Parables For Understanding A Nation's Racial 'Sin' Rev. Jim Wallis leads the Sojourners, a Christian social justice group. He's known for mixing faith with public life, urging candidates to discuss moral issues in ways that transcends divisions.

Parables For Understanding A Nation's Racial 'Sin'

Parables For Understanding A Nation's Racial 'Sin'

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Rev. Jim Wallis leads the Christian social justice group Sojourners. He is known for merging faith with public life, urging candidates for office to discuss moral issues in a way that transcends ideological divisions. Michel Martin talks with Wallis about his book America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America.


If you're interested in the nexus of faith and politics, then the Reverend Jim Wallis is a name you probably know. He leads a Christian social justice organization called Sojourners. But he was also one of the people behind the 2008 Compassion Forum that aimed to press candidates to discuss moral issues in a way that transcended ideological divisions. He's also the author of a number of books, and his latest forthcoming work is called "America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege And The Bridge To A New America." And the Reverend Jim Wallis is with us now. Reverend Wallis, thanks so much for being here.

REVEREND JIM WALLIS: Great to see you again.

MARTIN: So first, to the book - I mean, you've written many, many books. This is - what? - number 12, I think. Why this topic now?

WALLIS: When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, I felt - you might call it the lament of a white father. I knew and the whole country knew that my son Luke - six-foot-tall baseball athlete, going to college next year - had been walking and doing the same thing, same time that Trayvon was doing in Sanford, Fla., everyone knows he would've come back. But Trayvon didn't come back, and so it was a parable. Jesus talked about parables. They teach us things. Michael Brown - Ferguson - was a parable. Charleston was a parable. The parable about where we are as a nation - we have to see our original sin and how it still lingers in our criminal justice system.

MARTIN: And what is the original sin?

WALLIS: Well, the original sin is - I have this sentence in the book - the most controversial sentence I ever wrote - this nation was founded by the near genocide of one people and the kidnapping of another people to build this nation. So slavery and the indigenous destruction of those who were here - that was our original sin. And it still lingers in our criminal justice system - in most of our systems.

And so the book talks about how to go deeply into that to understand what's happening here and then to see how these events - these shootings of young black men and women losing their lives in custody - are parables. They have to teach us what repentance doesn't mean just saying you're sorry. Or feeling guilty means turning and going in a whole different direction.

And so I'm writing this as a white man, and I'm saying that in this society, no matter where I live or what I do or who my friends are or even if I try to work to overcome racial and criminal injustice, I can never escape white privilege in this society - just like my friends, my colleagues can't escape what it means to be black or brown in this country. And if we are people of faith - I say in the book if white Christians were more Christian than white, black parents would have less to fear for their children.

MARTIN: In fact, the book itself seems to be rather explicitly aimed towards the white Christian reader. Am I right about that?

WALLIS: You are because I was stunned by how the responses to the shootings of young black men just really fall along racial lines. So many white people would say, well, it's the incident. It's the circumstance. It's what he or she did or didn't do. And for black people, this is a pattern, structure, experience. I'm a Little League baseball coach, and all my black kids on the team - their parents have the talk - how to behave, how not to behave, what to do, not to do if there's a man - a cop or a man with a gun. And none of the white parents have that talk. None of the white parents even know the talk happens.

MARTIN: I referenced earlier the Compassion Forum, which was a forum at Messiah College in 2008 where a candidates - Senator - then-Senator Barack Obama - then-Senator Hillary Clinton was invited to participate. Senator John McCain was invited to participate. He ended up not participating, but he did participate in a conversation later on in the year with the Reverend Rick Warren.

But I was noting that among the people endorsing the idea of the Compassion Forum at the time were Governor Mike Huckabee, who's now another candidate for president, Rick Santorum, former United States senator - both evangelicals. You belong to the evangelical tradition, as well. Why is it that, you know, their priority seems very different, as people who are running for office and for whom their faith is also important? Why is it that you think that, you know, you're all evangelicals, and you belong to this tradition, and yet you see the priority very differently?

WALLIS: Look at - we had our political conversation changed just here in town by Pope Francis. I have never seen the gospel - the gospel values - proclaimed at the highest levels of power in this country. I was at the White House welcoming ceremony in the Congress, and here is the Pope saying how we treat the marginal - those are on the outside, left behind - is a faith issue, is a gospel issue.

In between his eloquent proclamations, he went and spent time with those very people - lunched with the homeless in D.C., with prisoners in Philadelphia - living the gospel and not just proclaiming it. And that said very clearly, if you want to apply gospel values to politics, you got to deal with those who are marginal, vulnerable, left outside. That's all over the Bible.

MARTIN: Do you see any opportunity for the two sides to coalesce around some things that you might all care about - those of you who both proclaim this faith, but whose priorities seem to be somewhat different at this point?

WALLIS: Well, we had this big coalition called the Circle of Protection put together to in all these debates about budgets and spending - to protect low-income people. We've been doing this for a number of years. We asked all the candidates to submit a three minute video on how they would approach property, how they'd treat the poor, how they would deal with this issue, globally and domestically. We've got 10 videos in so far, and this is going to put, we think, poverty on the agenda. Republicans and Democrats have to answer the same question, and they're saying different things. And that's a good debate to have, but you've got to say, unless we are committed, as a fundamental priority, to lift people out of poverty, help them lift themselves out of poverty, how are you going to do that? And let's have a debate about that.

MARTIN: The first Democratic debate of the season is scheduled for Tuesday. What are you hoping to hear?

WALLIS: Well, you know, I was up on the Hill two days after the Pope was here. We met with leaders in both parties, and the whole purpose was - in light of what the Pope said, what are you going to do now about the issues facing low income people this file in the Congress? And, you know, the truth is Democrats haven't talked as much about the poor as the Pope did when he was in the Congress. And Republicans are just beginning to talk about poverty as a concern. We're saying what does that mean? What does that mean?

So what I hope is CNN asks the kinds of questions that Pope Francis said are central to what it means to seek and serve the common good. But I care less about what a candidate says about how devout they are, how often they pray, how deep their faith is. I want to know what it means - what it means for their leadership and for their policies. And if the poor, the earth and strangers, immigrants aren't there, prisoners aren't there, then I don't hear the gospel in what they're saying.

MARTIN: Jim Wallis is president and founder of Sojourners. He's also editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine. He's the author of many books. His latest forthcoming book is "America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege And The Bridge To A New America." And he spoke with us in Washington, D.C. Reverend Wallis, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WALLIS: Blessing to be here.

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