In the last night of discussions on poverty in America, the president-CEO of Sojourners and chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Faith shares his observations after recently visiting the Occupy Wall Street protests.
“Sojourners” magazine Jim Wallis
Tavis: I couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to close our week than to spend some time with my friend, Jim Wallis. He is, of course, a noted theologian, best-selling author and the president and CEO of Sojourners. He joins tonight from my home state, my hometown, of Indianapolis. Jim Wallis, always an honor, sir, to have you on this program.
Jim Wallis: A blessing, my friend. You and Cornell have been like itinerate revivalist preachers on the road talking about the gospel good news to the poor. So thank you for that.
Tavis: I’m delighted to have you on. No better way to close the week than to talk about the responsibility of the faith community and, for that matter, the responsibility of all of us who call ourselves believers, those of us who say we are persons of faith. We’re gonna talk tonight about our responsibility to the poor.
On that note, let me start with a clip. Earlier this week, since you mentioned Dr. West a moment ago, Dr. West and I appeared on a number of programs to promote the Poverty Tour on PBS this week.
One of the promotional appearances that we made was on Morning Joe. My friend, Joe Scarborough, and Mika and Willie Geist had us on this week to talk about poverty. I wanted to play a short clip here of how Joe Scarborough, unscripted, of course, decided to end the program. Take a look.
Joe Scarborough: “I don’t usually do this. I’m gonna do it now because it seems that Christianity is constantly being thrown into primary debates. It happened again this past weekend. And how fascinating that, despite the fact that many on the right have brought religion up over the past 30 or 40 years, they somehow miss the core of Jesus’s message.
Jesus was asked – and I want you guys to comment on this – by his disciples, ‘Who’s getting to heaven? How do we sit on the right hand of the Father?’ This is what Jesus Christ said, and by the way, Pastor Jeff, if you open your bible to Matthew, it’s in red letters. That means Jesus said it.
This is what Jesus said, “And the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come you who are blessed by my father, take your inheritance, for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
And that was not Jesus talking about some side issue, some sidebar to his ministry. That was Jesus talking about, when asked, what his ministry was about. It was about taking care of the poor.”
Tavis: Jim Wallis, I kid you not, when I say I almost shouted out of my chair on national television when I hear people like Joe Scarborough, Republicans, people on the right, suggest that all of us have a responsibility to the poor.
So let me ask you now as you sit there in Indianapolis what you make of hearing folk on the right talk the way that Scarborough did in that closing moment of our conversation about poverty.
Wallis: Well, I think Joe’s getting religion here. I was on his show a few weeks back and he said the same thing. He said, “There’s a new generation of Matthew 25 Christians.” That was the text he was quoting from. And that new generation crosses boundaries, is it left? Right?
But it really is saying and what the prophets always said in the bible, that a nation’s integrity, they would say righteousness, is defined not by its gross national product, not by its military firepower, not by its culture being the envy of the world, but by how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable.
That’s what the bible says. That’s what God is looking for, and Joe’s getting it. I hear this all over the country now.
Tavis: So how, then, if the church community, if the faith community, if the community of believers truly get that, then why do we see the numbers of the poor growing in this country so exponentially that we’re now at almost 50 million Americans living in poverty, Jim?
Wallis: I’ve been seeing some clips of this amazing week you’ve had here and I’m hopeful that what you talked about, when Dr. King was killed in Memphis for being with garbage workers about to begin a Poor People’s Campaign, and the banner of that campaign sunk in the mud of a Washington, D.C. monsoon just a few weeks later, I’m more hopeful than ever that that banner might be picked up again, the mantle might be lifted again, because of three things.
One, as you just said, there are more people being touched by poverty in this country now than any time since the Great Depression, 50 million Americans. That’s more than the past 50 years. And now it’s touching new poor and people sitting next to me in the pew and the middle class is disappearing, uncertainties everywhere. So the poor, we’re being touched by it now. That to me could turn this around.
Secondly, the faith community is being more united than I’ve ever seen it. So we’ve formed a circle of protection, we call it, around with and around the poor. The National Association of Evangelicals, the Catholic bishops, the Salvation Army. This is not some religious left here. This is all of us.
And finally, the young people. I was at Occupy Wall Street last week. A new generation is engaging for the first time in a long time. Those three things give me a lot of hope that we may be at the beginning of something new here.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that – and I know you know this as well as I do – but I was blown away when I started reading these kinds of stories, Jim, that underscore that increasingly churches, I mean, major churches, mega churches, are filing bankruptcy and they’re filing bankruptcy because their parishioners have so little now to put in the plate on Sunday morning.
The members have so little to give that there are churches, unprecedented numbers of churches all across this country at this very moment when people need these institutions to look out for them, the churches themselves are going under because of bankruptcy.
Wallis: The churches are struggling themselves financially, but they’re also giving more. There are special offerings being taken. I was preaching in a mega church a while back that had sent 47 teams down to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina. They were being transformed by what they saw on the coast.
So this circle of protection we’re forming is trying to protect low-income people and families who are being slashed because of bad choices and bad priorities in Washington. You know, they want to cut $8.5 billion dollars for low-income housing while keeping $8.4 billion deductions on second vacation homes.
These are choices being made and the churches are saying, no, no, no, bad choices here. Let’s in fact defend those who we are called to by Jesus to be the least of these are the ones that we’re gonna be judged by how we treat, as you said before. So I see a conversion happening, even among some of those big Evangelical mega churches.
Tavis: Let me circle back to the comment that our friend Joe Scarborough made in that clip. If increasingly I’m seeing people confess and profess their faith, Jim, how can Washington be full of believers in the White House and on the Hill and what we see happen to poor people?
Wallis: As Joe’s saying, the religious issues he’s gonna hear on his show are about abortion and gay marriage and all the rest. What I’m saying is, the religious issue in this campaign are those Census Bureau numbers. That’s the religious issue.
22% of our children in the richest country in the world are poor. Now the poverty line, as you know, is $22,000 for a family of four. Try living on that for a while. That’s the religious issue. So any candidate who says they’re a Christian and is not dealing with that are not really raising the true religious issue.
So this week, faith leaders are sending a letter to every candidate, Republican and Mr. Obama, the president, saying these census numbers for us are religious matters. How are you going to respond to these terrible numbers from the Census Bureau? Those are, for us, gonna be the faith issues in this campaign.
Tavis: So I hear your prescription, that is to say, what you’re going to do and say to elected officials in Washington.
Let me put you on the spot now and ask you to talk to me specifically about what the challenge is, what the call is, in these difficult times for persons of faith and, for that matter, persons who may be agnostic or atheist, but care about humanity and want to see American become a greater nation. What is the call to us as individuals, as American citizens?
Wallis: You know, there are 2,000 verses in the bible about poor people, 2,000 verses. As a seminarian, we took an old bible and a pair of scissors and we cut out all those verses and they were on the cutting room floor and it was a bible full of holes, literally full of holes.
We still have that old bible around 40 years later. Now there’s a new poverty bible out by World Vision and the Bible Society and all those verses are put back in and they’re in World Vision orange so that we don’t miss them.
That bible symbolizes to me how a new generation is putting its bibles back together again. This is whether we’re gonna believe the word of God and live it in our lives, our churches, our neighbors and our nation. This is the criteria. God doesn’t love only poor people. God loves those who live in mansions or hovels, but God is saying, “As you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.”
We had a meeting with the president and a Catholic bishop said to him, “Mr. President, when you go off script, it’s a lot better. Our scripture doesn’t say, Mr. President, as you’ve done to the middle class, you’ve done to me. As you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.” That is the call.
I love being with the kids on Wall Street, Liberty Square, because they’re understanding that, you know, an economy that isn’t fair, isn’t sustainable, isn’t stable and isn’t making people happy is an issue for them. It’s a whole new generation coming out, 1,400 places now. And on Sunday, they wheeled a golden calf onto Wall Street and it said, “A false idol” on the side.
Tavis, they were chanting, “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the peacemakers.” I saw it and my heart just rose to all these young people saying this is wrong, this isn’t right, something has gone wrong and we’re coming out to say it’s time for a change.
I feel more hopeful than I’ve ever felt because more people are feeling it, are seeing it, are tasting it, and the faith is coming together like we’ve never seen them before and now a new generation says we’re gonna rise up and change this country. So I’m feeling very hopeful now.
Tavis: Jim Wallis, I thank you for being on this program, but more importantly, I thank you for your work on the issue of poverty down through the years and not just during this week of poverty programs on PBS. I thank you, I thank you, delighted to have you on.
Wallis: It’s a blessing to be here and you’re helping build that movement. It’ll take a movement, Tavis, it’ll take a movement.
Tavis: As I mentioned earlier, if you’ve missed any part of our week on poverty and highlights from our Poverty Tour, you can access the entire week right now by visiting our website at pbs.org.
Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
Narrator: Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.
Narrator: Brought to you by the AARP Foundation; W.K. Kellogg Foundation engaging communities to improve the lives of vulnerable children. Learn more at wkkf.org; The Annie E. Casey Foundation helping to build better futures for America’s kids and families.
Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.