Jesus wants you to sell your house, sell your car and anything else of value, give all the money to the poor, and go and live in a commune. If you don’t do this, you don’t love God, you hate the poor, and you shouldn’t be calling yourself a Christian.
That’s Jim Wallis’ message, and the substance of his 1981 book, revised and republished in 2005.
Ever since losing the 2004 elections, American liberals have been looking for some way to win a share of “the Christian vote.” But when your side is perceived as pro-abortion, and for “gay marriage,” big government, high taxes, and the United Nations, you have a hard time winning over Christian voters.
Liberals look to Wallis — a self-described “progressive evangelical Christian” — to persuade people of faith that conservatism is immoral and their votes are misdirected.
Us vs. Them
“We are converted to compassion, justice, and peace,” he proclaims (p. 5), and spends the rest of the book attacking straw men who presumably endorse hard-heartedness, injustice, and war as an end in itself. We all believe in compassion, justice, and peace; but in Wallis’ worldview, we must either believe as he believes or else we’re on The Other Side.
He sets up an endless series of dichotomies — the affluent against the poor, the rich North versus the poor and oppressed South, white against black, men against women, capitalists versus labor unions, and so on. “Our affluence” leaves a billion people hungry (p. xv), “American racism, capitalism, and militarism” causes all the world’s problems (p. 28), the poor are poor because of our “endlessly escalating military budget” (p. 33), and riots are everybody’s fault but the rioters’: “The looting by the poor simply mirrors the looting of the poor” (p. 40). Didn’t Celine Dione say this while “the poor” were grabbing flat-screen TVs and other goodies from abandoned stores in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? And if you’re looking for a solid, documented fact anywhere in Wallis’ list above, you won’t find one.
That our government has already spent trillions of our tax dollars on assorted anti-poverty programs cuts no ice with Wallis. He simply doesn’t think we’ve spent enough. “The maximum amount of money ever spent in one year for the entire poverty program of the 1960s equals the cost of three weeks of the Viet Nam War” (p. 38), he thunders, in just one of countless broad, sweeping statements not backed up by a footnote or any other form of documentation. We are expected to take his word for it. In a similar vein, he names us no names and quotes us no quotes to support his contention that conservatives are the real anti-Christians.
What are we to make of such self-righteousness? Indeed, Wallis himself is aware he’s doing it. “Our identification with the poor threatened to become an idol,” he confesses (p. 151), not to mention the threat of “making idols of ourselves” (p. 151). There’s no evidence that he’s solved his problem.
The greatest problem facing today’s world being the “inequitable distribution of the world’s wealth” (p. 31), Wallis’ prescription is, “Make Poverty History” (p. 78).
“For the first time,” he says (p. 77), “the world has the knowledge, information, technology, and resources to end extreme poverty as we know it....” We are to do this by canceling all debt for all impoverished nations (p. 78) and greatly increasing foreign aid. At home, we are to redistribute wealth until everyone is equal (p. 56).
He’s a little vague, in the book, as to how this is to be done. For specifics, we have to look outside the book to his actions.
We find the answers on Wallis’ own Sojourners website (www.sojo.net). For Wallis, the iron hand of government has a moral mandate to level society. He and his followers were arrested in December, 2005, for blocking the entrance to the Cannon House Office Building to protest “immoral” federal budget cuts and “tax cuts for the rich.”
He supports his position with a wooden literal interpretation of a few passages of Scripture that borders on outright abuse.
Most of us know the story of the wealthy young ruler in Mark 10:17-22, who tells Christ that he, personally, has followed all ten of God’s Commandments “from my youth.” But when Jesus suggests that he liquidate all his wealth and “follow me,” the young man walks off shaking his head.
We understand that Jesus said this to teach the young man that he had not kept the Commandments — not even the First, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). The young man loved his wealth more than he loved God, and by thinking of himself as righteous, he was deluding himself.
But Wallis’ spin is literal: we really do have to sell off all our possessions and give away the money (pp. 64-65).
What we have here is a false theology of justification by works. To be sure, the Bible teaches us that as Christians, or even as Jews, we have an obligation to provide for those in need. No one disputes this, except Wallis’ nameless straw men.
Where in the Gospel does he see Jesus Christ handing out money? Or, in imitation of the federal government, directing the disciples to gang-tackle rich persons and empty out their pockets?
Does Wallis not see that when the government assumes the duties of charity, it blunts the impulse in the rest of us? Federal entitlements have been a moral disaster for America. Among taxpayers it breeds an “I gave at the office” mentality; or, as Ebenezer Scrooge put it, “Are there no workhouses?” But its effect on welfare recipients has been much worse. Thinking “I got it comin’ to me — without workin’” is not the mindset anyone needs for climbing out of poverty.
Wallis never says how much money should be doled out to the poor. He never defines “the poor” or “the rich,” nor acknowledges any category between these two polar opposites. Would he have the government take money from a lower middle-class household and give it to a “poor” welfare recipient who wears a $300 Starter jacket, subscribes to cable TV, and eats all his meals at Burger King for several times what it costs a middle-class family to prepare its meals at home? This and countless questions he simply leaves unanswered.
We would all agree that Christians, like anyone else, can get caught up in consumerism, and that the love of money and possessions can be a barrier between ourselves and God. But we would not agree that the solution to this problem is to jettison all our possessions. After all, if money is so bad, so corrupting in its influence, why would we want to give it to the poor? Wouldn’t it corrupt them, too? Maybe we should just have a big national bonfire of DVDs, SUVs, and anything else we don’t require for our bare existence. Then we can all be poor, and by Jim Wallis’ standards, virtuous. We can all sing, after John Lennon, “Imagine no possessions.”
One quickly loses patience with the holier-than-thou tone of this book, its socialism, its support for government actions that have warrant from neither the Constitution nor the Bible. But it’s an important book in that it reflects a strategy for justifying the welfare state. It shows us how that mindset works.
Socialism can’t be justified on the grounds that it has actually worked, because it hasn’t. It can only be defend on the basis that it makes us feel good to spend other people’s money on a charitable cause.