Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good" by Jim Wallis (a review)

On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good. Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, MI, 2013.

This book is like a breath of fresh air emerging out of the toxic atmosphere of Washington, DC. Jim Wallis, an Evangelical Christian with a passion for social justice, peace, and Little League baseball, helped found Sojourners, a community of Christians who intentionally moved to a low-income area of DC to be in solidarity with the poor. Over the years his work has gained national and international stature. A “best-selling author, public theologian, national preacher, social activist, and international commentator,” Wallis publishes Sojourners magazine (to which I subscribe) and has published ten books on religion and politics from a progressive Evangelical perspective.

Wallis is also a friend of Friends, who sometimes works with FCNL, and has a lot in common with liberal as well as Evangelical Quakers.

A voice of sanity and good will, Wallis challenges our leaders to put aside their petty differences and partisan bickering and work for the Common Good, what the founders of our country called “the general welfare.” He is also a great storyteller who knows how to inspire as well as challenge us.

The title of his latest book, On God’s Side, is taken from a quote by Lincoln, who said: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” To be on “God’s side,” in Wallis’ view, is to be on the side of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. He believes that change doesn’t happen in the center of power, but on the margins, in movements that change hearts and minds and thereby transform society. Wallis was a big supporter of the Civil Rights movement as well as Occupy Wall Street.

Wallis uses the story of the “Good Samaritan” to expand our understanding of what it means to “love our neighbor,” which he considers the most important commandment. He told a group of business leaders to look at their cell phones from the viewpoint not of the “supply chain,” but of the “values chain.” Cell phones use“dirty minerals” from places in the Congo and other areas dominated by militia that use profits from these minerals to buy weapons and kill thousands of people. “Imagine Jesus holding up our cell phones,” Wallis told the business leaders. “Your neighbor, he might say, is every man, woman and child who touched the supply chain used to make your phone, or the clothes you wear, the computers you type on, the food you eat, and the cars you drive. Your global neighbors in those supply lines are all God’s children” (p. 104).

This is of course what motivated John Woolman when he refused to wear clothing or other products made from slave labor. Wallis puts many of our Quaker practices into a biblical perspective that make sense to Evangelical and other Bible-believing Christians.

For liberal Friends who want to love and work with our Evangelical Quaker neighbors, this book is enormously helpful since it provides a biblical and theological basis for what we believe and do.

Committed to dialogue and civility, Wallis seeks to build bridges between conservatives and liberals by showing how both perspectives are necessary for the Common Good. Conservatives emphasize “personal responsibility” while liberals emphasize “social responsibility.” According to Wallis, both are needed if we want to help eliminate poverty and foster justice (which should be the goal of any society, but especially one that professes to be Christian).

Wallis’commitment to the Common Good also appeals to those who don’t identify with being Christian or any other faith (the so-called "nones" as in “none of the above”). “When we Christians do what we say,” says Wallis, “People who don’t believe are attracted.”

Wallis is committed to interfaith dialogue and cooperation as a way of “loving your neighbor.” He tells the story of a little church in Memphis, Tennessee, the “buckle of the Bible belt.” During the ruckus over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”in Manhattan, this little church learned that an Islamic center was being built next door so they put a sign saying “Heartsong Church Welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the Neighborhood.” The Muslims were amazed, and deeply moved, and soon a friendship developed between these two neighboring congregations. During Ramadan the Christians let the Muslims use their sanctuary for prayers since Islamic Center wasn’t finished. This story got world-wide coverage. One night Muslims from Kashmir called the pastor of the Heartsong church to let him know: “God is speaking to us through this man” and “We love you.” The Muslims of Kashmir said there was a little Christian church in their area and they cleaned it, inside and out, and vowed to take care of it for the rest of their lives. Wallis asked: what is more likely to bring peace to the world, drones or what this Memphis church did?

For me, one surprising thing about this book is that Wallis decided to take three months off his busy activist life to live in a Camaldolese monastery near Big Sur in Northern California. As a Quaker, I find it fascinating that Wallis is balancing his activist life with contemplation and prayer.

This is a book that should be required reading for all our elected officials as well as for any Friend who wants to understand how to apply Jesus’ teachings to both the personal and political aspects of life. In the epilogue of his book, Wallis offers “ten personal decisions that will foster the common good.” I have found it helpful to reflect on these “advices,” re-framing them as queries. As Wallis says, “finding the integral relationship between our own personal good and the common good is our best hope for our future.” To which I say, “This Friend speaks my mind.”




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