Jim Wallis. The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014. 303 pp. $15.99.
For anyone familiar with the nearly 25-year-old Sojourners movement, there are few surprises in president Jim Wallis’s latest book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided. He strives to speak truth to power—whether that power is the U.S. government or the behemoth known as evangelicalism. The “truth” Wallis promotes includes the need for churches to be community organizers (21), for appropriations bills to fund poverty relief (79), for the Pentagon to focus on loving our Muslim neighbors (140), and for Congress to reauthorize the earned income and child tax credits (237). In short, in The (Un)Common Good Wallis restates his vision for an activist church and a beneficent government.
There is much for evangelical readers to disagree with here. For example, Wallis concedes that same-sex marriage is not sinful and should be welcomed in the church (127, 269). He argues that faithful Christians must not only agree on the imperative to fight poverty, but on the political means to wage that war (77). Finally, Wallis blurs the distinction between church and state when he calls on the military to utilize the kind of conflict resolution skills employed in a pastor’s office (133). Undoubtedly, many will read The (Un)Common Good and be put off by what appears to be a political agenda baptized in religious rhetoric.
However, to read this book as merely another tired jeremiad against political conservatism is to miss Wallis’s deeper theological concern: for Christians to care not only about the good of their own souls but the well-being of their neighbors. Wallis is careful to point out ways Republicans and Democrats have each fallen short of pursuing the common good, and his legitimate fear is that one day there won’t even be a shared consensus on what the common good is (294). These are the important questions Wallis addresses, and the answer promised in the subtitle of the book is alluring: “How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided.”
Unfortunately, this subtitle does not deliver on its promise.
There is reason to doubt whether the gospel Wallis espouses brings hope to a divided world. This is a serious criticism, but I will present two pieces of evidence in its defense. First, Wallis underappreciates the true gospel. Second, he overappreciates false religions.
Before I unpack my criticism, let me assert that I am strongly supportive of the questions Wallis is asking. Christians have always advocated for a common good. They have lived with the expectation that if the gospel changed their lives, it would by necessity change society as well. They have taken seriously Paul’s call to “do good to everyone” (Gal. 6:10). Historians have recorded the way Christians saved babies left to die by pagans in the early days of the church, fought against the slave trade in 18th-century England, preached immediate emancipation of slaves in 19th-century America, and now defend the unborn. Though the list of evangelical sins is long, the Christian vision for a truly virtuous society (the way our ancestors would have discussed “common good”) runs deep—as well it should.
The Christian’s approach to society must begin with the conviction that when a person submits to the message of the cross, his life changes. He moves from being selfish to selfless. He moves from loving himself to loving his neighbor. Thankfully, there are many non-Christians who strive to help the poor and needy. This is God’s common grace. But the Christian will do more than deliver the poor from poverty; he will strive to deliver the poor from sin and death. And the only thing powerful enough to win this kind of deliverance is the good news of Jesus Christ. This is where The Uncommon Good falls short.
Underappreciating What’s True
To his credit, Wallis affirms that “the cross and resurrection are absolutely essential” to his theology (29). But he leaves it to the reader to imagine how. Wallis is offended that so many professing Christians fail to fight for justice (serve the poor, promote racial reconciliation, lobby politicians) in their communities and beyond. He asserts that the problem is their theology. They have adopted what he calls a “private atonement gospel” which makes justice an implication—and if it is only an implication “it can easily become optional and, especially in privileged churches, almost nonexistent” (59; see also 5, 25, 35, 43). The gospel of the New Testament, Wallis insists, has social transformation at its heart: “Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom of God was for the sake of the world and not just for the sake of religious believers” (14).
But by diminishing the personal nature of the gospel, Wallis has actually shot a bullet through the foot of social change. Here’s why: robust commitment to penal substitutionary atonement drives Christians to love their neighbors and do good to all. A thorough understanding of what God has done for us in Christ should lead to a life overflowing with good works—both private and public. And when it doesn’t, it is not because the gospel is intellectually misunderstood, but because it is willfully disobeyed. A perfect example of this relationship is found in Colossians 3. Paul is eager for the young Christians in Colossae to live godly lives. He expects not only personal morality, but a morality with public effects. But the apostle roots this call to action in a personal gospel:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3:1–4)
Only after reminding them of the gospel does Paul go on to speak of their need to bless their families and communities. In his mind, it all begins with the gospel that personally changes individuals. When he wants Christians to act, then, he doesn’t diminish the cross, the resurrection, and our future hope. In fact, Paul does the opposite: he tells believers to lean into these truths.
By diminishing the centrality of atonement to the gospel, Wallis has pulled the rug out from under the message designed to change lives and affect communities. The reason so many believers are awash in materialistic, self-centered lifestyles is not because they have thought too much about cross, resurrection, and heaven, but because they’ve thought too little.
Wallis is right to criticize Christians and churches who have refused to live out their theology. This failure clearly had a formative effect on his own life. In what is by far the most poignant part of the book, Wallis describes his childhood at a Plymouth Brethren church in Detroit. The civil rights movement was in full swing, but his church refused to be involved. Though they sang about Jesus loving all the children of the world, Wallis explains, how “the only children in our sight were white kids; we never saw any black people at all, except when we would pass them downtown and my grandmother would have us wash our hands afterward” (55). Then, when he finally convinced the elders of the church to discuss race relations, their response was repulsive. Wallis remembers an elder asking, “Would you really want your sister to marry one?” (57). No wonder Wallis concludes, “It was the night that I left my church—at least in my head and heart.”
Wallis identified a real problem: professing Christians promoting racism. His solution was to argue they adopted the wrong gospel, the “private atonement gospel.” In reality, however, they were being tragically disobedient to the right gospel. Christians today desperately need to be encouraged to step out of their comfort zones and love their neighbors in radical ways. Wallis and I agree on that much. But underappreciating the true gospel will not help the cause.
Overappreciating What’s False
Is the gospel really the only hope of bringing unity to a divided world? That’s what the subtitle of The (Un)Common Good implies. However, Wallis indicates that there’s hope to be found in religions that reject the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a staggering problem in a book dedicated to presenting a Christian vision for the common good.
Early on, Wallis asserts that most every faith tradition ties loving neighbor to loving God (xii). A few pages later, he encourages us to “reclaim the neglected common good . . . in the ministry of our churches, synagogues, and mosques” (5). Wallis seems to put all “faith traditions” on equal footing when he refers to “our brothers and sisters from Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, [and] Hinduism” (13). Does he mean brothers and sisters in the sense of sharing the image of God or brothers and sisters in the sense of enjoying God’s peace when we die? It’s unclear. And when considering the religious fundamentalism that leads to so much conflict in the world, it’s not the gospel that Wallis singles out as our only hope but rather “the genuine faith tradition that is alive and well in most world religions” (145). And is the gospel the only answer to the greed and materialism run amok in today’s world? Apparently not, for Wallis simply encourages his readers to “develop Christian, Jewish, and Muslim responses to it” (215).
If the gospel is nothing more than “love your neighbor,” then Wallis’s appeal to the best of every world religion makes sense. But if, as Wallis himself says, “the cross and resurrection are absolutely essential” to his faith and theology, then I wonder what this could possibly mean if everything we need for the common good can be found in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
The World’s Only Hope
There is much to be commended in The (Un)Common Good. Wallis has a beautiful chapter where he fleshes out his own commitments as a husband and father. In his epilogue he lays out 10 decisions to be made for the common good, and I can agree with each one! But on the whole, there is nothing fundamentally “evangelical” about this book. It is billed as a prescription for wielding the gospel to bring “hope to a world divided,” but the gospel Wallis describes falls far short of the one I read in the New Testament.
Those who profess faith in Christ should not rest comfortably while our neighbors throughout the world suffer in material and spiritual poverty. But those who profess social action should not rest in any gospel other than that of a Savior who died in the place of sinners, bore the wrath of God that we deserved, conquered death, and promises eternal life to all who submit to him. This is the gospel, and it is the only hope for a world divided.