NEW YORK – With a title culled in part from one of his favorite lines from Abraham Lincoln, Jim Wallis' latest book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving The Common Good, delves into a discussion on how different communities in America's increasingly pluralistic society can work together to improve public life for the common good.
Across 14 chapters in the nearly 300-page tome, Wallis calls for civil and open-minded discourse among and between religious, political and economic factions to create solutions to problems for the benefit of everyone. In the first chapter of the book, which he aptly titles, "A Gospel for the Common Good," Wallis challenges the religious community to think beyond its own interest.
Religion makes a big mistake when its primary public posture is to protect itself and its own interests. It's even worse when religion tries to use politics to enforce its own codes and beliefs or to use the force of law to control the behavior of others. Religion does much better when it leads – when it actually cares about the needs of everybody, not just its own community, and when it makes the best inspirational and commonsense case, in a pluralistic democracy, for public policies that express the core values of faith in regard to how we should all treat our neighbors.
He suggests in the book that being on God's side is a much more important endeavor for believers than getting God to agree with their position. This, however, required challenging strong personal opinions which is usually very difficult to do.
Trying to understand God's side means being more reflective and critical of ourselves and of "our side," which we must endeavor to transcend if our "greatest concern is to be on God's side."
Wallis goes on in the first section of the book to make the case that Christianity is not only about the salvation of the soul but about the way people of the faith should live in the world. The second part of the book that looks at "Practices for the Common Good" addresses issues such as civility in public and other areas of life; redeeming democracy; the harmful role of money in politics; rebuilding economic trust and nurturing healthy households.
The nearly 300-page tome sports copious amounts of biblical scripture and stories from Wallis' personal experience.
Last Friday night, Wallis, who is the president and CEO of Sojourners, was joined by Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post in a conversation about the book at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The event attracted a crowd of about 100 people and was moderated by the Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, senior religion editor of The Huffington Post.
Wallis admitted that he had been telling journalists all day that answering the questions about the meaning of "God's side" or the "common good" weren't easy but felt he at least was asking the right questions.
"I said, 'You know, I don't have easy answers to those questions but I think those are the right questions.' Struggling with the humility to ask, 'What would it mean to be on God's side?' Struggling to understand, to have a debate where the criteria is the common good," said Wallis to the gathering.
"What if the common good could bring us together?" he asked. "I always say, don't go left, don't go right, go deeper. How do we spark a national conversation about the common good?"
Arianna Huffington said she particularly liked the notion of not going left or right but deeper.
"We really need to go deeper even if we don't believe in a higher power. Even if we just believe in a higher power within us, the higher self, to go to that place. I call it wisdom, everybody can agree to that," she said.
"We look around and we see very brilliant leaders in politics, in business, in media making terrible decisions. It's not that they're not smart it's that they're not wise," she added.
During the question-and-answer segment of the event, however, it was James Arinaitwe, a Ugandan student in Yale University's Global Health program, who at first discussed glaring inequities in his own country and was asked by Wallis to explain the Ubuntu philosophy, which he also talks about in his book. Ubuntu, says Wallis, is the African equivalent of the common good.
Arinaitwe uses the example of a foreign anthropologist who visits Africa and sets up a challenge among African children using mangoes. He places mangoes before them and tells them:
"Run towards the mangoes and the one who gets there first and gets as many mangoes as he or she can will have the highest and biggest gift in the world."
When the anthropologist tells the children to run, however, instead of competing, the children lock hands, run towards the mangoes, surrounded them and eat the fruits together. The upset anthropologist looked at the children and told them they had failed.
The children, however, replied: "When we all eat together, when we enjoy it together, then we have succeeded, we are happy…we don't see one going without," explained Arinaitwe.
Wallis then references a Liberian activist who said, "I am what I am because of who we are," while exalting the notion that men cannot exist for themselves.