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Prophetic Vision

Jim Wallis

I recall, painfully, as an evangelical teenager in Detroit being told by my church that Christian faith had nothing to do with either racism or war. (In truth, most of the good church people quietly supported both, succeeding in keeping their politics and religion separate.) But my heart was rising to the moral challenge of the civil rights movement. I wanted to know why whites and blacks lived completely divided from one another. Why did most whites seem prosperous and most blacks poor? Why didn't I know any families who sometimes went without a meal or had loved ones in jail, when I heard that black families had those experiences? And why didn't we go to church together? What created the fear?

Hoping that the church might provide some answers, I asked: "What about our Christian faith? Doesn't God love all people?" I reminded them of the song we were all taught in Sunday School as children: "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world." I asked why we sent missionaries to Africa but didn't have any contact with black people -- even black churches -- in our own city.

Some people told me we were all better off separated. Others cited the story in Genesis, in which Noah curses the descendants of his son Ham. Still other whites said that blacks were happy with the way things were. "They" had their ways and places to live, and "we" had ours. There should be no problem. And if they had problems, they probably deserved them; after all, they were lazy, had too many children, and were dangerous. But the only really honest answer I ever got in the white community was that asking these questions would get me into trouble.

Still, I had an intuitive sense that religion and politics belonged together, in conversation and conduct. That sense was the principal cause of my separation from the little church that had nurtured and raised me. Once in exile, I found a new home in the civil rights movement and the black community. There I learned, from the illuminating oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other preacher-activists of the movement, about the intimate relationship between religious conviction and political activism.

But that was a long time ago, and the relationship has since become more complicated. Provoked by abortion and the cultural breakdown of American society, the evangelical folks I grew up with finally got politics. Now they agree -- in fact, they insist -- that faith has serious political implications. And their political engagement has in turn generated alarm among many liberal Christians who had long insisted on the rightful relationship between religion and questions of public policy. It was one thing to support the religious call of black ministers to the barricades of civil rights. It is quite another to accept the Religious Right mobilizing on behalf of the unborn.

We need to be cautious about this alarm. We live in a time of social crisis. Such a time calls for renewed political vision. And vision depends on spiritual and religious values. You need not be a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque to appreciate this dependence. In fact, you need not be religious at all. Most people would probably agree that beneath the social, economic, cultural, and political problems we confront lie critical questions concerning our deepest values, that our crisis is also one of the spirit -- deeper than just the turns and twists of secular politics. And anyone who believes that fundamental issues are at stake in our political choices can understand the need for political renewal.

Such renewal will require the spiritual resources of our best moral and religious traditions. In America, that means rediscovering our Jewish and Christian biblical traditions as well as learning from Native American spiritualities, appreciating the insights of other faith experiences, and remembering the moral imperatives of the political philosophies that shaped the founding of our nation. All have direct contributions to make in recovering our political ethics.

Of course I view politics from the vantage point of my own religious tradition -- in particular from the perspective of the biblical prophets and the teaching of Jesus. I know that the prominence of the Religious Right in contemporary American politics has turned any reference to the Bible into a source of mistrust and suspicion. But I believe that the prophetic biblical tradition can point us beyond the limits of secular humanism and the oppressions of religious fundamentalism. Despite the popular identification of the evangelical community with the Religious Right, social concern among evangelicals is growing with new energy and power, especially among the poor and the young. In many developing countries, congregations of poor evangelical and pentecostal Christians are providing new ferment for social justice. Across the old political spectrum, the possibilities for new forms of convergence are becoming more clear. The religion of the prophets can help us shape a politics of conscience -- a politics shaped in perception and action by spiritual and religious values.


Prophetic religion is an alternative to the dominant conservative and liberal forms of religion, which have both become culturally captive forces that merely cheer on the ideological camps with which they are now identified. But religion as a political cheerleader is inevitably false as religion.

Conservative religion has become preoccupied with words and dogma. Correct religious language and doctrine have replaced an emphasis upon faithful living and action. A certain lifestyle is associated with conservative religion, but it reveals more about the cultural and political biases of its adherents than about the meaning of authentic faith. Disconnecting religious language from moral action in society, it makes personal piety an end in itself rather than the energy for social justice.

In a bargain for power, some conservative religious leaders have aligned themselves with reactionary political elements, creating a particularly bizarre and frightening marriage of religion and politics. In the most materialistic culture in history, conservative religion produces a gospel of prosperity. In a society with an obscenely inequitable distribution of resources, conservative religion defends the wealthy. In the greatest military superpower in the world, conservative religion advocates extending American hegemony and consistently defends every US military operation.

In an already divided and polarized society, the Religious Right has drawn even firmer boundaries. It has been a white religion, fueled the backlash against women's rights, and turned gross caricatures of homosexuals into highly successful fund-raising techniques.

Liberal religion, too, has lost its spiritual center. It has become both reactive to conservative religion and captive to the shifting winds of the secular culture. Liberal activism has often lacked any dynamic of personal conversion and, therefore, transformative power. Liberal religion often severs social action in the world from its roots in faith, producing a language and practice that seem more bureaucratic and ideological than spiritual.

Liberal religion has made its own pacts with political power and aligned itself with the liberal power centers of the society. Often its "political correctness" reflects the values of liberal elites more than the authentic voice of the powerless, in whose name liberal religion often claims to speak. Reforming our language for the sake of, for example, racial and gender justice is important. But ideological conformity undermines prophetic integrity.

Polarized religious leaders have behaved much like their political allies. The leaders of the Religious Right were the virtual chaplains of the White House during the Reagan and Bush years. The conservative presidents were the headline speakers at evangelical events, and the television preachers enjoyed unprecedented access to political power, along with honored places at Republican national conventions. With the Democratic victory in 1992, many conservative evangelicals treated the Clintons (especially Hillary) as the Antichrist.

At the same time, liberal Protestant leaders glowed in their newfound access to the corridors of power. Diatribes against the government were quickly toned down in favor of a much happier relationship on "the inside." Most religious leaders would rather be invited to testify before a Congressional committee or have breakfast in the White House than be arrested for protest outside on the street. With few notable exceptions, the involvement of both conservative and liberal religious leaders in politics has left the ground of a genuinely independent and prophetic political witness largely unexplored.


Prophetic spirituality provides an alternative to conservative and liberal religion. Much older than either of these currents, the prophetic biblical tradition is rooted in the Hebrew sages, Jesus, and the early Christian community. Prophetic spirituality has found expression in virtually every renewal and reform movement in history that has sought to return to radical religious roots.

Many religious traditions have a prophetic stream. Jewish and Christian faiths play leading roles in the history of the West, and we have much to learn from the recovery of the prophetic character integral to each. The contemporary but sometimes shallow New Age explorations of Eastern and indigenous traditions indicate the cultural hunger for spiritual experience. Various Twelve-Step programs and recovery groups offer much-needed spiritual resources as well. But changes in consciousness will not be enough, without a consciousness that changes the world. The recovery of a prophetic biblical spirituality could offer some unique possibilities in renewing our moral values and reshaping our political life.

The Religion of the Prophets. When we take the biblical tradition seriously, we can easily discern the relevance and timeliness of prophetic religion to the conflicts and questions that daily bombard us. The biblical prophets encourage us to be suspicious of concentrations of wealth and power; to mistrust ideologies that justify subordinating persons to causes; and especially to become sensitive to the poor, the disenfranchised, the stranger, and the outsider. The Bible radically relativizes all claims to ownership and domination of land and resources by asserting that "the Earth is the Lord's" and its abundance intended to be shared by all of God's children. As for democracy, the biblical view of the human condition suggests that power and decision making should be decentralized and accountable, not because people are essentially good but because we so often are not.

Had we been listening to the prophetic biblical tradition, we would have known that you can't have an economic system that leaves masses of people behind without engendering endless conflict. We would have known that growth and progress that abuse, exploit, and degrade the earth will eventually poison our lives and choke us to death. We would have known that we cannot deny human dignity to our neighbors because of their race, class, or gender without endangering our own souls. We would have known that a society can't place its ultimate security in weapons and technology, rather than in justice and integrity, without falling victim to the social theft of arms races and the perils of escalating violence. We haven't really been listening to the religious traditions to which we have given cultural lip service, and the logic of the social systems we have created instead is killing us.

A Sense of Community. The idea of covenant is central to prophetic religious traditions. The moral requirements of relationship and community serve to correct our human tendencies toward individual selfishness and exploitation of our neighbors and the earth. Today the fundamental covenant that holds life together has been profoundly damaged. We have little sense of community with our five billion neighbors, scant knowledge of a harmonious relationship with the ecosystem, and, at root, little meaningful experience of our identity as the children of God. These broken relationships must be healed.

The broken covenant can be seen in my own Washington, D.C. neighborhood, just blocks away from the White House, where babies are born with AIDS and addicted to drugs; where children live without the basics of health care, education, housing, or family; and where the young are shot down in their own streets before they have a chance to grow up.

It's overwhelmingly visible in the so-called Third World, where the poor are suffering and dying almost beyond our capacity to count or care. Our denial of harsh realities ultimately denies our connection to our neighbor and any sense of a whole or holy life. Both at home and abroad, whole areas of the world and huge segments of humanity are forgotten.

As a great yawning chasm has grown up between us, we have likewise become alienated from the earth itself. The terrible separation threatens the fragile threads that connect us to each other and to the rest of creation. We can all feel the alienation.

When politics loses its vision, religion loses its faith, and culture loses its soul; life becomes confused, cheap, and endangered. Nothing less than a restoration of the shattered covenant will save us. That will require a fundamental transformation of our ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. At the core of prophetic religion is transformation -- a change of heart, a revolution of the spirit, a conversion of the soul that issues forth in new personal and social behavior.

Historically, religion has been a source of guidance for spiritual and moral values. Transcendence calls us to accountability and gives us a sense of meaning and purpose we are unable to find on our own. Without ethics rooted in transcendent reality, moral sensibility becomes merely a matter of shifting cultural consensus.


We are suffering not just from greed, injustice, and violence, but from a lack of vision -- not simply vice, but a blindness to new possibilities. Vision depends on imagination -- the capacity to picture a new reality. That capacity is rooted in historical memory, and builds upon experiences that intimate an alternative order. Social visions and dreams thus will be rooted in our core values, derived from our religious and cultural traditions, and based in the moral sensibilities we still possess and the memory of basic values still in our collective consciousness. It will depend, too, on efforts to innovate and experiment on the basis of those remembered values.

The alternative moral and political vision that our social crisis requires is unlikely to come from the pinnacles of power. Prophetic visions rarely do. The task of prophetic politics is most often left to faith communities and movements of conscience working from the bottom up to change people's lives and redirect a society.

The good news is that such a voice can already be heard. While the press focuses on the Religious Right, a prophetic spiritual movement for social change has been steadily growing and is making a difference in the institutions of both religion and society.

This spiritual movement existed before the Religious Right burst upon the national scene with Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential victory, and the more prophetic commitment it represents has grown ever since. It relates biblical faith to social transformation; personal conversion to the cry of the poor; theological reflection to care for the environment; core religious values to new economic priorities; the call of community to racial and gender justice; morality to foreign policy; spirituality to politics.

The effects of this progressive spirit are being felt in virtually every constituency of the American churches and in the Jewish community. This spiritual movement reaches out in respectful partnership with other faith traditions beyond the religious mainstream of the society. And it invites a new dialogue between the religious and non-religious about the shape of social and political morality.

This prophetic spiritual movement speaks the language of both social justice and personal responsibility. In economics, it takes us beyond the bottom line of profit or the stagnation of bureaucracy to an economic ethic rooted in the religious requirements of community. On the environment, this deeper biblical perspective transcends old notions of either exploitation or protection and proposes a theology of relationship to the earth.

Such a prophetic perspective sees racism and sexism as spiritual as well as social sins and calls for repentance. In foreign relations, it puts human rights over national self-interest and seeks alternatives to war as the familiar solution to the inevitable conflicts between nations. While standing as a much needed alternative to the theocratic impulses of the Religious Right, this new movement of religious conscience will, nonetheless, insist on the vital connection between politics and morality.

Over the past few decades, this spiritually based activism has become visible in religious efforts to end the threat of nuclear war, in congregations providing sanctuary to Central American refugees or building new houses for the homeless, in the creation of dynamic church-based coalitions for community organizing, and in religious efforts to save children, rebuild families, and renew the creation. In both cities and rural areas across the country, the number of spiritually based ventures and coalitions to heal and rebuild local communities is beyond counting.

After years of very limited results from institutional ecumenical dialogues, a vital ecumenism is emerging between people who have found one another while putting their faith into action. A new faith community has emerged in urban ministry centers, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens; in street protests and jail cells; on racial and ecological battlegrounds; in prayer and Bible study groups; and in diverse experiments in community and spiritual renewal. What has often been expressed as "prophetic protest" now has the capacity to be a vital source of "prophetic vision" as well. Out of religious values and moral concerns, new social and economic alternatives are emerging.

This movement of prophetic conscience is political without being ideological. Refusing partisan politics may be one of the most important contributions of a prophetic vision. A truly independent religious, moral, and ethical perspective has much to contribute in shaping a new kind of politics, and we must make the nature of that contribution increasingly clear.

This new prophetic spirituality has yet to be named, and we need to move beyond old and inadequate labels to describe it. It draws evangelicals with a compassionate heart and a social conscience. It brings together mainline Protestants who desire spiritual revival and justice. It invites Catholics who seek a spirituality for social change. It includes African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American faith communities who are working to shape a more pluralistic and just society. It has the capacity to bring Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other religious communities together in a dialogue and cooperation based on the respect and contribution of each one's particularities rather than on a bland religious reductionism. And it attracts those who, long alienated from established religion, are hungry for a personal and communal spirituality to undergird their struggle to live more justly.

Prophetic spirituality will always fundamentally challenge the system at its roots and offer genuine alternatives based on values from our truest religious, cultural, and political traditions. Some potential constituencies from which such alternatives have already begun to emerge include: the poor themselves as they become self-conscious to the causes of their oppression and organized in their efforts to change it; the religious community where the renewal of faith is perceived to have social and political consequences; artists and poets who are striking a new chord in popular culture; community leaders determined to renew the practice of democracy; and the increasing number of working and middle-class families who painfully experience the failure of the system's promises but reject demagogic appeals to scapegoat other victims. A different future will be constructed not by merely shuffling the elites at the top, but rather by transforming values and action from below among such people and their communities.

The politics we most need right now is the "politics of community." Drawing different emerging strands together into a prophetic spiritual network that operates across lines of race, class, gender, and region, such a politics would serve as the midwife of new possibilities.


The biblical prophets were bold in telling the truth and proclaiming the justice that is rooted in God. They named the idols that had led the people astray and unmasked their destructive reality. And they called the people to return to their true selves and purpose, reject false gods, and remember their identity as children of God.

But in addition to truth-telling, the prophets had a second task. They held up an alternative vision; they helped the people to imagine new possibilities. In short, they announced the new while challenging the old.

Solidarity activist Adam Michnik used to say, "We live as if there is political space." In the worst years of the struggle for democracy in Poland, there was no political space. But by living as if there was, the Solidarity workers helped create it.

Today, we need people who are willing to live as if an alternative vision is possible. Even when the possibility of real change seems quite dim -- and especially then -- history needs people who believe that change is possible and are willing to bet their lives on it. That often takes a good dose of faith.

A number of transformations are now absolutely essential. Some are already underway. Together, they could turn us around and set us on a new path.

The first step is to reconnect personal values to political morality. Healing family life, asserting the covenantal character of our relationships, and rediscovering the preciousness of our children are all crucial for rebuilding our communities and reestablishing integrity in our public life.

Our addiction to materialism can be healed. We can be freed from the falsehood that the accumulation and consumption of things are the substance and measure of human life.

Our alienation from the rest of creation can be overcome. We can be converted from the idea that the earth belongs to us; we can live as if we are part of a creation that belongs to God, and be guided by values of stewardship and equity.

Our ethic of profit can be transformed by an ethic of community as the foundation of our economic system. We can live as if social goods were more highly valued than consumer goods in measuring our quality of life.

We can squarely confront and repent of our sins of racism and sexism, correcting the oppression of people of color and women in our personal behavior, cultural attitudes, and social structures, and opening ourselves to a genuinely multicultural and gender-equal future.

Genuine citizen participation can replace passive public polling as the defining practice of our political system. The dominant power of money over the democratic process can be broken and wealth removed as the key to political influence. The hold of media conglomerates over the flow of information and political debate can be exposed and public discussion opened to plural voices.

Our wasteful and destructive militarism can be reversed as we begin to place our security in domestic equity, international justice, multilateral cooperation, and the persistent negotiation of our inevitable human conflicts -- not in weapons of technological destruction.

Finally, we will begin to see and feel the connections between us all and with the earth and come to understand that, one way or another, our destinies are irrevocably tied together.

The vision we now require is nothing short of a new covenant, a return to our spiritual identity as the children of God. To live as if that new vision is possible: that is the message of hope in a hopeless time.

But the world will not change until we do; personal and social transformation are inextricably linked together. That bond is the wisdom of the spiritual and social movements whose legacies endure. We must now restate that teaching.

We stand at a political crossroads, and the choices we face are at heart religious -- they reveal our most fundamental values and moral sensibilities. The road we take will decisively shape the quality of life for ourselves and our children's children. The Hebrew Scripture says it well: "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19b).

Originally published in the February/March 1995 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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