Given my self-selected blog posting name, it should come as no surprise that I put Jim Wallis's new book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (New York: HarperCollins, 2005) at the top of my bedtime reading list. Ever since the post-mortem on last November's election that proclaimed the importance of morality and faith to voting patterns, Wallis has been making the rounds as a spokesperson for an alternative, "Progressive" faith perspective. I have long admired Wallis and his various public endeavors, such as Sojourners, advocating that Christians get more involved in issues of poverty and social justice. And I am glad that Wallis is out there preaching a new vision of faith in action.
Yet as a self-proclaimed Christian leftist, something bugs me about Wallis's approach. In his public speeches and, now, this book, Wallis tries to portray himself as beyond left or right by taking shots at both "sides" (often conflating the terms liberal/conservative with left/right as many do nowadays) and declaring himself to be above the fray. Yet, truth be told, the prophetic positions that Wallis often takes are at the root traditional left-wing positions: strong opposition to U.S. overseas imperialism and in particular against the war in Iraq, advocacy for government action to alleviate poverty, rallying behind the banner of economic and social justice, etc. There is even a refreshingly bold chapter in the book advocating a more radical position on the Israel-Palestine question, which is even further to the Left of what most Democrats would publicly say.
Probably the most powerful statement in the whole book is one crafted by 200 Christian theologians and ethicists, which Wallis quotes at length. This "new confession of Christ" (pp. 153-154) is a powerful and, to me, prophetic vision against narrow nationalism and patriotism. "Whenever Christianity compromises with empire," it reads, "the gospel of Christ is discredited." (The full statement is available on the Sojourners web-site.) I find myself standing with Wallis, Sojourners, and all those other Christians who want to advocate for peace, equality, and justice.
Yet I wonder all along why Wallis doesn't just call this growing movement what it is: The Christian Left. That's right. Why should we be afraid to say it? I know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is beyond any earthly political party. (And I agree that "God is Not a Republican or a Democrat"...) But is there some reason why we are afraid to say that the Christian Gospel calls us to stand with the poor, the powerless, the marginalized, the oppressed, and those on whom war is made? And against the wealthy, the powerful, the oppressors, and the imperial military machine? That sounds like "the left" to me! In my mind it is pretty clear that the Gospel is a radical document and that Jesus was a radical political AND religious prophet. As we stand against current-day Empire, and the morally obscene inequalities of wealth and power, we need not hamstring ourselves trying to prove how "centrist" or "anti-extremist" we are. The Christian Gospel IS radical, and we should not be afraid to proclaim it!
I know that since 1990 people think it is unfashionable to claim to be on "The Left" anymore, but what hope do we have for real deep, meaningful political change in our society if we shy away from a bold, Christian embrace of the egalitarian, justice-seeking ideals of the Left? (Note to Jim Wallis: Since when are you afraid to be counter-cultural and go against current fashion?) Powerful forces of wealth and privilege in our society have largely succeeded in driving out the economic justice language of the Left and have replaced it with a culture war discourse. I know that in the short term it seems expedient to play the "neither left nor right" game, but in the long run, I would argue, we cannot bring our Christian values and ideals into the political realm WITHOUT embracing the Left again. We are the Christian Left, and we should not be afraid to say so!