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Jim Wallis at Evangelical Immigration Table

(Jim Wallis joins other members of the Evangelical Immigration Table in prayer. Photo credit: Institute on Religion and Democracy)

Kristin Rudolph (@kristin_rudolph)

“Government is concerned about fairness,” according to Jim Wallis, president of the liberal Christian organization Sojourners. Discussing his new book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC on April 3, Wallis explained how faith informs his view of government. After “biblical study,” he concluded that according to “Romans 13 and all the rest … Our human inclinations and human sins make things unfair inevitably, and so government is to make things more fair.”

Wallis urged Evangelicals to get over their “‘atonement only gospel’ where salvation is a ticket to heaven and that’s really about the end of it.” Growing up in an Evangelical church, he thought of Jesus as a “remote savior who really isn’t a teacher,” but when he interacted with liberal churches, he found that Jesus was not viewed as Savior, but just another ethical teacher like Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr.

Instead, Wallis suggested combining the two ideas and viewing Jesus as “a living teacher,” who walks alongside us like Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. “Who we think Jesus is and why He came … will determine the kind of Christians we’re going to end up being,” Wallis said. Through Wallis’s lens, Jesus presents the “gospel of the kingdom,” which brings both personal salvation and an obligation to “change the world.”

But his Jesus walks strikingly modern path. Wallis recently announced he supports redefining marriage, and explained we must “reweave the bonds of marriage in society, which is central to the common good and to parenting … [and] make sure same-sex couples are included in the benefits of that reweaving, recovenenting, renewing marriage.” He elaborated: “We’re not just arguing about marriage equality, which is an important discussion, we’re saying let’s recommit to marriage, and then how to be inclusive in that commitment.” Wallis said he hopes to find “some common ground that might move us beyond just ‘for and against’ marriage equality.”

“Inclusivity” is central to Wallis’s conception of “the common good,” and was apparent in his insistence that immigration reform is the most important issue for the “faith community” right now. “I don’t think I’ve seen the churches have such a potentially game changing political role on issue like immigration since the Civil Rights movement. We’ve had impact, good and bad on lots of things … but I haven’t seen this kind of game changing role that I’m seeing now.” He said Evangelical views on immigration have changed because “the ‘they’ has become ‘us’” as more immigrant families join previously homogeneous, white congregations.

Wallis discussed his involvement with the “Evangelical Immigration Table,” (EIT) and its “I Was a Stranger Challenge,” which guides participants through “40 Days of Scripture and Prayer” to “inform both the interpersonal ways that we interact with our immigrant neighbors and the public policies that we support.” Last month the EIT, which has signatories from the Southern Baptist Convention and National Association of Evangelicals among others, announced they “believe a just and fair immigration system should include, for those who want it and qualify, clear steps to citizenship. This call is rooted in our biblically informed commitment to human freedom and dignity.”

The immigration issue “is going to show how we can get to the common good but it takes the kind of pressure from outside” Washington D.C. to make a difference, Wallis claimed. “The role of the faith community at its best … [is to provide] moral courage and political cover.” But, he explained, “Somehow we’ve lost a sense of being in this together … When we are only looking after ourselves, our group, our tribe, our party, we will all be in serious trouble.”

After immigration reform, determining the “future of our fiscal soul in this country … [by finding] a path of financial sustainability that’s respectful of … how are the most vulnerable being treated” is an important issue. Following the budget, Wallis said “gun violence is next.”

Wallis is right that Christians ought to actively protect the poor and vulnerable, but looking to the Bible for policy recommendations is anachronistic to say the least. Romans 13:1-7, which Wallis interprets as describing government’s purpose as making life fair says nothing about fairness. The passage primarily commands us to submit to the God ordained authority of government and describes the institution as “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Not only is his description unbiblical, but life simply isn’t fair. The federal government, in its size and distance from the average person’s life, is probably the worst institution to task with establishing fairness.