Volume 38 - Issue 2

On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good

by Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis is president and CEO of Sojourners. In his new book, On God’s Side, Wallis outlines three foci for his book: (1) expanding the concept of conversion beyond “just the destiny of the soul”; (2) establishing a form of Christianity not associated with either the political right or left; and (3) emphasizing the importance of faith being lived out for the common good (pp. 4–5). Wallis attempts to accomplish this in fourteen chapters, divided into two parts.

In the first part, seven chapters explain and promote the concept of common good. Wallis begins by laying out his version of the gospel in the first chapter, “A Gospel for the Common Good.” The second chapter is based on Wallis’s premise that “Who we think Jesus is will determine the kind of Christianity we live” (p. 25). In this chapter, Wallis compares an image of the “conservative” gospel as the “atonement only” gospel, arguing that conservative churches deal only with discipleship in relation to sexuality (p. 29). The third chapter describes Wallis’s concept of why Jesus came to earth: mainly to bring about social justice in his own time (p. 45). Chapter four emphasizes the importance of community service (particularly to the poor) as service rendered to God, emphasizing the importance of Matt 25. Wallis uses chapter five to provide an interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Chapter six articulates an argument against nationalism, and chapter seven argues for broad ecumenicalism in pursuit of the common good.

The second part also consists of seven chapters. Here Wallis outlines practical actions to take for the common good. Chapter eight is an argument for civility in public discourse. The ninth chapter lays out Wallis’s dislike for voter identification laws as well as monetary influence in politics, as particularly evidenced by the massive spending in the most recent presidential election. Chapter ten outlines Wallis’s desire for a morally responsible market, arguing for more governmental regulation, local purchasing, and greater equality in salaries. In chapter eleven, Wallis argues for a servant government that creates new laws to enforce social justice by protecting people from each other and themselves. The last three chapters argue for continued advocacy for social justice in the public square, stronger families, and global advocacy for social justice, respectively. Wallis concludes the book with a brief epilogue that outlines ten application points for readers to implement.

There are two significant strengths to Wallis’s On God’s Side. First, Wallis focuses on many of the important topics that need to be discussed. The significant emphasis on poverty alleviation, restoring the integrity of the American political system, and the church’s engagement in living out the implications of the gospel in public are all very important and timely topics. Wallis does a very good job of highlighting some major areas for concern. The second strength of this book is that Wallis is winsome in explaining his positions. The book is a good read, and the concepts that are explained are very lucid and logically organized. Overall this was an artfully written book.

There are also several significant weaknesses in On God’s Side. First, Wallis conflates the implications of the gospel with the gospel itself. He argues that conversion “means focusing on instead of ignoring our neighbor, letting the poor move us instead of serving us, and learning how to understand and even love our enemies instead of just hating and seeking to defeat them” (p. 9). For Wallis, conversion is advocacy for social cause, rather than the redemption from sin. Wallis never seeks to resolve the tension between his view of conversion and that advocated by more traditional evangelicals.

A second weakness of this book is that Wallis assumes the methods for promoting social justice unquestioningly follow his assertions of the importance of justice on each issue. For example, nearly all evangelicals accept the importance of poverty alleviation, yet many conservative evangelicals would argue that centralized government programs are often ineffective and therefore undesirable. Wallis goes so far as to argue that opposition to federal poverty programs is opposition to the gospel (pp. 23–24). This pattern is repeated with Wallis’s opposition to voter identification requirements (pp. 185–87), promotion of increased environmental regulations (pp. 212–13), and advocacy for same-sex marriage (p. 268).

A third significant weakness in On God’s Side is that Wallis fails to engage differing views. Although Wallis calls for “contributions and answers from varying points of view” (p. 158), he cites only anecdotal information relating to conservative positions, and he is not consistently representative of those views. For example, Wallis frequently references a narrow stream of theology related to his upbringing in a particular denomination as normative for all conservative evangelical theology (p. 29). He asserts that “as far as teaching us how to live now or how to be a follower of Jesus on this earth, we don’t hear very much from the conservative churches” (p. 29). This statement reflects the general tone of the book regarding conservatives and indicates a lack of awareness to the growing number of conservative evangelicals who are actively promoting justice.

Andrew J. Spencer

Andrew Spencer is a PhD candidate in theological studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of assessment and institutional research at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Other Articles in this Issue

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One of the deepest impacts of the Reformation on Western Culture arose from the robust rearticulation of the biblical doctrines of creation and vocation...