Book Review: “God’s Politics – Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It” (Sep-Dec 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by David Hutchens and Greg Taylor
September – December, 2005

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It
Jim Wallis
(Harper San Francisco, 2005).

The rock-and-roll music was louder than you would expect for a book tour. And this evening event struck an even more unlikely energy when the applause for the opening band, (local Nashvillians Jars of Clay), gave way to even more thunderous applause for a silver-haired gentleman ascending the steps of the stage who wrote a little book on the subject of faith and politics.

Jim Wallis, author of bestseller God’s Politics, calls over the cheers, “ladies and gentleman, welcome to the book tour that became a movement.” The audience erupts anew in chants. For Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners movement, the scene that unfolded at Nashville’s historic Belcourt theater has become a familiar one, replayed over and over again at venues across this divided nation.

So how did this old Southern Baptist guy earn the kind of reception normally reserved for the Rolling Stones?

Wallis ignores the conventional admonishment not to discuss politics and religion. He does both. Jim Wallis grew up an Evangelical who lost his faith as a teenager because he was not allowed to question the world without being squelched. He chose social activism. Later he found his faith, and his voice. As director of the Sojourner’s movement, he brings a unique call for faith and social conscience to the often predictable world of evangelical politics.

Sojourners has been around a long time. But today, more than ever, it seems its unique voice and the cultural zeitgeist are at the same intersection. And in doing soToday, Wallis has become the spokesman for a he has tapped into a restless audience of church-goers who are fed up with politics as usual and who are ready for a movement that neither co-opts religion, nor ignores it. “Take another look at the prophets,” Wallis says as he wipes the sweat from his forehead (reverting into Baptist minister mode) and he demonstrates that the ancient texts focused not on the subject matter we Christians might first guess. “Most often, they spoke of land. Labor. Capital. Wages. Debt. Taxes. Equity. Fairness. Courts. Prisons. Immigrants. Racial justice. Social justice. War and peace.”

One hallmark of Wallis’ message is the decidedly “pro” nature of the movement. Cutting both ways, Wallis seems to be drawing in Christians who want more thoughtful and biblically discerning politics that crosses party lines and drawing the non-religious into a conversation where politics finds its truest expression when faith and action are closely tied.

In the process, he is not shy about reshuffling the popular discourse. Wallis wants to show that gGay marriage and abortion, Wallis insists, are not the only moral issues. Eradication of poverty, says Wallisfor example, is a moral issue. And he frowns upon single-issue voting is frowned upon in favor of a more consistent sanctity of life ethic that encompasses war, capital punishment, euthanasia, and abortion. The movement is also pro-peace, pro-environment, pro-justice, and pro-equality.

The message is clear: Christians must no longer stomach a faith that takes no account of these questions and dilemmas.

In other words, tLike the he prophets themselves, Wallis’ agenda was is not the “church business” that so often is a preoccupation of believers, but rather was the very real and secular world around themus. And yet far too often the church has demonstrated its willingness to sit when it should have moved – often absolving itself through the miscalculated belief that it is a sufficient expression of the mission of Christ to simply cast a vote.

Although his own politics skew unmistakably left, Wallis makes a pretty good go at not pandering to either party. (God’s Politics is fearlessly subtitled Why the right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.) Don’t worry; the agenda here is not about whether your guy won or lost in the emotionally divisive presidential elections of 2004. In Wallis’ hermeneutic, we’re all complicit—liberal, conservative, and all points in between. And if you’re comfortable, privileged, or otherwise part of any “in group”, chances are you’ll find something here to offend you out of complacency. If the Republicans have co-opted religion and narrowed it to only a few moral issues, the Democrats have dismissed religion and neglected their social agenda’s faith heritage, according to Jim Wallis.

Mainstream media attributes the reinvigoration of the Sojourners movement to the emotionally polarizing Presidential elections of 2004. But mainstream mediathe pundits don’t seem to have made the connection that the God’s Politics movement is an emerging phenomenon borne of the same restlessness that is fueling the missional church movement.

Wallis claims the tour is not about selling books but about starting a movement of people who are fed up with politics as usual and are hungry and searching for politics that neither co-opts religion nor ignores it. Never mind the presumptuous-sounding title, Jim Wallis has started a movement of people who are trying to understand what God’s politics ought to be.

And what “God’s politics” ought to be, says Jim Wallis, is about changing the way the wind blows. Wallis says politicians are always licking their fingers and holding them up to the wind, but the task of practicing God’s politics, says Wallis, is not to gauge the wind but to change the direction.

Today a chorus of voices is proclaiming with an escalating urgency that the old model of kingdom living is gasping for breath in today’s alien environment. Folks are desperate for a new way of being, and connecting what they believe to how they live. (For one personal account, see Robbie Hutchens’ – also in this issue of New Wineskins.)

The message that Wallis brings (and, indeed, has hammered prophetically through his Sojourners movement for decades now) is for Christians to shift their energies from reinforcing the walls of this artificial city that we have created for ourselves. Put your ear up to the wall and you can hear the muffled voices outside calling for water, for light, for salvation.

My review of Wallis’ God’s Politics coincided with my reading of Strength to Love, the compilation of sermons by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It struck me that the two texts were so philosophically complementary they could be bundled together. Studying King’s sermons for the first time, I was struck by central role that King’s Christianity played in his activism. Even in the church, I believe the impact of this point is lost on us. We hear the “I have a dream” speech and we hear the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, but rarely do we hear King speak unabashedly of his love for Jesus Christ. And it’s not because he didn’t. The history books selectively focus on Martin Luther King’s legacy as an activist. But King himself would have said he was merely putting faith in action and living out the call of Christ to a broken world.

That night at Nashville’s Belcourt Theater, I brought some of my own good friends along – some who lean left, some who lean right, some who just sort of slouch. Funny thing, when you put them together in the name of the Spirit it kind of works out for them to start leaning on each other, and now maybe, maybe, we can start facing the work in front of us and try to get something done. Because, God knows, Christ knows, there’s an awful lot of work to do.

One doesn’t hear Wallis and say, “What a great speaker; I’m so entertained.” Instead, the effect of hearing him is the feeling that you must do something. Cynicism is not allowed—that’s a cover, says Wallis, for non-commitment.

If there is a politics of God, it is to sign people up for mission and service. God is personal and but never private, s. So his agenda—or politics—is a social one. We are not called to a private faith any more than we are called to an oxymoronic private social agenda. A major key, says Wallis, is remaining hopeful that the world can be changed, that the wind can be changed. And one would only hope that we don’t simply sit and watch Wallis try to do it but to join the impossible dream of changing the wind with him.

So go ahead and vote for your guy on election day. But when you do, don’t think for a moment that you have exercised the whole of your responsibility because if there is a politics of God, it is not to sign people up not to be a Democrat or a Republican, but for mission, for service, and for something as frightening as a death of ourselves in service of God’s mission to redeem a fallen, broken world. If you are among those who have heard the cries on the other side of the wall, then perhaps you too are being called. Wallis is fond of repeating his catchphrase that “faith is personal but never private.”

In other words, our prayers may indeed belong in the closet, but our feet need to be taking us into the streets.
New Wineskins

David HutchensDavid Hutchens is author of Outlearning the Wolves, Shadows of the Neanderthal and The Lemming Dilemma, titles in the popular Learning Fables books (Pegasus Communications, Cambridge MA) – a series on organizational learning theory in a fun, metaphorical format. His books have been translated into Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish. His first book to a children’s market, PageLand, was published in 2003 by Broadman & Holman. Hutchens is also a professional speech writer and consultant.

Greg TaylorGreg Taylor is managing editor of New Wineskins magazine in Nashville, Tennessee. Greg is associate minister for the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He holds an M.Div. from Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis. With John Mark Hicks he co-authored Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work. He is also author of the new novel, High Places (Leafwood Publishers 2004). Greg and his wife, Jill, have three children: Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. The family lived in Uganda, where they worked with a church planting team.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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