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Ideal Politics : Jim Wallis may seem like a contradiction in terms--an evangelical Christian who proseletizes progressive politics. From a Washington pulpit, he calls for peace, justice and tolerance. What's more surprising is that Wallis actually practices what he preaches.

November 06, 1994|Howard Kohn | Contributing editor Howard Kohn is at work on a book titled "We Had a Dream," a look at the goals of the civil-rights movement 25 years later, to be published by Simon & Schuster.

Next to a sidewalk with weeds in every crack, a purple-blossoming plant was growing: a petunia, planted by someone as optimistic as the writer and political missionary Jim Wallis. On a hot September afternoon, Wallis was leading me through a stretch of Washington, D.C., known as the 14th Street corridor. The petunia stuck out among the forsaken patches of a neighborhood--Columbia Heights, 20 blocks from the White House--that has lain in waste since the 1968 rioting. Rounding a corner, we came upon five youths standing over another young man who was prone on the sidewalk, breathing loudly, his face messed up, skin broken, blood running onto his shirt. His assailants looked murderous, but, seeing Wallis, they changed their minds and pedaled away on bicycles.

Wallis signaled to another teen-ager standing nearby. "Get him cleaned up, will you, please?" The two were friends, and, arms around each other, herky-jerky, they went across the street. It occurred to me that a group of avengers with automatic weapons might appear at any second. Wallis, streetwise and shaman-like, seemed oblivious to such a danger, and events would bear him out.

Wallis has had 20 years to learn how to tell the merely horrible from the tragic along the 14th Street corridor. He is the founder and leader of the Sojourners Community, a ministry cum commune cum social movement started by mostly middle-class, mostly white evangelical Christians who threw in their lot with the inhabitants of Columbia Heights in the last gasp of the do-good '60s. Wallis and about 50 others live in cooperatively owned row houses there, within walking distance of each other. In a former crackhouse, they run education programs for adults and children, a tenants' rights organization, a food bank and an all-purpose Neighborhood Center.

Wallis' idea, and the force behind Sojourners, is that bibilical faith compels radical social action. While most of us accept the successes wrought by public policy on behalf of justice, peace and the poor--small successes that admit, in essence, that injustice, war and poverty will always be with us--for Wallis, that isn't good enough. His conscience leads him to take on these issues again and again, firsthand, every day.

He is surely the only participant in President Clinton's prayer breakfasts who chooses to make the 14th Street corridor his home. He regularly gets himself arrested in acts of civil disobedience. In a quixotic protest of the wildly popular Gulf War, he fasted for 47 days. He presides at the funerals of neighborhood youngsters gunned down at close range and then takes on the improbable cause of a nationwide gang truce. In the late '80s, he sneaked into South Africa to report back on the anti-apartheid movement. When the United States was arming the Contras, he mobilized thousands of Witness for Peace and joined them in Nicaragua as they made it known that they were willing to take a bullet to stop the fighting.

"There has to be more than just writing about a vision of social transformation," the 46-year-old Wallis explained to me. "You have to give your life to it--if necessary, risk your life for it."

Wallis also preaches what he practices. He travels the lecture circuit half the year. When he is at home, he is the lay pastor of the ecumenical Sojourner's "church," which meets every Sunday in the Neighborhood Center. He contributes to Sojourners magazine, which he co-founded and edits. In his just-published third book, "The Soul of Politics," Wallis delivers a sermon that has to be called a manifesto.

The world isn't working. . . . Ideologies and policies of liberal and conservative, Left and Right, have run their course and come to a dead end. . . . Politics has been reduced to the selfish struggle for power among competing interests and groups. . . .

We need a personal ethic of moral responsibility, a social vision based on bringing people together, a commitment to justice with the capacity also for reconciliation, an economic approach governed by the ethics of community and sustainability, a restored sense of our covenant with the abandoned poor and the damaged earth, and a renewal of citizen politics to fashion a new political future.

We must, writes Wallis, "find common ground . . . by moving to higher ground"--or perish.

It is no accident that "The Soul of Politics" arrived on bookshelves at the height of another electoral season. Against the 1994 campaigns--cutthroat, cynical, divisive and manipulative---Wallis' jeremiad can't help but sound like a righteous voice crying in the wilderness, a voice made all the more prophetic, according to social critic Cornel West, because of his rare standing as "visionary . . . who grounds his reflection in concrete action.

Wallis is politically idealistic beyond the bounds of anything that is familiar or conventional in Washington. The fact that he wants the rest of us to follow him may make him a saint or God's fool, or maybe an ordinary American revolutionary.

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