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Memo to White House Re: `Vision'

MR. President: The most insightful part of your inaugural speech described a capital city we all know too well. As you said, it is a place of "intrigue" where "powerful people ... worry endlessly about who is up and who is down, forgetting those whose toil and sweat sends them here...."

Your comment spoke to us here at the Sojourners neighborhood center, just 20 blocks from your new address. Outside in the cold mornings this winter, hundreds of families stand in line for a bag of groceries. Inside, the place is alive with the activity of children, most of whom have been written off by society.

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Presidents live at the top, yet some of the most important voices to hear are at the bottom. That might sound absurd to the powerful who run this city, but it is an idea found in the Bible. The prophets boldly proclaimed that nations will be judged by how they treat the poor and vulnerable, and how much attention they give to the demands of justice. Nothing could be more foreign to the Washington political reality you are now dealing with.

I hear that some of our most prestigious churches are already vying for your attendance. I'm a pastor too, but that's one fight I'll stay far away from. I would, however, invite you to visit and spend some time with the churches in our poorer neighborhoods. Why? Because that's where an important struggle for authentic religion is now being joined.

The country has become used to religion as a cheerleader for one side or another. Religionists line themselves up along ideological lines in the pitched battles for political and economic power. They do the blessings and share in the spoils. The Republicans had their chaplains, and you'll probably have yours. But there is a more prophetic kind of religion. You may sometimes find it uncomfortable, but it will prove a more trustworthy and reliable guide than the religious sanctifiers of the status quo in t heir diverse political stripes.

This less comfortable but more authentic religion can be found in the faith of the prophets and in the good news of Jesus. It asks different questions, such as, "Where can God be found in this world?" and "What does God require of us?" In this prophetic Biblical faith, the poor and oppressed have always found refuge. How does a president listen to a religious perspective that emerges from below? How will your political decisions be shaped by the Christian faith that is important to you and Hillary, and t o Al and Tipper Gore? How will your choices be impacted by the world of the poor?

The way of Jesus and the prophets isn't just a welfare program. It calls for a change of heart, a revolution of the spirit, a transformation of our consciousness. It moves us beyond the familiar options of abandoning, controlling, or even "helping" the poor. Instead, it leads us to a new relationship with one another, a deep reconnection, a restoration of the shattered covenant.

When you speak of a "new covenant," my heart resonates and wants to believe that it comes from a deeper place than clever speech writers. A national political reporter, who covered your campaign, recently told me that he thinks Biblical language and images mean something to you. I hope he's right, because Biblical imagery could help us a great deal at this moment, as we try to find what some call a "politics of community."

Hope is such a fragile and precious thing. Without it, we begin to die on the inside. With it, almost anything is possible. Many people are on the edge of hope and despair. The children in our neighborhood have their dreams, but they are so fragile. I'm working with young African-American men from the streets who are trying to negotiate a national gang truce and begin to rebuild their own communities, in the aftermath of Los Angeles. You can offer hope, or just further confirm their cynical view of our n ation's political leaders.

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Some of us believe that a religious, moral, and ethical perspective on politics could help shape a new and more fruitful political discussion. It is time for another spiritual alternative - distinct from both the conservative and liberal religious ideologies that have dominated our public discussion. A prophetic, inclusive faith could speak to the hunger among us for both personal and social transformation. Such a movement must be pluralistic and nonsectarian. An independent moral voice is much needed, a nd is something the religious community could help provide.

As an alternative to the religious right a new movement of religious conscience must also insist on a vital connection between politics and morality. In so doing, it could provide a reservoir of prophetic imagination.

Your temptation may be to seek support from the established bastions of liberal religion and make your own alliances there. But does establishment religion have enough conviction to match the fundamentalist impulse? Such religion is too often, "dry, lifeless, and Godless," to quote Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun. To put it painfully, too much liberal religion today lacks faith and, like its conservative counterpart, is preoccupied with worldly power.

WHY not listen to other voices? Over the last few decades, a real alternative in American religious life has begun to emerge, despite the media's inattention. We are learning that our political problems require a moral and spiritual awakening. Our economic crisis is at heart a profound failure to love our neighbor as ourself. Our lack of satisfying relationships is the ethical consequence of regarding things as more important than people, and treating people the same way we have too often treated nature - as ours to use as we will. In this sense, prophetic religion seeks to bring healing to what might be regarded as the sins of racism, sexism, and poverty. It's a perspective that South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu is now calling "the spirituality of transformation."

After many long years of suffocation by the political and religious right, we hope that the change in government provides some "space" for new possibilities. We invite you to do what your best self knows is right, push you to take your own ideals seriously, and pull you along to the deepest meaning of the populist symbols you have already well employed. We will offer support when we believe what you are trying to do is consistent with the religious values you espouse, engage with you in mutual dialogue i f you seek it, challenge you when we disagree, and yes, oppose compromises on matters too important for expediency.

That is the role that religious communities are supposed to play - an independent voice for spiritual renewal. Perhaps as you try to be faithful to your own public vocation, and we try to be faithful to our prophetic vocation, a constructive and creative relationship may be possible.

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