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Coordinating the Kingdom and the Common Good

Social movements are crucial to political change. But what about the church?

BOOK REVIEW: On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good by Jim Wallis. Brazos Press, 2013. 320pp.


Let me exclaim a rousing "Amen!" and also a "Preach it brother!" for the position Jim Wallis outlines in his new book. My enthusiasm for the political position he outlines is, however, tempered by a desire for greater clarity in how he envisages the common good. His intention is that what he says is driven by a vision of the common good, but the term is only really defined in the last chapter of the book. And when it is, it is somewhat confused as Wallis gestures toward differing conceptions of the common good, drawn from Catholic social teaching, Desmond Tutu's conception of Ubuntu, and Henri Nouwen's notion of community. This confusion points to a conceptual and theological problem that needs addressing if the constructive position—one which I wholeheartedly endorse—is to be sustained theologically. The conceptual problem is one that divides the first from the second part of the book and renders them, in effect, two different volumes bound together in a single cover.

The first part of the book is all about what it means to bear witness to the kingdom of God, but it repeatedly conflates the kingdom with the common good. The second part articulates a politics of the common good, but one almost entirely evacuated of Christian witness as embodied in the church. What is needed is a clearer division between a church-centred politics of hospitality that bears explicit witness to the kingdom of God, and how this contributes to and can be coordinated with a penultimate politics of the common good that is about seeking the welfare of this earthly city. The lack of this kind of distinction leads to all sorts of confusions. However, Wallis's conflation of the two is symptomatic of a problem at the heart of much of American Protestantism and its relationship to politics, and it is one that has a long pedigree to which I shall return a bit later.

The second part of the book is focused on asking the most important political question, which is of course Marvin Gaye's question: What's going on? This question must be addressed before we can ask Lenin's question: What is to be done? Tragically, technocrats on both left and right don't ask Gaye's question because they think they already know what's going on. As a result they listen neither to God nor their neighbours, and so put programs and procedures—whether bureaucratic, legal, or market-based—before people. As a result we all reap the harvest of their disastrous social, economic, and political policies. Wallis, with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, does seek to discern what's going on and give an account of the signs of the times as the context for his constructive proposals.

Broadly characterized, the position Wallis outlines is as follows: first, we need to recover a properly liberal view of government as limited but also as setting the terms and conditions for human flourishing; in order for government to fulfil its purposes, it must uphold justice for the least, the lost, and the last, and pursue the welfare of all not just the few. If it does not do this, government shifts from its divinely ordained tasks as envisaged in Romans 13 and becomes instead an anti-Christic inversion of itself as depicted in Revelation 13.

Second, while the market has a place, it must know its place. In order for it to know its place we need a renewal of economic democracy. This includes measures such as the representation of workers on pension remuneration boards; shareholder activism; alternative and local financial institutions such as credit unions; and political consumerism as exemplified in something like fair trade. Economic democracy is necessary in order to prevent "the market itself from becoming a beast of corporate totalitarianism." As Wallis summarises it: "It's time to move from a narrowly defined shareholder economy to a stakeholder economy that includes workers, consumers, the environment, and future generations in our economic calculations and decision making."

Third, for government and the market to be servants of the common good rather than overbearing masters of a mass, we need democratic citizens with the capacity to act. In ancient times, owning land or property was the means through which one gained economic and thence political agency. Such agency enabled one to act with others without being dependent on charity, the client of a patron or either a debt or a chattel slave. In the contemporary context, land has been replaced by access to both credit, on fair and legally protected terms, and a decent education. The break up and reform of banks, anti-usury legislation, and investment in and the renewal of public education at all levels are thus vital to the health of the body politic. Without them, democratic citizenship dies and we end up with a plutocracy.

Wallis's political (and he would argue, biblical) position is supplemented and reinforced by a call to inhabit various practices. These practices are: civility, which he sees as grounded in a sense of personal responsibility (as exemplified in marriage); social responsibility (as exemplified in a commitment to orientating government policy toward alleviating poverty); and the free access of all to voting, which he sees as grounded in respect for the equal dignity of every citizen in a democracy. He grounds these practices in his "theology of democracy," based on the doctrine that each human bears the image of God and is thus of infinite worth. Civility is undermined by personal and socially irresponsible behaviour in the media, congress, and elsewhere that demonizes others and puts ideology before real people, while the ability to vote is undergoing a full frontal attack by, on the one hand, measures to suppress it for the young, the elderly, former prisoners, and racial minorities, and on the other, the "control of money over politics," which makes a mockery of a democratic commitment to one person, one vote.

For Wallis, pursuing this position and embodying these practices are vital if we are to have any hope of addressing the neuralgic issues that face contemporary America. The issues he highlights and discusses include human sexual trafficking; homelessness; schooling; feeding the hungry; immigration reform; reforming gun laws; racial profiling; strengthening marriage and households (fatherhood in particular); and how and what we eat. This may seem a rather idiosyncratic list of issues. It is. Others will see issues like climate change as more urgent. They may well be. But the position and practices still stand. Wallis's discussion of the issues merely illustrates the position. What defines it is the sense that, as Wallis puts it, the "great battle ahead of us will be about the nature of the society that God wants and, in particular, whether there is such a thing as the common good." Exactly right.

Outlining the position for the purposes of this review has taken a bit of reconstructive work, as the book does tend to jump around from one point to another rather than unfold a clearly developed argument. However, this is a pedantic gripe that should not put off most readers. But it does bring me to the issues of structure, voice, and genre. The first part of the book is homiletic. It combines biblical exegesis with personal testimony and literary, contemporary, and sometimes homely illustrations. The primary point of literary reference is C. S. Lewis's Narnia novels, which Wallis tells us he read on retreat before writing the book, while the testimonial is from Wallis's childhood in Detroit and formative experiences as a young adult at a Christian college and being involved in the civil rights movement.

His sermonic voice is used in the first three chapters to set out a theological case for why we need a "gospel of the kingdom" rather than an "atonement-only gospel." Wallis then uses it to speak to and unfold "biblical" responses, devoting a chapter each to poverty; economic globalisation; diversity as manifested in debates about national, cultural, and sexual identity; and Islam and the need to develop a constructive approach to inter-faith relations. Each one of these chapters is a stand-alone reflection. Together they are intended to lay the groundwork for taking seriously the need for a politics of the common good. In the shift from part one to part two, Wallis's voice changes from preacher to policy-wonk. The book is at its most compelling when these two voices combine. That said, it is a difficult thing to pull off.

In terms of the illustrative material, there are hints at compelling and fascinating stories that left me wanting more details. Wallis has unique access as a Christian leader to high-level political and economic figures and policy discussions at a national and international level. These range from his involvement in the World Economic Forum to directly lobbying Presidents and Prime Ministers. It would have been enormously helpful to hear more about how, for example, the "Circle of Protection" was set up and his own critical reflections on what it means for him personally and institutionally to engage with real power and the pressures and compromises it entails. For the challenges he deals with are an acute version of what faces any pastor who tries to engage politicians, whether at a local, regional, or national level.

Wallis's political position fits within a not unproblematic but rich American political tradition: populism. But it is one that sits outside the duopoly of the Democratic and Republican Parties. He is the heir to a figure like Williams Jennings Bryan. A standard bearer of evangelical Protestant Christianity, Bryan was nicknamed "the Great Commoner" for his ardent support and championing of the "producing classes" against their exploitation by the "plutocracy," by which was meant the east coast financiers. From 1896 onwards Bryan took on the mantle of leadership of the farmer-labour alliance that had shaped the Populist movement. Bryan's critique of plutocracy combined with the language of evangelical Protestantism, the Methodist camp meetings, and Baptist revivals generated a powerful rhetoric with which to challenge the status quo. Bryan stands at one end of and embodies a process of democratization in nineteenth-century America in which evangelicalism played a vital part. His synthesis of economic critique and Christian theology came to be exemplified in his famous "Cross of Gold" speech.

The challenge to the status quo adopted by Bryan and the Populists took on the character of the moral crusades such as the temperance movement with which they were aligned. As Michael Kazin notes in his book The Populist Persuasion: "The notion that a democratic politics must concern itself with the enforcement of ethical standards, both public and private, was integral to the appeal of Populism." What Populism and, I would argue, Wallis represent is the assertion of the priority of social relationships, and the upholding of common values and a common life over and against their instrumentalization and commodification through political and economic processes. (At this point there is a need to distinguish, as I have elsewhere, between the political populism of someone like Wallis, and anti-political populism as represented by the Tea Party.)

Wallis himself sees social movements as the key to political change. This comes out in the open letter to President Obama and also the one to the Occupy movement that he quotes from extensively at the end of the book. As he puts it in the letter to Occupy: "Popular movements are the only forces that truly bring about change in society." He confesses elsewhere that, "I have never seen the real changes come from inside politics. Instead, they come from outside social movements." Herein I think lies the roots of the conflation between bearing witness to the kingdom of God and the pursuit of a penultimate common good.

From the temperance and abolitionist movements to Occupy and the Tea Party, social movements are moral crusades with millennial expectations that politics can redeem the nation. They carry on the spirit of the Reformation in their zeal to re-make the world by a revolutionary act of will and through immanent processes. The contemporary forms of this millennialism can be nonreligious (such as the utopianism of libertarians). Yet the world viewed through such a millennial prism is recast in a Manichean division between good and evil that inherently demonizes one's political opponents and throws off civility as a carapace that stifles the pursuit of truth and justice. If the future is at stake and you already know the direction of history, then compromise and civility cannot be countenanced. Conversely, because the ambiguities and inevitable compromises of earthly politics will always disappoint, this zeal paradoxically breeds cynicism and despair, which in turn ploughs the ground so it is ready for the next millennial social movement that promises to "make a difference." For Wallis, the over-investment in social movements is in danger of undermining the position and practices he rightly calls for.

A genuine politics of the common good has a more sober outlook that recognizes not only that we are the change we've been waiting for, but also that we need to change. As fallen and finite humans we must listen to others not like us as we together forge a common life in which the flourishing of each is dependent on the flourishing of all. We can take the time to do so because, as Stanley Hauerwas has forcefully argued, Christians do not have to establish regimes to control the time so as to determine the outcome of history; rather, they can live out of control because the fulfilment of history is already inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this is a future we neither possess nor determine. It comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit and is not an immanent project to be accomplished through human hands. A Christian vision of time as history, as open to redemption and as fulfilled in the eschaton undergirds the possibility of democratic politics as a finite and contingent activity that has limits but also significance beyond the immediate needs and vicissitudes of the moment.

If the current age is all there is, then politics has no limits as it has to bear the full weight of human meaning and possibilities. The problem is not totalitarianism but the totalization of politics or economics as such, which leads either to an over-investment in political or economic projects as programs of salvation or an under-investment that despairs of any meaningful political or economic activity being possible. In contrast, when politics and economics are understood to be activities in the saeculum—that time between Christ's ascension and his return—they are freed to bring about a limited but nevertheless meaningful peaceableness.

Eschatology disqualifies any absolute claims of either the state or market to shape human life. But at this point the church—rather than social movements—becomes absolutely crucial. The church is necessary so as to hold open the existence of times and spaces that are not subject to political or economic control. On this account, the status of the church as a res publica is based on its vocation to bear witness within the political and economic order to an order and rule that is over and beyond this or that spatio-temporal order. However frustrating, paying attention to the church—not just social movements—is vital in order to keep a faithful politics humble and sober.

While the above critique is important for Wallis to consider, his own life experiences and his emphasis on social movements should provoke deep questioning on the part of the church. It is a challenge addressed by the Catholic theologian, Henri de Lubac, in a two-volume work in which he explores in detail the connections between medieval millennialism and modern political thought. De Lubac's study points to a key theological issue at stake in the modern appropriation of millennialism: that is, is the church the primary meditator of Divine revelation or can it be superseded in a new act of the Spirit by a revolutionary social movement? In short, has the Spirit left the building? If the church is to answer this question, then a politics of the common good ceases to be merely politically necessary, it becomes the means through which Christians listen to and follow after the work of the Spirit beyond the confines of the churches institutions.

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Luke Bretherton Luke Bretherton
Luke Bretherton is Associate Professor in Theological Ethics and a Senior Fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. ... read more »
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