Jim Wallis says racial equity was one of the founding principles of his organization, Sojourners, when he launched it in 1971. He’s written a dozen books and countless articles over the years. In his new book, “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America,” Wallis postulates white privilege is the legacy of white supremacy. He says the single line that has elicited more response than any other is book is his statement that, “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents would have less to fear for their children.”
Think Out Loud convened a conversation with Wallis, Rev. Eric Knox with the Imago Dei church in east Portland, and Rev. T. Allen Bethel with Maranatha Church in NE Portland and the Albina Ministerial Alliance in front of a live audience at the First Christian Church in downtown Portland.
Excerpted responses have been edited for time and clarity:
To Dave Miller’s question about using “original sin” as the context for a book that deals a lot with political and policy questions —
Jim Wallis: Good question. We had 250 years of slavery, 100 years of legalized segregation and discrimination and terrorist violence against black lives and bodies, 50 years of a civil rights movement, seven years of a black president, and we haven’t been cleansed of this in our politics. So I think you gotta go deeper and talk about this original sin, the foundation of this country, where we said ‘Black lives matter less than white lives.’ And repentance from sin means turning. That’s what the Christian tradition says: [It’s] not just feeling sorry, but turning and going in a whole different direction.
And we apply that to policing and criminal justice and economics. It’s gotta get personal, not just systemic. I wrote this book after Trayvon Martin was killed. And I looked at my son Luke, same age as Trayvon. Big, six foot tall, varsity athlete. And the whole country knows, if we’re honest, that my son Luke in Sanford, Florida, on the same night same time, doing the same things as Trayvon was doing — he would have come back to me in joy. Trayvon didn’t come back to his mom and dad, and isn’t going to college next year like my son is. So this has got to get very personal and very systemic at the same time.
Eric Knox: Jim Wallis is a prophet to these issues. And we need the prophet because prophets can be prickly, challenge the conscience and get us moving in a healthy direction. And then there’s people like me, who are in spaces where I’m the only. And I have to be pastoral. And I have to give people enough space to trip over their own racist biases, even when they don’t even realize they’re being racist.
Miller asked for an example of that kind of bias:
EK: The [white] privilege. When we have conversations in my church, sometimes in our staff meetings, people will say, you know, I grew up poor, I didn’t grow up privileged. And embedded is a lot of false assumptions about what it means to be privileged because it has nothing to do with how much money you make. But by virtue of your skin color, the fact that you walk into Starbucks and your self-worth and dignity is just naturally assumed, where a black person like me has to prove that. And so you know, things that would seem non-offensive to white folks can be highly offensive because they’re absolutely unaware of the privilege that they have.
One of the members of the audience asked how to raise talk about racial issues when it’s almost always awkward and uncomfortable:
JW: We white people often feel that when we’re uncomfortable, we’re unsafe. We’re not unsafe; we’re just uncomfortable. So how do you lean into the uncomfortability to discover the Gospel again? I’ve learned most about the world from being in a place where I was never supposed to be, with people I was never supposed to meet, or know or pay attention to. So that’s what this thing called the body of Christ … is supposed to do. Galatians text, 3:28, says we’re not Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. That’s a pretty radical text. And that was a baptismal formula in the early church where they said these divisions — race, class and gender — divide humanity. Well, in this community we are actively working to bring down those walls and undermine those divisions in policing, in the criminal justice system, in the economic system, in our educational system. We’re the ones who are pointing out what’s wrong and leading by example — by our relationships and our advocacy — to change those things.
On the different relationship that whites and blacks have with police:
JW: I met my friend named Butch and we were janitors together [when I was 15]. I was raising money for college and he was paying for his family. And he took me home to meet his mother one night. And like my mother, she wasn’t a militant, but she told me about the relationship of the men in her family with the police — her grandfather, her father, her husband who had passed, and her son. And she said, ‘So I tell my kids this: If you’re ever lost, can’t find your way home, and you see a policeman, duck under a stairwell, hide behind a building, wait till he’s gone and then come find your way home.’ When she said that my mother’s words echoed in my head, to her five kids: ‘If you’re ever lost, can’t find your way home, look for a policeman. The policeman’s your friend, they’ll take you by the hand, bring you home.’ That’s 50 years ago, and we’re still dealing with that, right now, today, in cities like Portland.
Rev T. Allen Bethel addressed Miller’s question about how much progress had been made in the Portland Police Bureau in recent years with regard to racial profiling and excessive use of force:
T. Allen Bethel: The Bureau at this time is doing some work. Is it fast enough? Absolutely not. Is it making overwhelming sweeping changes right now? Absolutely not. But there is one thing we’ve been holding out on — it’s that there is a hope that as we continue to work, we will be able to bring about some changes in our city and an accountability structure for our Portland Police Bureau. A book such as what Jim Wallis has written will help and go a long way in helping people understand what is at the root of all of this. Because when we can address the root cause, then we will be able to address the symptoms that we’re seeing. The symptoms that we’re seeing even in the Bureau, are the deaths, the unfair treatment, the penal system and all that, has a root behind it. And Jim has put it quite frankly well, the “original sin,” and when that can be understood and we can address that, we’re going to bring about some more sweeping changes.
I’m hoping that if our Bureau people have not heard this — our PPA, our city officials — that they will hear this program, and that they will buy the book and read it. And not only just to have the knowledge, but being able to put those things in practice. It will bring about a sweeping change for our community and for the safety of all people. We are concerned that everybody goes home safe every night.
On how to remain hopeful in the face of the deep racial and cultural divisions that still exist:
EK: Anyone who’s in this kind of work has to be so committed to it in such a way that they’re willing to risk, to gamble it all, understanding that the world that you’re working for, you probably will never live in. And so when I say ‘being hopeful,’ I’m realistic about the hope. Will I see wholesale change in my lifetime? Probably not. But I’m willing to work for it, for my kids, and my kids’ kids and my kids’ kids’ kids — because I know how necessary the work is.