Wallis sees “opportunity” for social activism

Sat, 09/09/2017 - 7:15am
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Theologian, author and Christian activist Jim Wallis says, during these days of civic and political unrest, the time is right for social activism.

According to Wallis, there is an opportunity to “go deeper into our relationships” with our faith, to each other, and with those who have been targeted by discrimination, to affect a sea change. “You can win in times like this,” he said.

That was the primary topic of discussion during an appearance by Wallis at the Harbor Church. Wallis, who visits Block Island annually for a few weeks in the summer, preaching, holding forums and speaking at the church, has been a discrimination and an anti-war activist dating back to his days when he marched alongside fellow activists William Stringfellow and Father Daniel Berrigan, both of whom had ties to Block Island. The trio remained close friends throughout their activist years.

Wallis said he met Stringfellow at a seminar at Princeton. The two spent three hours walking and chatting, after which Stringfellow invited Wallis to his home on Block Island, called Eschaton. After being “kicked out” of his church in Detroit for his anti-war activism during the Vietnam War, Wallis spent time with Berrigan and Stringfellow, joining the men on their quest for social justice in America. 

Wallis spoke at Berrigan’s memorial service a year ago, and he recounted the story of how he thanked the priest for “keeping his hope and faith in Christianity alive.” Although he was fond of Berrigan, noting that the priest was very “theatrical,” Wallis said he was “in awe of” Stringfellow.

“If Dan and Bill were here they wouldn’t want to talk about the past,” he said. “They would want to talk about what’s going on now.” Wallis told the crowd of about 50 people gathered in the sanctuary that the current political climate has presented what he called “The Trump opportunity.”

Wallis said this opportunity means that the time is ripe for seizing on things to be active about. He noted that if Hillary Clinton had won the election, people might have become complacent and not been active about the issues facing this country.

“As bad as Dan and Bill thought things were at the time they always looked for an opportunity to be active about,” said Wallis. “The situation today is highly dangerous... Trump said that he is going to respond with ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen before’ if North Korea keeps threatening the United States.”

“There’s a real chance for us in this moment. There’s an opportunity,” he said. “That’s what Dan and Bill would have been talking about.”

Wallis said that an example of seizing an opportunity was the recent failure of the Affordable Care Act repeal bill that had been pushed by Republicans in the Senate. “My vocation is so much better because of the heroism of two Republican women,” he said, referring to Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who voted against the bill, along with Arizona Senator John McCain.  

“They stopped the worst piece of legislation in my lifetime,” said Wallis. “One vote the other way and it would have devastated families across the country.” Wallis said that he prayed with some Republican politicians, who seemed to have reservations about supporting the repeal bill. “They were thankful for Murkowski, Collins, and McCain,” he said.

After speaking, Wallis fielded questions from the audience, telling personal stories, some humorous, of his time with Berrigan and Stringfellow, and repeating his mantra regarding his feelings about Trump.

“Bill would have liked your positive take on Trump,” said island resident Nancy Greenaway, who knew Berrigan and Stringfellow. 

Greenaway noted that “resistance” can be a useful tool for the purposes of social activism.

“Yes, you use it to go deeper,” said Wallis. “Jesus said, ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

In his closing remarks, Wallis mentioned the Berrigan exhibit, “Seeking Shelter from the Storm,” that is on display at the Island Free Library. He said he “loves speaking to people during his time on Block Island.” 

After speaking, Wallis told The Block Island Times that the island “is the most frequent place” he comes back to.

“I love the island. I love the history,” said Wallis, who proposed to his wife, Joy, at the North Light. “It’s a monastic place. I know a lot of local people. It’s a very special place.”