A Conversation with Jim Wallis, Author of Rediscovering Values
1. Did you always envision writing a book centered on economics, or was the project a response to our current financial climate and the new challenges America faces as a result?
I actually had about five other book ideas and not a single one of them had this kind of focus on economics. I began to tell the story about the World Economic Forum, which I write about in the introduction, and I would get an overwhelming response. After one talk that included “Sunday School with Jon Stewart” and the story of the five loaves and two fish, my special assistant and communication manager, Tim King, told me, “Jim, there is a book in that sermon!” He would sit in the crowd while I preached, and he would describe the looks of hope on people’s faces when they heard about the idea of “God’s Economy” and using the crisis as an opportunity to relearn old lessons. We started working on an outline and researching soon after that.
2. You pinpoint the green revolution and the movement toward clean energy as a key to our economic and moral recovery. Do you think that the moral benefits of pursuing clean energy are sufficient to stave off any short-term financial disincentives? Do you envision that moral profits and losses will ever play a bigger role than financial profits and losses in our decision making?
As evidenced at the World Economic Forum, more and more business leaders are beginning to think in terms of more than just a financial bottom line. They are also thinking about community impact and environmental stability as bottom lines, and they are learning that you can both do good and do well. It’s true that a movement towards a green economy might make the cost of filling up your car go up a bit, but that also means more jobs for people in our country to make sure we have alternative energy resources. Investing in public transportation might mean a good chunk of change, but it also means that more kids living in the city can leave their inhalers at home because the air they are breathing is cleaner. Putting money into weatherizing your home and getting energy efficient appliances means an investment now with savings for years to come. If your mindset stays “I want it now,” then a green revolution makes little sense; but if you care about your kids and have a seventh-generation mindset, then you have both a moral and an economic imperative.
3. You have stated publicly many times that you believe religion does not have a monopoly on morality, and yet you are a very prominent Christian leader. Is it difficult to bridge the gap between faiths while simultaneously maintaining a strong Christian belief yourself?
I work hard to bridge the gaps between people of other faiths exactly because of how strongly I hold my own Christian beliefs. Working with people who believe differently than I do in no way makes me give up any of the unique truth claims that I hold as a follower of Christ. Globally, I have over one billion Muslim neighbors; I can either be an agent of peace, as Jesus told his disciples to be, or I can be an agent for conflict and violence. I choose peace. Some of my nearest and dearest friends--friends whom I would trust with my life--claim no particular faith at all. But when it comes to things like concern for the poor, hope for peace, and preservation of the environment, I sometimes find I have more things in common with them than with some Christians I know.
4. With so much corruption in the financial sector coming to light during the recession, it is impossible to dismiss the notion that wealth corrupts. With this in mind, would you advise young men and women to steer away from careers in finance or challenge them to transform the industry while keeping both feet firmly grounded?
Yes and yes. As I mention in the book, just a few years ago an inordinate amount of Harvard students were planning on going into the financial services industry. I believe the primary motivation was not so they could help small business grow through loans or because they wanted to ensure that couples could retire comfortably or that families could save for college, but because it seemed like the quickest way to make some big money. Many of the practices of our financial system have been shown to be a kind of upscale, dangerous casino with a few big firms having the game rigged in their favor. So I certainly hope a lot more young people are considering careers of service and producing real goods and services, but I also hope that those young people who get into the financial industry do it with a deep ethical commitment to providing real services and not just Wall Street roulette.
5. You are friends with President Obama and famously defended his faith after James Dobson called it into question leading up to the 2008 presidential election. Do you think that President Obama has been guided by his faith while dealing with the financial crisis? What effect do you think faith-based policy can have on the American economy?
Well, part of my criticism of James Dobson was that he publicly judged the state of another person’s faith. The president has had a lot of difficult decisions in front of him, and I am not the ultimate judge of whether or not he is faithful. But, as you can see, especially in the final section of the book, I have not been impressed with quite a few economic decisions that have been made, some under the Bush administration and some under the Obama. We have been seeing a lot of band-aids but not a lot of the deeper restructuring I think we need. There are two concepts, both of which I touch on in the book, that offer some hopeful faith-based policy for the American economy. First, all of the Abrahamic religions strongly condemn “usury,” which is interpreted as excessive interest on loans or, sometimes, as any interest at all. I think our country needs to crack down on predatory lending where lenders charge huge amounts of interest and often include fine print or use deceptive advertising to trap people in debt. From mortgage scams to “pay-day lending” shops that seem to be on every street corner of our cities, we need to start cracking down on usury. Second, our country is often a “buyer beware” kind of place, and anything goes as long as the seller can get away with it. In the Old Testament, especially, we see a lot of talk about the moral responsibility that merchants have not only to their customers but to society at large.
6. You infuse your writing with popular culture references and have appeared multiple times on The Daily Show and other popular television shows.Has this kind of exposure helped you reach a younger audience? How receptive are younger generations to your message?
When I go on the road to speak, half of my audiences are under thirty. Young people are often fascinated by Jesus and what he stood for, but just can’t stand the Christians the often see on TV. Time after time I hear stories of young people who return to their faith or find it for the first time because they want to follow after the Jesus who proclaimed good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of jubilee! If you stop buy the Sojourners offices in D.C. and meet some of my staff, you will meet a group of some of the smartest, most dedicated young Christians in the country.
7. You speak very fondly of your experiences coaching both of your sons’ little-league baseball teams. Professional sports, however, have become almost synonymous with over-spending and price gouging. How can we account for the disconnect between the potential sports has to teach valuable lessons and the economic realities of professional sports in America?
Not just price gouging, but have you seen the commercials that are on during sports games! I have to cover up my kids eyes and block their ears. For some baseball games, I swear there are more commercials for the little blue pill than there are hits. With the big contracts and some of the wild adventures of sports superstars, I’m pretty convinced that many of them have forgotten the lessons of little league.
8. You make an interesting observation that celebrities have replaced heroes in American culture and that their inevitable status as role models causes a trickle-down effect of bad values (p. 133). Who do you think are the modern-day heroes in American culture? Who were yours growing up?
I tell the story in the book about my son Luke’s fifth- grade assignment to find and research a “hero” and write an essay about him or her. He found lots of them, including Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., Bono, environmental activists, and of course, Lebron James!
9. How does being from Detroit change the way you approach writing and talking about the Great Recession? Does it make it more difficult for you personally to transform blind rage into effective anger?
Detroit has become a parable in this Great Recession--as I write about in the book. My home town is an example of the social contract that has been broken, and the suffering that has caused. But it also points to the power of resilience and hope.
10. In American politics, religious faith has become an unavoidable component of a candidate’s ultimate success or failure. Do you eventually see faith playing a similar role in finance as it becomes a more transparent and increasingly regulated industry?
If faith doesn’t change how a political leader does politics or how a business leader does business or how we all do what we do—then it doesn’t mean very much.
11. Would you say that economic recovery is inevitable if moral recovery is achieved?
What I am saying is that we won’t have or be able to sustain a true economic recovery without a moral recovery. What we need is not to go back to normal: we need a new normal.
12. Now that you have tackled the intersection of economics and morality, what are some of the topics that intrigue you going forward? Are there any emerging issues that you’re itching to write about?
I want to write a book about Gandhi’s Seven Deadly social sins that I just mention in this book, because they are so morally diagnostic of our present situation. And I want to write a book about my boy’s prayers and one the lessons of life you can learn from baseball!