New Politics and Not So New Politics

by Amy Sherman

Amy L. Sherman, author of Preferential Option: A Christian and Neoliberal Strategy for Latin America’s Poor (Eerdmans), is visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 25, 1995, pp. 86-88. Copyright by the Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Herb & June Lowe.


According to Sherman, one of the best things about Jim Wallis’ book, The Soul of Politics, is that it calls us to listen to the people who live there as we reflect on the inner city’s woes. One of the worst things about the book is that the author seems unwilling to hear all that they have to say. In his emphasis on the injustice of the system he allows the poor to escape taking personal responsibility, even though he exalts an increasing spiritual awareness and the activist role of the (mostly) black churches. When he moves to the problems of economic stagnation in the less developed countries his proposal for a “third way”, transcending liberalism and conservatism, ignores the successes of market-friendly systems.

The Soul of Politics, by Jim Wallis. Orbis Books and the New Press, 275 pp. $19.95


A few weeks ago I wound my way through the narrow alleys of a public housing project in Detroit guided by Mary Jackson in her old station wagon. Jackson, a 50-something black woman, moved into "the projects" over a decade ago. A devout Christian, Jackson believed God was sending her to love the children there. She quit her job, sold her house and took up residence next to a drug dealer.

Jackson has heard bullets fly through her front door; lost sleep due to the noisy drug-dealing going on nearby; shared her small apartment for months at a time with children taken from crack-addicted mothers; calmed hysterical young women beaten by their drunk boyfriends; wept at the funerals of young boys; and battled obstinate government bureaucracies to get a swingset for the rusty and littered "playground" at the center of the Smith Homes. She is, to put it mildly, intimately acquainted with the ghetto. And she navigates the multilayered policy discussion of "the underclass" as adroitly as she guides her lumbering Ford past the sootstained, monotonous yellow buildings.

One of the best things about Jim Wallis's book is that it calls us to listen to people like Mary Jackson when reflecting on the woes of the inner cities. One of the worst things about the book is that Wallis seems unwilling to hear all that people like Jackson have to say.

Wallis asserts that The Soul of Politics outlines a new, spiritually based politics beyond the confines of the Republican and Democratic parties. He discusses the inadequacies of both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives, Wallis says, continue to ignore structural injustice (his complaint would be stronger if he adequately defined "structural injustice"). Liberals, he laments, have become "captive to large distant institutions and impersonal bureaucracies that are more concerned with control than caring, and the result [is] more dependency than empowerment." Even more important, liberals lack the "moral values" which must undergird "any serious movement of social transformation." Hence, Wallis proclaims the need for a new politics that will transcend liberalism and conservatism, The tenets of this new politics, he says, come from the grass roots-from unconventional, innovative moral activists on the frontlines of

the battles against crime, violence, drugs, poverty and hopelessness. The political morality of folks like these, Wallis explains, grows directly out of their practical experiences and daily lives. They demonstrate personally the moral values of responsibility, compassion and justice, and their approach to problems is nonideological. These people recognize that society's problems are rooted in both personal sin and structural injustice. And their strategies do not rely exclusively on either calls to personal morality or demands for government assistance. Their approach is, in short, refreshing, prophetic, practical.

It's also working. Wallis cites a few examples-most notably the work of several churches in Boston that have spearheaded a ten-point plan to decrease urban violence and misery. The plan calls upon churches to, among other things, "adopt" street gangs and allow troubled youths to use church properties as safe havens; intercede for youth in the juvenile court system; provide vocational training to inner-city residents; organize capital for micro-enterprises; develop educational curricula heralding the achievements of blacks and Latinos; initiate neighborhood crime watch groups; and establish counseling programs for battered women and the men who abuse them. Unfortunately, Wallis doesn't provide as many specific stories of such initiatives as the introduction promises.

While conducting research on inner-city churches I've had the privilege of meeting many of the kinds of people Wallis exalts, and they are making a notable impact. In urban neighborhoods where these church-based activists are living and working, exceptional things are happening: marriages among blacks are increasing; drug-dealing is declining; houses are being rehabilitated; streets are being cleaned up; at-risk kids are graduating from high school and going on to college; mothers are getting off welfare; people are being trained to run their own businesses; neighborhood crime watch patrols are being organized; relationships between inner-city residents and local police forces are improving; prostitutes are getting saved in church; and drug abusers are in recovery programs that work. Wallis is undoubtedly correct to argue that the people accomplishing these kinds of miracles are precisely those who can teach us a "new politics."

In describing such "micro-level" realities, Wallis has a certain credibility since he has personally lived in a Washington, D.C., ghetto for over 20 years. From this position he can accurately paint the despair felt by many young blacks. In a particularly poignant passage, Wallis writes, "When children talk about their favorite kinds of caskets instead of bikes or cars, it is a sign we can no longer ignore."

Wallis also tells us about a new spiritual awakening going on in the nation's cities. He describes at some length his experiences at the 1993 National Urban Peace and justice Summit (the "Gang Summit") in Kansas City. There, he reports, gangsters admitted that they had "some habits only God can cure." "Most importantly," Wallis writes,

these gang youths' understanding of the problem [of the ghetto] went deeper than their reaction to unjust social conditions. They began to speak of the personal and spiritual roots of their situation as well. Though they all felt abandoned by the religious community, the young gang members spoke of their need for that community to reach out to them now. "We need spiritual power," they kept saying. "We can't do this by ourselves."

Wallis is correct to note this increasing spiritual awareness in the inner cities. It is leading to repentance and expressing itself in a willingness to expose and challenge moral and cultural problems.

Take Mary Jackson, for instance. She complains that most of the Smith Homes residents "don't want to be bothered" with walking with her in her fight for a better environment for the neighborhood children. Most of the welfare mothers, she says, are "too lazy" to walk the few blocks to a neighborhood community center where free educational and recreational programs are offered for parents and children. She says the residents "think somebody owes them something," and complains that they spend money on expensive hairstyles, makeup and leather coats but won't pay a token fee to send their children to a weeklong summer camp program her church runs for the benefit of inner-city youngsters.

Other grass-roots activists (mostly from black churches) in Baltimore, Detroit, Phoenix, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Birmingham with whom I've spoken say the same sorts of things. Wallis, however, is not so candid. He repeatedly affirms the need to address issues of personal morality, and he was impressed by the gang members' admission of the moral and spiritual factors underlying the ghetto's ills. Nevertheless, while calling for a new politics that addresses personal moral failings as much as structural evils, Wallis talks endlessly about the latter and little about the former.

When Wallis does address personal sin, as in his compelling chapter on consumerism titled "I Shop, Therefore I Am," he seems to find it only in the middle and upper classes. He asserts that the social pathologies noticeable in the underclass are there because "there are no ethics at the top of society." If it were not for white-collar crime and the violence of U.S. militarism overseas, Wallis appears to believe, we would have fewer problems in the inner cities.

Wallis's indictment of the excessive materialism of American culture is certainly on target, and this theme needs to be sounded again and again. Wallis thinks our TV- and advertising-dominated culture saturates kids with unrealistic, unsustainable consumer desires. Many of the inner-city activists I've met agree wholeheartedly. One youth pastor challenged his youth group to turn off their televisions for a month and to fast during the times they'd normally be watching TV in order to combat the barrage of advertisements to which they are exposed.

These church workers also recognize structural obstacles to black achievement: poor schools; the lack of business investment; and a welfare system that breaks up families, fosters dependency and strips recipients of their dignity. Many of these activists think black sociologist William Julius Wilson is correct to argue that structural changes in the U.S. economy have led to a mismatch of the labor and job supplies: residents of the inner city are unable to win the types of jobs that are available in the city, and they can't get to the jobs that are available to them in the suburbs.

But these activists are candid as well about the individual sins that keep some poor people poor. Most important, they believe that blacks can succeed within the American economy, despite its structural flaws-perhaps because two-thirds of blacks have already done so. "It doesn't matter where you come from," one woman told me, "you can succeed." These inner-city workers understand the "victim mentality" and "entitlement mind-set" they encounter in the devastated communities where they live, but they do not let such attitudes go unchallenged, and they expect great things from their neighbors despite those neighbors' disadvantaged circumstances.

Wallis in contrast, argues that "we have no right to be shocked" when underclass youth behave like violent, selfish materialists, because of the "moral pollution of rampant consumerism" the culture pumps into them. He also treats blacks principally as victims of an unjust, racist society and a pernicious, oppressive global capitalist system.

Wallis says that we should "take a strong stand against the criminal behavior of looting, all the way from the top to the bottom" of society. But this call is drowned out in the book's pervasive "it's-the-system's-fault" approach.

Wallis's frequent comments on the international economy exacerbate his unbalanced approach. It is clear that Wallis believes that Third World poverty is "the system's fault." And in his view America's poor are also victims of the unjust international system. In the international realm, Wallis's new politics is not new. He simply repeats the basics of dependency theory: the poor are poor because the rich are rich.

One searches in vain for signs that Wallis is aware of the multiple, competing hypotheses which have emerged in the past decade concerning the continued stagnation of the less-developed countries (LDCs). For example, Lawrence Harrison's and P. T. Bauer's assertions that continued stagnation can be explained partially by cultural or "worldview" barriers to development are not mentioned. The now-dominant school of neoliberalism-which finds the principal reasons for Third World poverty inside the LDCs (their monetary, trade, fiscal, investment, legal and regulatory regimes) rather than in the external conditions LDCs face in the world economy- does not come into Wallis's purview. Not even the groundbreaking work of Peruvian scholar Hernando de Soto on the problem of LDC mercantilism is noted.

Wallis retreats to tired leftist phrases about the obscene inequalities perpetuated by capitalism. He also lifts up the tattered banner of an economic "third way." Strangely, Wallis seems enthusiastic about market-friendly micro-enterprise projects when he talks about restoring the inner cities, but when discussing North-South issues he proclaims that capitalism has failed. This inconsistency apparently escapes him.

The biggest problem with Wallis's blanket denunciations of the world economy and his vague proposals for a "third way" is not that they are out-of-date or leftist but that they hinder the fight against poverty here and abroad in three ways. First, they ignore the fact that every country that has graduated from LDC status and reduced absolute poverty, or is on the way toward doing both, has adopted a market-friendly system.

Second, Wallis's claim that capitalism and socialism have both failed is unfounded. There have been all sorts of calls for a "third way" between socialism and capitalism, calls which promise to help the poor, but by and large they have worsened conditions for the poor. The main "third way" the world has seen is statism-as exemplified by many African and Latin American countries. It has brought government corruption, debt, massive underemployment, economic stagnation, agricultural chaos and sometimes even famine. The Philippines under Marcos and Nicaragua under Somoza are examples of statist "third ways," as was Peru under its military governments and Tanzania under Julius Nyerere. Why opt for such unpromising, downright harmful "third ways" when market- friendly models of development, such as those employed in Singapore, Malaysia, Chile and even Botswana, have achieved notable success in reducing absolute poverty?

Third, Wallis's interpretation of North-South relations assumes that a poor country's involvement in the global economy makes it worse off. History shows the opposite to be true: countries that most aggressively pursue trade and investment with the outside world prosper more than inward-oriented nations. Wallis is pointing poor countries away from the very path that can help improve their economic well-being.

Wallis's global condemnation of the international economic system also draws attention away from the very specific, unjust aspects of North-South relations that need serious reform. For one example, the West's foreign-aid system should be radically restructured: money should be channeled principally through nongovernmental organizations and private businesses rather that through corrupt LDC governments. For another, citizens concerned about the plight of the poor, should, vigorously lobby the industrialized countries to lower their protectionist trade walls against LDC exports. Wallis does not offer such concrete suggestions for reform; he simply prophesies against the current order. But "just saying no" to the global economic system is not going to improve that system to the benefit of the poor.