The Magazine

God's Democrat

From the April 11, 2005 issue: The church of Jim Wallis.

Apr 11, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 28 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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"I was 14. . . . I had these questions about, you know, why we lived the way we did in white Detroit and why life seemed so different in black Detroit. . . . I went into the city and I found the other church, the other evangelical church. The black churches loved the same Jesus, read the same Bible, sang out of the same hymn book, but made it sound so much better than we did. . . . I got kicked out of [the Plymouth Brethren] church, found my home in the civil rights movements and the antiwar struggles of my generation and came back to faith later on."

In 1970, after graduating from Michigan State, Wallis enrolled in the theologically conservative Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. He soon dropped out, and he and several other disaffected divinity school students founded a commune of sorts. Starting in 1971, the group chronicled its own tumultuous history in the pages of a semi-regular publication originally called the Post-American, and later renamed Sojourners.

The first issue of the Post-American had on its cover a picture of Jesus wrapped in an American flag, over the caption " . . . and they crucified Him." Inside, Jim Wallis authored the manifesto of his movement, announcing what would remain one of his central themes: "The American captivity of the church has resulted in the disastrous equation of the American way of life with the Christian way of life." Over the years, his magazine would devote reams of copy to refuting that equation and proving that "to be Christian in this time is to be post-American." The early volumes are filled with earnest discourses on Christian pacifism, civil rights, anti-Vietnam protest, anti-Israel polemics, and all-around anti-Americanism, complemented nicely by Boogie Nights typefaces and an angry hippie aesthetic.

It was around this time, with liberation theology hot in leftist Christian circles, that Wallis performed the exercise that would form the basis for his subsequent career: He went through the Bible with a pair of scissors and cut out all of the passages pertaining to the poor, to show how little was left when these were removed. When he was finished making this "holey" Bible, he had found his ministry: Jesus cared most for the "least of these," and "so should America."

Wallis was eager to get started disseminating his new message, but things weren't going well at home. His post-American commune had suffered its first crack-up in 1975, and Wallis and about 20 others had transplanted what was left of the enterprise from Chicago to Washington, D.C. But community living didn't flourish in Washington either.

The January 1977 issue of Sojourners ran the transcript of a discussion of the community's evolution. A youthful, bearded "Jim" recalls the moment of "a real shift" in his worldview when the first commune was falling apart. "It first came, I remember, while speaking at a conference on global justice and economics." He realized that while their goals were admirable, rule-based communal living was not working out. The group's "discussions turned into arguments and real disagreements over what model of community we would choose. . . . [We] literally began to lose faith and hope." At the moment of his deepest despair, Jim recalled: "I frankly admitted to the group of people I was speaking to that I wasn't really sure I had anything to say to them at all."

So Wallis decided to tune back in and see how things were going in the outside world. His conclusion: Things were not going well at all.

The evil effects of American actions were all around. In September 1979, Wallis wrote of the Vietnamese "boat people": "Many of today's refugees were inoculated with a taste for a Western lifestyle during the war years and are fleeing to support their consumer habit in other lands," somehow managing to credit their desperate flight in fear of totalitarian oppression to the corruption of capitalism.

In Ronald Reagan's 1980s, Sojourners expatiated on the moral equivalence of the USA and the USSR. "We must refuse to take sides," Wallis wrote, "in this horrible and deadly hypocrisy." For "a totalitarian spirit fuels the engines of both Wall Street and the Kremlin."

Citing the demands of his Christianity, Wallis consistently blamed his own country, while readily praising Marxist revolutionaries. Castro he saw as "serious about basic reform." Of the Sandinistas Wallis wrote, "they have brought a measure of justice to Nicaragua that has never been known before." Their policies "are designed to benefit the poor majority of the country more than the middle and upper classes." After the poor majority of Nicaraguan voters repudiated the Sandinistas in the election of 1990, Wallis asserted mysteriously that "the gift of democracy to the Nicaraguan people came from the Sandinistas."