Pursuing the Common Good: An Interview with Jim Wallis
Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, has been named by Newsweek as one of the leading "faces of Christian politics." But he's also considered by some to only be a leader of the "Christian left." I've been inspired by Wallis on many issues and particularly the way he always seems to keep his cool, but I've also found myself critical of some of his more partisan behavior. In my book A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, I said of Wallis:
An ordained minister in the American Baptist Church, you won’t find him behind a pulpit on Sunday mornings. He gave the Democratic weekly radio address after the 2006 midterm elections, and has written several books including, God’s Politics. Wallis has been accused of affixing Bible verses to Democratic talking points and is “an adviser to Democrats." In the 2004 Presidential election year, Wallis’ magazine Sojourners published full page ads in publications including The New York Times that read, “God is not Republican . . . or Democrat.” But the message seemed to be “God is probably a Democrat.”
His new book, On God's Side, attempts to find common ground between the left and right, and I found it to be helpful in thinking through many issues. Yet I still wanted clarity on some things he asserts and the question I raised in my own book, so I decided to take some time to dialogue with him. Here we talk about partisanship, immigration, gay marriage, and the common good.
JM: The subtitle of your new book is “What religion forgets and politics hasn’t learned about serving the common good.” The last phrase—“the common good”—is one that is increasingly being used by Christian leaders. How do you define it?
JW: Well, I found this wonderful quotation from John Chrysostom who was an early church father. He said, “This is the rule of the most perfect Christianity. It’s most exact definition, it’s highest point, namely the seeking of the common good. For nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.” John was born in 347, so this is way back historically. It’s language that has had some contemporary use, but it is language that goes back for centuries. It’s an ancient idea whose time has finally come.
For Christians, the foundation for it is when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. He was asked questions by lawyers—I think they were probably Washington lawyers—about who is our neighbor. His answers are the spiritual foundation for the common good. It’s to love your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Literally, that means it’s okay for me to love my 14-year-old and 9-year-old sons as much as I do, but if I take Jesus’ words seriously, I have to love others' kids as much as I love my own. That’s a very transformational ethic.
What the common good is isn’t always clear, but the point is that this is the right question, this is the right framework. It’s a prerequisite to finding out what’s right and what works instead of what’s left and what’s right.