For The Someday Book

Book Review: On God’s Side

Posted on: March 15, 2014

On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good by Jim Wallis, Brazos Press, 2013, 303 pp.

OnGodsSide-Cover-Sm_0I’ll confess this up front: I have a whole bunch of mixed feelings about Jim Wallis and Sojourners. Sojourners magazine was key to helping me find my faith footing when I was emerging from my evangelical background, and I value their commitment to social justice and especially economic justice and advocacy for the poor. They do good and important work in that area–helping connect economic justice issues to emerging and evangelical Christians.  I remain disappointed at their narrow-minded approach to issues of reproductive rights and their explicit rejection of equal rights for LGBT people. That’s the basics.

On a more snarky note, I find Jim Wallis’ writing to be desperately in need of a good editor. It seems repetitive, rambling and way, way too long. What is charismatic and endearing in speeches is long and dry in print. All of that was true in this book as well. Nevertheless, this book was a gift from a church member who wanted me to read it, and it was on a topic that I wanted to read about. It may have taken me a year (and frequent stops and starts), but I made it through. I still wish it was shorter and that Wallis stopped equivocating on issues of sexuality, but that doesn’t make me want to toss it out altogether. I’m glad I read it.

Now, with all that baggage named and claimed, let’s talk about what’s in the book itself.

On God’s Side is intended to spark a new public, religious and political conversation about the meaning of the common good. Rather than creating a religious left to stand against the religious right, Wallis wants us to claim another place where we agree on shared values. “Don’t go right, don’t go left, go deeper,” he says. (5) On the role of religion and society, he lends a nuance to Martin Luther King’s understanding that religion is the conscience of the state:

Religion does much better when it leads–when it actually cares about the needs of everybody, not just its own community, and when it makes the best inspirational and common sense case, in pluralistic democracy, for public policies that express the core values of faith in regard to how we should all treat our neighbors. (6)

Instead of trying to dominate the public square, faith communities should seek to inform and inspire it. Faith communities should prefer authenticity over conformity, reflection over certainty, leadership by example and not control. (19)

Our role in the world is to offer the presence of unexpected hope–not by what we say, but by what we show in our love and care for one another and the world. (24) Wallis argues that an emphasis on the common good brings together the right’s drive for personal responsibility with the left’s drive for social justice, both of which are required for society to function well. Theologically, Wallis roots this connection in Christology, claiming that an “atonement-only” Jesus is insufficient for a “God who so loved the world.” Jesus came for the sake of the world, and we must live for the sake of the world as well. (58-61)

The rest of the book wanders back over this territory again in different ways (that repetitive, rambling thing). However, Wallis does offer a sort of theological laundry list of all the issues we could and should engage as the church–not just right or left, but issues that all followers of Jesus could unite to address. Wallis covers immigration reform, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, civility in public debate, voting rights, the influence of money in politics and elections, wealth inequality, transparency and accountability in our financial institutions, exploitative lending practices, “stand your ground” laws, homelessness, human sex trafficking, mass incarceration, and the need for stable families. Some of the stuff about families drew way too close to traditional gender norms and certainly did not address the changing meaning of “family.” Some of the rest felt like a refresher in good liberalism, which felt quite refreshing to me at this stage in my life, when I am not immersed in it.

Wallis’ power remains his ability to bridge a concern for social and economic justice with evangelical theology. This was evidenced in a special section devoted to debates about the size of government, which is an issue far more on the right than the left. His most compelling case, as always, is that faith (even evangelical faith) is not a private matter. It is for the good of the world, not just the good of an individual soul. While this book did nothing to cause me to put aside all the above-named baggage I brought into it, that baggage did not stand in the way of making this a meaningful book to read. It offered some fresh insight and depth on the role of religion in relation to the state, and renewed my perspective on how we Christians ought to be engaged in the work of social justice.

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1 Response to "Book Review: On God’s Side"

Very interesting topic, however repetitive rambling is not for me. I am enjoying the book, “Held By The Hand Of God: Why Am I Alive” http://heldbythehandofgod.com/ by author Joe Laws. I amazed that he actually lived to tell his story.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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