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A reverend reckons with American nationalism and the Christian faith community


As we approach the first anniversary of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, many people are looking back on that day and reflecting on what it meant for the last year and what it will continue to mean for our country's future. For the Reverend Jim Wallis, there's one image he cannot shake - the rioters he saw storming the Capitol while carrying Christian flags, signs across. As a minister, Wallis was horrified. He felt it was a sign of a big problem festering within many American churches.

Wallis is chair of the Faith and Justice Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and has long been a student of how faith and politics intersect. So we wanted to check in with him to talk about January 6 and how he thinks the faith community should move forward in light of what happened that day. He joins us now. Reverend Wallis, welcome back to the program.

JIM WALLIS: Great to be with you today.

FLORIDO: Let's go back to January 6. There was this moment when a group of insurrectionists occupied the dais on the Senate floor and began to pray.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Jesus Christ, we invoke your name. Amen.


FLORIDO: What was it like for you to see and hear that prayer, to see so much Christian imagery among the rioters storming the Capitol that day?

WALLIS: It was very revealing in a very powerful and painful way. Many have said the rioters who staged this coup - and it clearly was a coup - were doing so in the name of the big lie, the big lie of the stolen election. I want to say there was a bigger lie underneath the big lie, and the bigger lie in whose name this was done was racism in the ideology of white Christian nationalism. That's what we saw. The ideology of this coup is indeed that white Christian nationalism - which is really an offense against God; it's anti-Christ. Genesis Chapter 1 says it clearly. We were made in God's image and likeness. Imago Dei is the image of God. And to commit racism like that is really an assault on the image of God. It's a theological issue more than a political one. It's a theological offense to God. It's a sacrilege, really.

FLORIDO: How did you set about trying to understand and process what you saw on that day and what it meant for you as a faith leader specifically?

WALLIS: Well, I know there were central national evangelical leaders who I've talked to that day and since who were agonizing that some of their people were in the Capitol and agonizing that many outside were supporting this and that many around the country were as well, but many don't. There are Black and Hispanic evangelicals and white evangelicals who don't support. Evangelical goes back to Jesus' proclamation of the evangel being the good news - good news to the poor, in particular. And that was not good news for that day on Capitol Hill. It showed our worst. Donald Trump is indeed our worst. It showed that.

And so it showed how - I mean, I believe, really, we're in more peril as a democracy than any time since 1860. We got to go that far back, facing a civil war. What was at stake then is whether Black slaves were made equally in the image of God or not. Do you believe that or not? Now we're facing that again with whether we're committed to a multiracial democracy or not. You can't suppress a vote without really throwing away the image of God. And the vote, as John Lewis taught us, is a precious thing. And to practice voter suppression and deny the vote to even one person because of the color of their skin is, again, throwing away the image of God. Voter suppression is a theological offense and not just a political issue, and that's what we're facing now.

FLORIDO: Given everything that we saw on that day, how did what happened on January 6 change your work as a preacher over the last year?

WALLIS: Well, in my classes, I always asked my white students if they've ever heard racism preached as a sin from their home white pulpits or not, and they never have - never have. Black students always have had racism preached as a sin, but never white churches. So that becomes a pulpit test, and it means most white churches have missed America's biggest sin - our biggest sin - for all these years, which is America's original sin of white racism.

And so now I want to suggest another pulpit test. I want to suggest that all our churches should preach voting rights not just as a political issue, but as a faith issue, a test of our faith, a test of whether we believe or not in the image of God. And I'll tell you, a lot of Black churches, Black pastors are saying to me they're going to see it that way, too. If their white Christian brothers and sisters and churches don't come down in the favor of voting rights, that's going to be a test of fellowship for Black churches with white churches and should be.

FLORIDO: I think people listening to you might characterize the perspective you bring to your work as a liberal one. You also served on a religious advisory panel under President Obama. How do you, as a liberal pastor, reach out to and convince your more conservative colleagues, maybe congregants, people who subscribe to this other interpretation of Christianity, how do you convince them to hear you out?

WALLIS: That's why I think we have to move beyond these binary categories of liberal and conservative, left and right. I want to say, don't go left. Don't go right. Go deeper. I'm not a liberal pastor. I'm a pastor who wants to say what the Bible says.

Genesis Chapter 1 - read it - 26. Let us make them, humankind, in our image, in our likeness. That applies to people who are politically liberal or conservative. That text applies to us all. The Galatians 3:28 text in the early church, it says, in Christ, where there's neither Jew nor gentile, male or female, bond or free. Those are the basic categories of human bonds and divisions - race, class and gender. And the Galatians text was used in every baptism for the early church. They were saying, in effect, central to our mission is to break down these boundaries. And we're breaking them down. If you don't want to be a part of breaking down boundaries, then don't join us. I don't agree with the left or the right on everything. I just don't. But these things are biblical. They're theological. And we're all accountable to them, no matter what our politics are. This is theological, not political.

FLORIDO: That was the Reverend Jim Wallis, chair of the Faith and Justice Center at Georgetown University. Reverend Wallis, thank you for speaking with us today.

WALLIS: Blessing to be with you. And let's celebrate January 6 in the way that it deserves to be remembered and motivating us to go forward now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.