Sunday, September 1, 2013

"On God's Side" by Jim Wallis

Time to get Jim Wallis' new book out of my system. My reasons for writing multiple posts on him and his philosophy are these:

1) He's a long-time Christian author whose message has remained consistent;
2) His message is ascendant in some Christian circles (ie: Emergent churches); 
3) America is currently debating the role and scope of government aid to the poor.
Photo of Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC
and a quote from Honest Abe.

The famed veteran of the Jesus movement has leaned toward urban, social and political issues ever since I first read him back in the mid-70s. Not content to simply minister to inner-city folks, he has always sought to influence governments in "solving problems" rampant in those neighborhoods. As founding publisher of Sojourner magazine, which began in Chicago but soon moved to Washington DC, Wallis was a forerunner of a recent Windy City community organizer who followed the same path. These days he is a frequent house-guest of the family inhabiting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

An experienced speaker and frequent TV talk-show guest, Wallis is a catch-phrase machine. His subtitle is a polished sound-bite: What Religion Forgets And Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving The Common Good. A life-long leftist, Jim Wallis has been attempting lately to position himself as some sort of "bridge" between liberal and conservative Christians (the cover photo of his book is shot over the Arlington Memorial Bridge). That tactic may be working in one direction: reminding liberal believers that Christianity is indeed premised on personal responsibility. That's his olive branch to the right. But he is far less persuasive in convincing conservatives about social responsibility. Despite plenty of God-talk and quotes from Republicans like Abraham Lincoln and Mike Huckabee, Wallis is not succeeding with this conservative.

I could handle this book if it were only political. But Wallis knows that liberal crocodile tears shed for "the disenfranchised" and "women and minorities" in America are increasingly viewed with suspicion. America's War On Poverty has famously spent us into unfathomable debt without making any notable change in The Poverty Rate since 1970 (the year "ethnicity" data was included in such measures, and six years after LBJ's "war" declaration). One thing has certainly increased: the Dependency Rate for far too many recipients. America staggers under a debt-burden that grows exponentially as our national government triples- and quadruples-down on social-welfare spending. If such spending was ever justified, and I contend it was not, even hair-on-fire liberals like Paul Krugman are finally admitting it is "unsustainable."

So now they're pulling out the Religion Card. Knowing conservative Christians hold a high view of scripture, the effort here is to portray direct government payments to citizens as Biblical. And, of course, since government can only get such money by first taking it from other citizens, such spending is, by definition, coercive. In fairness, JW has always played the Religion Card, and here he plays it well: describing his family's practice of serving the needs they find around them, and highlighting the good works of myriad non-profits. His is a credible voice on the topic of loving-thy-neighbor in a Good Samaritan manner. But he doesn't stop with encouraging individual believers and local churches to minister to temporal needs around them.

Channeling religious leftist author Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christian), Wallis calls for a "different" gospel. Chapter one is entitled "A Gospel For The Common Good." Evidently the gospel we've had up 'til now is insufficient. His subtitle for the chapter quotes John Chrysostom (347-407), Archbishop of Constantinople, who may be the first high-profile Christian to write about the Common Good. And how can Bible-believing Christians disagree with Jesus and Paul about showing love to our neighbors—even an ethnically or geographically expanded definition of the word neighbor? We can't.

And, honestly, I could handle this book if it were only Christian. If Wallis simply reminded Christians that we were "saved unto good works" which God had "prepared in advance for us to walk in," I would have nothing to say in rebuttal. But when Wallis says "we," he only sometimes refers to Christian believers. Other times he cleverly uses the same phrasing to include all U.S. taxpayers, whether Christian or Muslim or Jewish or atheist. In this he goes a bridge-too-far. And using Old Testament verses to urge government care for the poor may be legitimate in exhorting the Body of Christ, the Family of God, the Household of Faith, to meet such needs. But pre-Christian Israel was a mono-ethnic Theocracy. How does a liberal like Wallis so casually break down the "wall of separation" between church and state?

This is not a full review of Wallis' book, though I've read almost all of it—critically his opening section (seven chapters) laying out a theoretical case for a Common Good Gospel. The second half of the book details his practical case, laid upon the faulty foundation that poverty and its attendant pathologies can and should be "cured" by government intrusion. These last seven chapters are pure socialist/progressive orthodoxy. And then he recovers with a truly beautiful—and universal—epilogue entitled "Ten Personal Decisions For The Common Good." As St. Paul told the believers in Galatia about the Fruit of the Spirit: "Against such things there is no law." Wallis' strong appeal to personal responsibility is heartfelt and sincere.

Alas, taken as a whole, this book—like Obama's welfare effort—misses the mark. I will  close with an example of Wallis' slippery logic. In chapter eight, entitled "Conservatives, Liberals and a Call to Civility," Wallis has a section labeled "Ending Poverty." (Sidenote: didn't somebody once say the poor would always be with us?) Anyway, this section echoes Obama's now-notorious "False Choices" ruse, contending that we don't have to pick between personal responsibility and social activism, that we can have both. Oh...kay. But two paragraphs later, quoting Mike Huckabee, Wallis endorses a patently False Choice: "Given the choice between a hungry person and a government program, I'll take the government program." Please. There are tens of thousands of non-governmental efforts in America to feed hungry people. Your church probably runs one of them. Nobody in this country is starving.

Now there are also many other such ploys that Wallis uses. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose not all the blogs I could write in a year would contain them. Suffice it to say that Progressivism is a rival faith, placing trust in Big Government. It is not an appropriate political system for liberty-minded America; and is decidedly antithetical to Christianity, using coercion and violence to bring about supposedly Christian ends. No thanks.