by Jim Wallis, Harper, 2005, 384 pages.
This latest publication by Jim Wallis carries forward the agenda he already identified in one of his first books in 1976, “Agenda for Biblical People.” As founder of Sojourners, a nationwide network of progressive Christians working for peace and justice and editor of Sojourners magazine, he has been a leading figure at the crossroads of religion and politics in America for more than a quarter century. While the specific context of this book is the American political, economic and religious scene, much of what he has to say is relevant elsewhere as well.
Wallis’ main contention in the book is that religion has a role to play in shaping the domestic and foreign policy of a nation. He argues that faith can be personal but never private. That is to say that faith must always find expression and application in the real world – which makes it political. He notes that exclusively private faith degenerates into a narrow religion, excessively preoccupied with individual and sexual morality while almost oblivious to the biblical demands for public justice. (p.35) Wallis sites many examples of how, in the past, faith has been the springboard for healthy social movements, resulting for example in the abolition of slavery, civil rights for Blacks in America, child-labor laws and women’s suffrage. He argues that to separate faith from social realities leaves spirituality without social consequences and a politics with no soul. (p.xxiv)
Having established this thesis, Wallis spends the greater part of the book illustrating how American religion has been co-opted by the Right in an illegitimate way and dismissed by the Left as irrelevant. While claiming to uphold family values, the policies and practices of the Right actually serve to undermine them. How, asks Wallis for example, can you hold up the ideal of a traditional family when the economics of the country are such that in many families both parents have to work – often at more than one job – just to squeeze by, and that without medical benefits? And how can the Left maintain a focus on justice for the poor and disenfranchised without spiritual grounding that goes deeper than humanitarian impulses?
Wallis clearly has his finger on political and religious activities on the ground, not only in America, but around the world. By citing many examples, Wallis illustrates that in spite of the religious alliances of the Right and the humanitarian rhetoric of the Left there remains a stubborn resistance in political circles to take religious claims seriously. In the end, both camps affirm a pro-war, pro-rich and pro-American stance that is corroding confidence in America abroad while creating unsustainable inequities on the home front. Wallis maintains that a national fear rooted in insecurity and vulnerability has provided the justification for a new language of “Empire,” a condoning of torture, a culture of deception, and a frantic attempt to stamp out symptoms instead of working at cures. Thus a bankrupted American society has little left but a show of bravado. When all you have is hammers, everything looks like a nail. (p. 110)
Unfortunately, according to Wallis, it is the poor who end up paying for the sins of an out-of-control society determined to maintain its position as the sole global super-power. Regarding American budgets, he notes that the military gets the largest increases, the rich get enormous tax cuts, and the poor get left behind. (p. 236) Wallis argues that within this context people of faith must demonstrate another way. We must keep advocating on behalf of the poor and all those hurt by injustice, focus on fair trade instead of free trade, and resist a harsh and cruel individualism that is now being forced upon us by our corporate, media and political culture. (p. 340) We must rise above cynicism and by faith cling to the presence, power and possibility of hope. (p.347) The best response to bad religion is better religion, not secularism. (p. 66)
I was profoundly moved by this book. I lost track of the number of times I had to stop reading because of the tears of anger, compassion and hope that kept clouding my vision. While the book is focused specifically on dynamics in the United States of America, the core of its message is readily transferable to any context in the world where religious people are attempting to make their faith count in the public square. I suspect this book will be read widely. You should be one of its readers too.