Written during his sabbatical in the Obama presidency, Jim Wallis's On God's Side forensically, or as one of our number preferred, depressingly, analysed the current state of politics, mainly in the US but with many global similarities. He illustrated the power of money over democracy and argues that all political parties seem to prefer winning over governing, ideology over civility and celebrity culture over leadership. Fear and blame he cites as the default policy, whilst meanwhile, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Since the book was written, we felt that things had only got worse.
Wallis called for the need of both the personal responsibility credo of the 'conservatives' and the social responsibility of the 'liberals' and a return to seeking 'the common good'. However, he argued that with a broken political system in so many countries, real change has usually needed a background movement of popular support. We broadly agreed with this, as several of our members have seen 'active service' on apartheid and campaigns from people like Amnesty International and 38 Degrees.
Having left his family's church because of its emphasis on how to get to heaven rather than how to live on earth, Wallis criticises aspects of both the 'conservative' churches and 'liberal' churches. He urges all sections of the church to come together and work for the common good.
Reactions to the book varied. Although the writing is accessible, some found it hard going, in that there was a lot of content. Others found it very repetitive and felt it could have been written in far fewer pages. However, several said that his chapter on the Good Samaritan and 'who is my neighbour', was especially inspiring and inciteful. There was general agreement that his description of the current political and public cultures was both accurate and disturbing.
The second half of the book was about practices for the common good. Many felt that the ideas on redeeming democracy, changing to a servant government and winning economic trust were admirable. However, they seem aspirational rather than realistic in today's world, without a persuasive background movement to change politician's minds and behaviours, especially in how they treat 'the least, the last and the lost'.
We did agree with the author that on a personal and local level, we had much more potential to bring about change through our own decision-making on needs, values, choices and behaviours. Discussions on the extent to which our present churches did enough for the common good of our local communities, produced some spirited discussions and challenges to reflect on.
Finally, two quotes from the book seemed to strike a chord with all of us. One was Abraham Lincoln's quote that, "My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God' side". The second was by Hubert Humphrey some 40 years ago but very challenging in the present day. "It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."