Jim Wallace


A Trip Worth Taking

In a course on faith  and politics, passion’s the prerequisite.

Jim Wallis is social activist, editor, author, and, with the course “Faith, Politics, and Society,” teacher.​ Photo: World Economic Forum CC-BY-SA-2.0

By Jim Wallis

The commute from Washington, D.C., each week in the fall isn’t easy, and the preparation for the class is time-consuming in the midst of an already much-too-busy schedule. But teaching “Faith, Politics, and Society” at Harvard, first at the Kennedy School of Government and now at the Divinity School, is well worth the trip. My weekly sojourn has become something I look forward to.

Each time I’ve taught the course, I feel like a lightning rod has been lifted up in the Harvard community. People are passionately drawn to the subject of “faith and politics” from many schools, and diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, and from across the theological and political spectrum. My students have come from Harvard’s Divinity School, Kennedy School, Law School, Business School, and Graduate School of Education, as well as other theological schools in the Boston area, and a sprinkling of Harvard undergraduates brings age diversity as well.

Did I say passion? What’s that got to do with an academic  environment? While we try to keep the course intellectually rigorous, we also talk about values and commitments that are very personal, passionate things. Putting the need for reflection and action together is a hallmark of the course. And I stress the  practical nature of the subject matter. In class, I call it the “street test” of theology.

We don’t confront only the religious fundamentalism of the political right, but also the sometimes secular fundamentalism of the cultural and political left.

I am a practitioner who loves academic discourse as a way to keep my activism accountable. Many of my colleagues are academics who seek to keep their scholarship accountable by their commitments to social action. But “practitioner/academic” is the right balance for me, and my very direct involvement in the “course material” helps make the course content quite timely each week (and certainly did throughout the last election season).

Finally, I teach the class because I love my interaction with  the students. Most of them also approach the course with more than an academic interest. After the first few weeks of the class, my discussions with students are not just about the final paper topic but also on the subject of their vocation—what they really want  to do with their lives. I believe that when you are talking to a young person about such vocational commitments, you are treading on holy ground, and I try to treat those discussions, perhaps “discernments,” in that way.

Often, my relationships with students go beyond the time-frame of the course. We try to stay connected as they go on to be pastors, teachers, doctors, and community organizers; as they run for Congress or set up advocacy networks; as they pursue economic development and justice in faith-based organizations or secular nonprofits—on inner city streets and in rural villages around the globe.


I talk, especially in the last lecture of a semester, about the difference between “career” and “vocation.” There is a difference. From the outside, those two tracks may look very different or very much alike, but asking the vocational question rather than just considering the career options will take one much deeper. The key is to ask why you might take one path instead of another—the real reason you would do something, more than  just because you can. The key is to ask who you really are and  who you want to become. It is to ask what you believe you are  supposed to do.

A “career” is where you assemble your assets, present your résumé, and try to find the “ladder” where you can begin on the highest rung possible for the long journey upward to success, status, and wealth. (Harvard students often expect to start on the third or fourth rung!)

“Vocation” is very different. First, it asks that you not assemble your assets, but that you discern your gift. What is your gift? Perhaps it is that thing you lose track of time when doing. It’s what’s in your gut, your heart, your soul. It’s what makes you who you are, what you were probably put on this earth to do. That means connecting your best talents and skills to your best and deepest values; making sure your mind is in sync with your soul as you plot your next steps. And where your gift meets the crushing needs of the world is your vocation. From the start of the class, I warn my students that the purpose of the course is not just to stimulate their minds, but also to change their lives. How un-academic and un-objective can you be?

But we don’t stop there. It’s not just about changing your life; it’s about changing the world, and we say that upfront, too. Again, we are committed to academic rigor but not to a false objectivity and neutrality. We have an agenda of social justice, not determined by political correctness or ideological litmus tests but, rather, disciplined by outcomes—whether poor children are being lifted out of poverty or not, for example.

In the class, we’re more interested in solving problems than blaming the other side for them. And what really appeals to this generation of students is throwing the left-right political paradigm out altogether. Do most of the critical problems we face have only two sides? What’s left or right, liberal or conservative, has little interest for us in the course but, rather, what’s right and what works or what’s right and what’s wrong. Following the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other great practitioners of social movements, we talk about how the best way to find common ground is by moving to higher ground.


There’s another word we often discuss: movement. We speak of how faith communities must begin the shift We speak of how faith communities must begin the shift what finally change history. And the best social movements have spiritual foundations. Every major social reform movement in American history—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, child-labor-law reform and, most famously, the civil rights movement—was fueled and driven in part by faith. But religion has no monopoly on morality, and movements galvanize the religious and nonreligious alike around a moral agenda.

We don’t confront only the “religious fundamentalism” of  the political right, but also the sometimes “secular fundamentalism” of the cultural and political left. Religion has sadly been a force for division, oppression, and even violence. But, at the  same time, it has also been the catalyst, inspiration, and the  transforming power of social change. It is to that which we are called. Yes, my course has an altar call, and you should take it at your own risk.

Jim Wallis is author, most recently, of God’s Politics (HarperSanFrancisco), editor of Sojourners magazine, and convener of Call to Renewal.

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