THE BLOG

Who's in Control?

01/30/2015 11:29 am ET | Updated Apr 01, 2015

I just returned from Davos, Switzerland, where the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is held each year. Leaders from business, government, and civil society all gather here to engage each other, make connections, and, hopefully, make progress on the mission statement of the WEF: "Committed to Improving the State of the World."

I reflected on that mission statement last year in my remarks to all the attendees at the event's closing session. I said the deeper meaning of leadership is sacrifice and not just skills -- and that the most included people on the planet who were sitting in that famous Congress Hall will be morally evaluated by their relationship to the most excluded, who, of course, are never in that grand auditorium. Many individual leaders in attendance wanted to discuss that challenge further, and those conversations continued this year.

One session this year that drew many people off site was called "Struggle for Survival" -- an intense simulation of how 3 billion people in our world actually live each day. Half of the global population exists on less than $2 per day. Run by the Crossroads Foundation, Struggle for Survival was a much more emotional experience than the rest of the sessions at Davos.

My wife, Joy, and I participated in this simulation, and the people running it told us that several CEOs seemed quite affected by the very powerful dramatization of real-world injustice and poverty. It took people out of their heads into stunning revelations of how the excluded really live, prompting feelings of guilt, pain, anger, empathy, and compassion -- and then a call to commitment.

Overbooked sessions on mindfulness and meditation got people speaking much more personally than just professionally about the physical and moral costs of overwork and stress -- the norm for the wealthy and successful. "Busyness is the badge of honor," one participant lamented.

The Global Action Values Council, on which I sit, convened interactive sessions each morning on ethics and values called "Stop to Think," with topics like "What Is Ethical Leadership?," "Who Matters?," and "Consume or Conserve?" Our morning conversations drew many "values leaders," like Mohammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank; Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); and Boqiang Lin, Director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research (CCEER). The morning conversation went deeper and deeper, indicating how hungry many participants at Davos are for a new values conversation.

There are always many criticisms of Davos: It's a very elite group of the world's most influential leaders gathering each year in a beautiful ski resort in the Swiss Alps. Here are some of the most influential and wealthiest people in the world riding the waves of money and power. What is clear is that they are riding the waves, but they are not really in control of them -- even though some would like to be. There was a feeling in the gathering this year of being out of control with so many alarming things going on in our world -- dangerous forces on the rise; real climatic, pandemic, and economic threats; failing and falling states, with cultural and ideological clashes that scare everybody. Paris had just happened.

Some Davos participants described the atmosphere this year as "gloomy" and "fearful." Those who control the world seemed to feel, and be, out of control and unsure how to deal with growing and frightening global instabilities and the violence that keeps emerging. Terrorism and blatant inexcusable barbarism arise out of grievances and injustices that nobody wants to confront or seem to know how to address. In theological language, sin begets sin, and we don't seem to know how to deal with that.

I returned home to a snowstorm hitting the American northeast, where so much of the power of this country resides. Again, people seemed to feel out of control. Everyone was trying to "predict" the nature and consequences of the coming storm but without much confidence. One weather forecaster I heard said, "With all our technology and sophistication, only Mother Nature is in control here, and the rest of us are just waiting to see what happens."

When I first flipped on the cable news shows after coming home from Davos, I saw CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all covering the same thing: the upcoming snowstorm. It was nice, refreshing, and so much better than all the constant politicking of every event that they are usually engaged in. And the great moral message of the snow coverage was: Be careful and take care of each other, especially the most vulnerable.

What a wonderful values statement -- not just for snowstorms but for everyday life. Because we know who is really in control, and it's not us -- not even the wealthy and powerful among us, who often live under the illusion of control. What a resting place we can find in God when we remember that truth. And I was just very happy to be home with my two boys for a snow-delayed school day in Washington, D.C.!

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.