenced an Atlantic Monthly article When the Market Becomes God by Harvey Cox.
The market is omniscient, all knowing, restless, angry.
The shaman is Greenspan – lol!

We must let this crisis reset our values and practices.

The old maxims have been altered:
Greed is good as (opposed to greed is bad).
I want it now instead of the virtue of waiting
Keeping up with the Jones’ instead of making sure the Jones’ are ok.
Me, me, instead of “We’re all in this together”.

He gave an illustration about canaries.
Coal miners used to take canary birds into the mines because they were able to detect when the air was becoming toxic before humans could.
So they had to listen to the canaries.
The poor are society’s canaries.
If you don’t’ care about the poor, you don’t care about the common good.
We stopped (ignored) the canaries. And when the poor continue to suffer, it’s only a matter of time when the rest are affected.
This is necessary for the health of society.
The Scriptures judge us by how we treat our poor.
A Q &A speaker panel followed Wallis. It was an excellent conversation and each of their insights reminded me that it would be great to have weekly townhall meetings. Not because all of our problems can be solved in these spaces, but this conversation was anchored in the Gospel of Jesus and while the solutions are complicated, it’s always good to fight the good fight (as opposed to watching Idol or something).

It was a helpful night for me. Not only in my impressions of Wallis but in the bigger picture. There was much for me to consider. I did not buy the book, maybe I will eventually. Frankly I have a lot to read right now. That said, these are the subjects that are truly important. These transcend politics (which are important), media wars, consumer church, and I’m interested in building the Kingdom with the many that follow Jesus.

Here is Wallis Book Diary post on his stop in NYC.

Here is a clip of Wallis on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
It’s a fun interview. They talk about corporate bailouts, Haiti, Pat Robertson, and Wallis makes a beautiful remark, “God is always on the side of the suffering.”


  1. Scott Kraus says:

    I like Jim Wallis. I think he has a lot of good things to say. Sometimes though, despite his claims of not wanting to be with the left or the right, he drifts a bit to the left and gets a little preachy about it. That said, I think his voice is an important one that reminds us that being Christian requires concern for the least of these. By the way, I really enjoy reading your blog. It’s very well written and thought provoking.

  2. Hey Scott, Thanks for commenting.
    Had I seen your comment earlier I would have broken out my Morning Call mug (yep I still have it).

    Indeed Wallis is an important voice and seeing him again helped me see more where he’s been coming from lately. But suspicion never fades permanently you know ;-)

    Hope you and the family are well – see you around.

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