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Theologian Jim Wallis on America's Original Sin

Jim Wallis is a theologian and a prolific writer on issues of politics and morality.  He’s also the president of a social justice group called Sojournersin Washington, D.C.  He insists he’s not President Barack Obama’s spiritual advisor, but he does talk with Obama and other key Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill about moving away from partisan-based debates towards a dialogue grounded in morality. 

He recently came to Wilmington and spoke with WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn about his newest book – America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.


JW:   The biggest political fact in America right now is that by 2040 or 2050, we will no longer be, for the first time, a white majority nation.  We’ll be a majority of minorities.  That changes the whole narrative.  So how do you build that bridge to a new America which a new generation is ready to do?

So we have to deal with our past but only for the sake of looking forward to a future that now is in the making all over the country. 

RLH:  Do you think that changing narrative has anything to do with the increasing vitriol and the larger divides that we’ve been seeing on Capitol Hill?  You write a lot about politics.  Is that part of it – the fear of that?

JW:  It has everything to do with the vitriol, with the anger about immigration, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans – all of that.  As [Rev.] William Barber once said down here, “A dying mule does more kicking than ever when they’re dying.”

I think this whole notion of white supremacy, white privilege… What I talk about in the book – this myth, this myth is America’s original sin – that we, somehow, are better and different.  And that’s what we used to justify slavery a long time ago. 

There was always slavery.  Greeks were slaves to Romans, but they tutored the elite Roman children – Greek slaves.  But we had to turn human beings into chattel property.  To do that, you can’t treat people that way who are made in the image of God, as Genesis 1 says we all are.  And so you’ve got to throw away the image of God – throw away Imago Dei.  And that’s what the book talks about.  How do you repent from that sin now?  Which isn’t just being sorry for slavery.  It means turning around and going in a whole new direction. 

And that means personally and systemically – it means [changing] racialized policing.  We’ve got to move from being warriors to guardians – which I love that transition that many police are wanting to make. 

We’ve got to talk about how we can restore voting rights that are being threatened in places like North Carolina.

RLH:  So you’re talking about how to bridge that gap systemically.  How do we do it in an individual sense?  This is an interesting town and I don’t know what you know about the history, but this is the…

JW:  Oh, I know a lot about the history here, yeah…

RLH:  … the home of the only documented coup d’état in American history in 1898 – which, in the course of human history wasn’t so long ago, and we still see the tangible effects, the lingering effects from it.

JW:  Well, because you had poor whites and former slaves working together to find a new way of going forward and that was threatening to the elites who were running things.  Always has been.  And so that’s what we’re dealing with here.  What kind of future are we going to have?

I’m a Little League baseball coach.  I’ve done that for a long time.  So all of my black players, every single one of them, has had to have that talk with their dad or their mom about how to behave in the presence of a police officer with gun -- every black player.  I don’t mean just low-income families.  I mean the sons and daughters of elite lawyers in Washington, D.C.  Elite black lawyers.  None of the white players have had that talk.  And very few of the parents even know it’s going on.  So how do white parents and black parents start talking about “the talk” that still goes on and have a new kind of talk? 

So the churches can play a major role, as we did during the civil rights movement, of taking us to this bridge, troubled waters we’ve got to cross through to this new America where we’re going to be a majority of minorities and how that can be a blessing and not a threat.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.