As a student, I attended a teach-in on campus led by Jim Wallis and the group from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who founded The Post-American magazine. I scooped up copies of the first issues and kept them as treasured possessions. Much of the way I thought about the world was shaped by that magazine. The Post-American was first published in 1971 but renamed Sojourners in 1975. Many years later, following the Los Angeles uprising and the gang peace summits, I worked with Jim in support of Carl Upchurch (the former gang member who became a prophetic teacher of urban justice) in a nationwide movement to bring peace to our urban streets.
Jim Wallis (b. 1948)
Hope unbelieved is always considered nonsense. But hope believed is history in the process of being changed.
Jim Wallis has become one of the leading U.S. religious voices in the media. Deeply rooted in what he calls an evangelical faith, he has consistently campaigned for issues of peace along with economic and racial justice. Through Wallis, Sojourners magazine has lifted the voices of dozens of other activists, as well, and has spread their collective voices into receptive homes and communities around the world.
He was born in Michigan and raised in a conservative evangelical church. As a teenager Wallis encountered social divisions along racial lines. He visited black churches in Detroit, where he discovered a very different expression of the Christian faith than he had experienced in his home church. He found the same fervor about having a “personal relationship with Christ”, but in the black churches, that intimately personal faith flowed directly to active involvement in social struggles over the injustices of racism and poverty. His persistent questions about the lack of connection between issues of race and faith asked in his home church sparked that congregation to oust him, though only in his teens.
He went to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago where he joined with other students in anti-war activities during the Vietnam War. They founded a magazine, The Post-American, which engaged in the anti-war and anti-racism discussions common at the time—but they did so from an evangelical perspective. This perspective understood their personal relationships with Christ as driving them to engage in direct, nonviolent social action. The Post-American quickly built a national readership, expanding beyond evangelical social activists to other Christian groups who were concerned about issues of justice and peace: African-American churches, progressive Catholics, liberal Protestants, historic peace churches and social activists from Pentecostal and charismatic traditions.
In order to more effectively serve this growing and diverse constituency, to improve their capacity for advocacy about peace and justice issues to the U.S. government, and to put substance to their radical vision, Wallis and those involved with the magazine moved to Washington, D.C., in 1975 and changed the name of the magazine to Sojourners. They were located in the inner city neighborhood of Columbia Heights, an area marred by blight and poverty. Since 1975 Sojourners has engaged in national discussions about major political issues all the way down to the local urban issues of poverty, racism and violence. They developed the Sojourners Neighborhood Center and the Freedom School to address these local concerns. Wallis’ writing and preaching is a direct result of these neighborhood struggles.
Wallis also was active against apartheid in South Africa and the nuclear arms race. In the 1980s, the wars in Central America became the focal point for the peace movement. Wallis attended a retreat of religious peace activists in 1984 that developed the Pledge of Resistance that was then introduced to the nation in the pages of Sojourners. It called for individuals to be prepared to commit acts of civil disobedience to block a feared invasion of Nicaragua by the U.S. military under the policies of President Ronald Reagan. More than 30,000 people signed the Pledge of Resistance. As U.S. policy shifted from a threatened invasion to what was termed “low intensity conflict” the leaders of the Pledge broadened their focus to include any escalation of the wars in Central America. In 1985, Pledge activists, the majority based in religious groups, engaged in civil disobedience to stop the funding of the Contras in Nicaragua. As a result, thousands were arrested in cities across the U.S. Sojourners, with Wallis at the helm, continued to be the coordinating voice by telling stories that the U.S. mainstream media chose to minimize.
As the Cold War ended and the wars in Central America wound down, Wallis and the Sojourners community began to look at the systemic issues of poverty in the United States in a new light. They stimulated the gathering of a network of many religious groups to publish The Call to Renewal in 1995. The Call to Renewal sought to unite congregations and faith-based organizations from many different traditions and different political positions to address the concerns of the poor out of the biblical prophetic tradition.
The Call to Renewal, in Wallis’ words, was about “a new agenda, beyond both the Left and the Right, which combines personal responsibility and moral values with a frontal assault on racism and poverty.” Sojourners magazine was the nerve center for the movement. Wallis went around the U.S. with singer Ken Medema in the tradition of old-time revivalists, but this time with a call to biblical justice in the contemporary context. In 2006, The Call to Renewal was merged with Sojourners.
Jim Wallis has published eight books, but his 2005 work, God’s Politics, took on both Republicans and Democrats and called for a new moral agenda to address systemic problems of injustice, violence and discrimination in the U.S. He became a regular on news shows and panels of religious commentators. His voice moved from the columns of Sojourners to major newspapers and media networks nationwide. In this new role, it would be easy to dismiss Wallis as just another pundit—but that casual judgment ignores Wallis’ life and witness. From the beginning, his peacemaking has been rooted in a faith community. Sojourners has gone through many changes over the decades. The form of the community has changed and ministries have been developed, phased out and new ones started. Despite its changes, Sojourners has always consisted of a band of Christians that has shared their lives together with a common vision for the peace and justice of their local neighborhood and the wider world. Most of the individuals connected with Sojourners have not been in the public spotlight, but work in various neighborhood ministries or with the organization and magazine. The reality of that community life, both in Sojourners and the D.C. neighborhood, is what has given Wallis his moral grounding.
Wallis doesn’t just preach the vision of biblical prophets—he works within the daily relationships of a religious community and an urban neighborhood to make that vision real.
For more peacemaker profiles
This profile on Jim Wallis comes directly from Dan Buttry’s book, Blessed are the Peacemakers. Blessed are the Peacemakers is one of three books that inspired this website. To learn more, check out Dan Buttry’s three-book series on peacemakers.