America's Original Sin: A Conversation with Jim Wallis

by guest writer, Laura Turner
It was a packed house at the Century Club when Scot Sherman and Jim Wallis took the stage on Friday night. More than 200 people gathered to hear from Wallis, a theologian, activist, and author of many books, the latest of which he had come to discuss. In America’s Original Sin, Wallis sets forth the claim that the founding of America was tied to the near-extermination of one race and the enslavement of another. As much as we like to think we’ve moved beyond the problems that plagued us as a young nation, our past is still very present to us.
Among the other hats he wears, Jim Wallis is the founder and president of Sojourners, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for social justice through writing and activism. Sojourners grew out of Wallis’s return to faith after having left as a young man, disillusioned by the segregation in the church of his youth. “My world has most changed when I’ve been in places I wasn’t supposed to be or with people I wasn’t supposed to be with,” Wallis said, recounting his childhood in Detroit. There, he noticed how different life was for his black friends than it was for him in the white area of Detroit.
“What do you do when your church–the white evangelical church–just misses the biggest issue of your day?” Wallis asked. That’s what happened in his church, and that’s the parable of Detroit. Every city has a parable–a story that citizens use to attach meaning to where they live. Many cities in America share a common parable of racism, and even more churches have inherited that legacy. Wallis mentioned a 65 year-old historically black church in a gentrifying part of Oakland that was recently fined thousands of dollars for a noise ordinance violation.
One of the major issues in conversations about racism is that “we still see racism as a problem that other people have that we can help to fix,” Wallis said. “We don’t see it in ourselves.” It is too easy to point fingers at racism “out there,” and demands much more of us to look in ourselves and see what kinds of prejudices we are carrying around. People of color contend with this reality every day as they have white allies who end up doing more harm than good. Brittany Packnett, one of the community leaders in Ferguson, MO, told Wallis: “We don’t just need allies; we need accomplices.”
Wallis also talked about the concept, originated by theologian James Cone, of “dying to whiteness.” Europeans weren’t always considered “white,” but they coalesced into a large group in North America and were united under the umbrella of whiteness. This has ended up positing whiteness as the norm and as a social good. White people have continued to benefit from their privilege without acknowledging it or working for racial justice in America.
What now? Wallis has hope, he says. “There is this energy from a new generation that wants to change things–a hunger for dealing with this that I haven’t seen in a very long time.” Wallis points out that conversations about racial justice have been happening in black churches and families for a very long time, and that many of us are entering that conversation for the first time now. “Many people aren’t drawn to religion, but they’re drawn to courage,” he said. “In Jesus, God hits the street. The most important thing [Christians] have to offer is hope.”