Our Life Together

Jim Wallis: Our Life Together

On God's Side: For the Common Good

This is an extract from the Preface of On God's Side: For the Common Good by Jim Wallis. It is reproduced by kind permission of Lion Hudson Plc.
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It’s time to find a better vision for our life together. Politics is failing to solve most of the biggest problems our world now faces - and the disillusionment with elections and politicians has gone global. Politicians continue to focus on blame instead of solutions, winning instead of governing, ideology instead of civility. As the most expensive election in American history just showed, the financial checks have replaced all the balances in our public life. But cynicism cannot be our response to failed politics. Instead, we must go deeper.

Solving the world’s problems requires a commitment to a very ancient idea whose time has urgently come: the common good. How do we work together, even with people we don’t agree with? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another? How do we move beyond the interests of left and right and become accountable to a higher good? Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we make our personal and public lives better.

But the public discussion we must now have about the common good concerns not just politics but also all the decisions we are making in our personal, family, vocational, financial, congregational, communal, and yes, public lives. It is those individual and communal choices that will ultimately create the cultural shifts and social movements that really do change politics in the long run. 

For Christians, the idea of the common good derives from Jesus’s commandment to love our neighbor - including “the least of these” - which is still the most transformational social ethic the world has ever seen. But all our faith traditions agree that loving our neighbor is required if we say we love God. Making our treatment of the most vulnerable the moral test of any society’s “righteousness” or integrity is ultimately the best way to make absolutely sure that we are protecting the human life and dignity of all God’s children.

A commitment to the common good is also the best way to find common ground with other people - even with those who don’t agree with us or share our faith commitments. And that commitment to the common good is especially attractive to young people, who are part of the fastest-growing group in surveys about religious preference: those who check “none of the above.”

The results of the US presidential election showed how dramatically a very diverse America is changing. Those changes reflect a global reality. Everywhere now, people are longing for a vision of the common good that includes us all. The common good welcomes all the “tribes” into God’s beloved community, and our social behavior and public policies must demonstrate that. In places like the UK, all of Europe, and the US, governments and citizens are grappling with how to truly create a multicultural society. And as we face issues like austerity, sustainability, opportunity, and fairness in many of our countries, it is time to bring ethics, values, and moral choices into our critical decisions.

Many people feel politically homeless in the raging battles between ideological extremes. But they could find their home in a new call for the common good - a vision drawn from the heart of our religious traditions that allows us to make our faith public but not narrowly partisan and to join with others of different faiths, or even no faith, who share common moral sensibilities. We need to transcend the power of markets and the reach of governments by holding both them and all of us accountable to the common good.

To be on God’s side and not merely claim that God is on ours means to live out the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I wrote this book during a sabbatical time that drew me deeper into my own faith and into my understanding of the common good. I hope you will join the common good conversation, which I believe could be transformative for us all.

A Gospel for the Common Good

‘This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its 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 Chrysostom (ca. 347–407)1

Our life together can be better. Ours is a shallow and selfish age, and we are in need of conversion – from looking out just for ourselves to also looking out for one another. It’s time to hear and heed a call to a different way of life, to reclaim a very old idea called the common good. Jesus issued that call and announced the kingdom of God—a new order of living in sharp contrast to all the political and religious kingdoms of this world. That better way of life was meant to benefit not only his followers but everybody else too. And that is the point of it.

Christianity is not just a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of all others. Rather, it’s a call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships. Jesus told us a new relationship with God also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbor, especially with the most vulnerable of this world, and even with our enemies. But we don’t always hear that from the churches. This call to love our neighbor is the foundation for reestablishing and reclaiming the common good, which has fallen into cultural and political – and even religious - neglect.

Judaism, of course, agrees that our relationship with God is supposed to change all our other relationships, and Jesus’s recitation of the law’s great commandments to love God and your neighbor flows right out of the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus (see Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). Islam also connects the love of Allah with love and responsibility to our neighbors. In fact, virtually all the world’s major religions say that you cannot separate your love for God from your love for your neighbor, your brothers and sisters. Even the nonreligious will affirm the secular equivalent of “the Golden Rule”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

That transformation of all our relationships, especially the clear connection between loving God and loving your neighbor, has always— when lived out—been the best catalyst for movements aimed at improving the human community. But  the common good is quite uncommon today. We seem to have lost this unifying vision in our community and public life, and especially in our politics—on both sides of the aisle. In the intensely ideological and increasingly vitriolic political battles of Washington, DC, and other world capitals, the common good is virtually ignored.

So it’s time to listen again to an old but always new vision that could, and is supposed to, change our selfish behavior - and make us happier too. Jesus said those who live by the beatitudes of his kingdom are “blessed” or “happy” (Matt. 5:3–12). But it’s a happiness different from and deeper than what we are offered by a selfish society, which actually makes us feel quite fearful and unhappy.

I am a Christian. And this book is about three clear things. First, Christian conversion involves more than just the destiny of the soul; it involves the way we live in the world. Second, faith transcends politics, and Christianity doesn’t only translate into right-wing voting issues, despite what  both the conservative and liberal media love to keep saying. But neither can it be repositioned into left-wing politics. We don’t simply need a religious left to counter the religious right. Third, faith should be lived out in our public life for the common good. As people of faith, our challenge is to rise above  political ideology and lead on moral grounds. Don’t go right, don’t go left; go deeper. The common good is about so much more than partisan politics. It grows out of our personal and family lives, our vocational callings, the mission and witness of our congregations, the moral power of social movements, and the independent integrity of prophetic religious leadership in our public life as we fight not just for ‘our’ rights but for the rights of all people.

It is time to reclaim the neglected common good and to learn how faith might help, instead of hurt, in that important task. Our public life could be made better, even transformed or healed, if our religious traditions practised what they preached in our personal lives; in our families’ decisions; in our work and vocations; in the ministry of our churches, synagogues, and mosques; and in our collective witness. In all these ways we can put the faith community’s influence at the service of this radical neighbor-love ethic that is both faithful to God and to the common good.

© Jim Wallis

On God's Side: For the Common Good

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Jim Wallis is a New York Times bestselling author, public theologian, speaker, and international commentator on ethics and public life. He recently served on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and currently serves as the vice chair of the Global Agenda Council on Values of the World Economic Forum. His most recent books include: Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery; The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America; and God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. He is president and founder of Sojourners, where he is also editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, which has a combined print and electronic media readership of over a quarter of a million. His columns appear in major American newspapers, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe. He frequently appears on radio and television in the US and speaks internationally.  He has taught at Harvard University and currently teaches a course on “Faith, Social Justice, and Public Life” at Georgetown University.

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