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God's Politics

| 1.1.06
God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, by Jim Wallis

One thing you can't help but notice reading this book is the forceful personality of Jim Wallis. He obviously believes what he says, and has "put his money where his mouth is" with his life. Arrested over 30 times, Wallis lives the life of an activist, tirelessly proclaiming to anyone who will listen that how we treat the poor, or "the least of these" illustrates the authenticity of our Christian faith.

I agreed with a lot of this book. I think the religious and political discourse in the United States is too narrow, and has been co-opted by religious fundamentalists and secular leftists. I think there are valid problems worthy of critique on both the right and the left. Yet something also bothers me about this book.

What I like about Wallis is that he wants to critique both the religious right and the secular left. He even had a few barbs to throw in about the religious left. On the basis of the Bible, Wallis sees Christianity as the high ground upon which opposing sides can come together to provide a more consistent ethic that sees moral issues as both social and individual.

"Change the wind, transform the debate, recast the discussion, alter the context in which political decisions are being made, and you will change the outcomes." (p. 22) Wallis sees people of faith as "wind changers." I like this metaphor, which also refers to the Spirit of God, depicted as "wind" in various parts of the Bible (perhaps most notably, Genesis 1)

What I don't like about Wallis is his tendency to be a biblical literalist (although not a right-wing biblical literalist, as is so often the case). I suppose everyone who tries to live by the Bible takes some parts of it literally, and other parts of it metaphorically. Since the Religious Right couches their arguments in "proof texts" and politically expedient hermeneutic, it is probably useful to see the same thing coming from a more moderate perspective. I think it is a conscious choice on Wallis' part to see the Bible as providing a consistent moral ethic that ought to inform our politics. I tend to mistrust such attempts to systematize, but I suppose that is part and parcel of organizing politically. If Wallis was riddled with self-doubt and questioned his own beliefs, perhaps he wouldn't "have what it takes" to organize and give his whole life to his cause.

Wallis wants the Christian community to be the community that undermines, critiques, and revitalizes political discourse in the United States --a prophetic voice speaking on behalf of the marginalized. While this can be found in Scripture, many other things can also be found in Scripture. Wallis uses the Bible as his authority, and this I find somewhat troubling because in my view the Bible actually undermines all authority.

Ultimately people must take responsibility for their morality, drawing inspiration and guidance from God, the Bible, and their own conscience. I think the call to justice Wallis finds in the Bible is every bit as much of a construction as are the types of things the Religious Right constructs out of the Bible. I happen to like what Wallis has constructed, but I don't like how he pretends it is "what the Bible says" when the reality is a bit more complicated. Jim Wallis thinks that if you'll read your Bible with an ear toward the poor, you can't help but question the status quo in what he calls "our war-mongering, greedy, capitalist society." That is certainly true, but it is "having an ear toward the poor" that makes the difference, not the Bible.

Wallis shows that he is at least somewhat aware of hermeneutical difficulties when he writes, "Social location often determines biblical interpretation, and that truth goes a long way toward understanding why Christians from the United States and many other wealthy countries simply miss some of the most central themes of the Scriptures." (p. 211) Wallis interprets Mark's gospel "the poor you will always have with you," helpfully pointing out that the disciples social location assumed that they would always be dealing with the poor. The fact that they are having dinner with Simon the Leper as the story plays out proves that Jesus and his disciples were concerned with social outcasts. Yet an affluent America reads this text as an excuse to do nothing about poverty, because it can never be eliminated.

Wallis is amazingly critical of the Bush administration. Seeing this kind of critique come out of evangelical circles is perhaps the most amazing thing to come out of this book. Much of the book scathingly attacks Bush's policies at home and abroad. "The real theological problem in America today is no longer the religious Right, but the nationalist religion of the Bush administration, one that confuses the identity of the nation with the church, and God's purposes with the mission of American empire." (p. 149)

Wallis imagines an activist Christian who is not afraid to get arrested for the sake of social justice. "If biblical prophets like Amos and Isaiah had read the news about what happened to child tax credits for low-income families, for example, they surely would be out screaming on the White House lawn about the justice of God--and be quickly led away by the Secret Service." (p. 247)

The limits of Wallis' leftward leanings are most apparent in his views on gay issues. He is against gay marriage, but also against using gays as the scapegoat for straight families' problems. Wallis does favor legalizing civil unions. (p. 332). Perhaps as an evangelical the only way he can be pro-gay is to leave it to the civil government. I find it a little inconsistent that this is the only issue that he doesn't want to bring the Bible to bear on. While a more liberal religious outlook might question the Bible's applicability to modern gay and lesbian concerns, Wallis wants to stay in the evangelical camp and defuse gay marriage as a wedge issue. It seems to me like he punts, but it is hardly surprising given his social location and his over-riding passion for the poor.

Ultimately, I think Wallis' message is one America needs to hear. His call to return to biblically based values regarding the poor and disenfranchised is timely and refreshing. He models an authentic way to be Christian that differs from the prevailing conservative fundamentalist views that dominate the airwaves and the headlines. He is scandal free, lives what he believes, and has a clear and articulate message of hope for both the poor and for the rest of us called to serve Christ through serving the poor.

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins, New York. 2005. ISBN 0-06-055828-8

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