Chuck Chalberg of the Democracy Project carries a review of Jim Wallis’s book God’s Politics: Why The Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Just Doesn’t Get It. I heard about this through Andy Jackson’s Smart Christian Blog and it’s also being talked about at Stone’s Cry Out, Mere Comments, and the Seventh Age.
It’s a pretty thorough and even brutal fisking of Wallis and the book as a whole, and let me say up front that I share Chalberg’s views. But, since it comes from a right wing political slant, I’m afraid that Wallis and those on the political left will cry foul. But if they cry foul they will have missed the most important point, and I am afraid that those on the right will miss that same most important point if they get too carried away with high fiving each other after reading this review. The most important point is in the first paragraph, and it applies equally to the political right and left:
Jim Wallis may not like this. He may even be shocked to read this. But here goes. He could benefit by emulating Jerry Falwell less and G.K. Chesterton more. Nearly a century ago G. K. Chesterton asked “what’s wrong with the world?” His answers included the usual suspects among the universal “isms,” especially socialism, feminism, capitalism, and imperialism. But his first and last answer was always the same: “I am.” If only Jim Wallis would be tempted to give a similar answer. Instead he’s busy telling us what’s wrong with everyone and everything else. Apparently things like that befall those who carry the special burden of claiming to know “God’s politics” and believing that they have discovered a third way.
I try to stay out of politics in my blogging for three reasons. Reason number one is that I don’t know enough about modern politics, politicians and political parties to add anything of substance to the debate. Reason two is that of the 11 million weblogs tracked by Technorati, there must be ten and a half million talking politics. For me to write on politics would be like turning on a fan in a hurricane – it wouldn’t matter much. But third, and most importantly, I subscribe to Jacques Ellul’s notion of the political illusion:
At present, the greatest problem is the citizen in the clutches of political power. . . .
To think of everything as political, to conceal everything by using this word (with intellectuals taking the cue from Plato and several others), to place everything in the hands of the state, to appeal to the state in all circumstances, to subordinate the problems of the individual to those of the group, to believe that political affairs are on everybody’s level and everybody is qualified to deal with them—these factors characterize the politicization of modern man and, as such, comprise a myth.
This is where Chalberg hits the nail on the head. Chesterton says the problem with the world today is me – change me and change the world. Falwell and Wallis say the problem with the world is you, or ya’ll. If I can change ya’ll I can change the world. How can I change ya’ll? Politics of course. Ellul says that this is an illusion.
Those on the right will counter by saying Ellul’s words don’t apply, after all, isn’t it the right that is arguing for smaller government? This is true to some extent, but the right is still using the political process to weaken the power of government. I don’t know if you can do that. Ellul doesn’t seem to think this will work:
But, it might be objected, is the politically interested citizen not eager to see power controlled, rather than to see its growth further promoted? This is a great illusion. The more an individual has become politicized, the more he will see and think about all problems as political problems, the more importance will he attach to political action, and consider it the only possible course and, by his attitude, endow that course with a maximum of power and effectiveness. At the same time, the more politicized he is, the more will he be focused on and oriented toward that basic political force and form: the state. The more he takes recourse to the state, the more power he gives it. . . . At each step, state power is increased. The people under the spell of politics seek less and less to control the state; politicizing everything, they consider it normal that the state should constantly expand its area of action and use ever more instruments of power. This is legitimate in their eyes, as they believe that all will be solved by political action.
Ellul is saying it is an illusion to think you can use politics to limit politics. I suppose it’s like trying to stop a big snowball by throwing little snowballs at it.
Still, Ellul’s comments here can be taken too far. Ellul is trying to say that the greatest problems we face don’t have political solutions and that is true and fair enough. But this could be taken to mean that we should have no involvement in politics whatsoever, and that would be a mistake. The greatest problems we face don’t have economic solutions, but that doesn’t mean we quit making and spending money. The greatest problems we face don’t have educational solutions, but that doesn’t mean we tear down the schools and quit educating ourselves and our kids.
Similarly, we shouldn’t abandon politics altogether, we just need to put it in its place. Unfortunately, I don’t know where in the pecking order of priorities in life politics should go, I just no it shouldn’t be at the top.
Both Falwell and Wallis are ministers who proclaim a message that transcends politics. Maybe they need to do a better job of reminding their constituents that the greatest problems in the world are in their hearts, not in the Democratic (if you are Jerry Falwell) or Republican (if you are Jim Wallis) political parties. And maybe they could remind their constituents that the ultimate solutions to these problems aren’t found in the statehouse or in Washington DC.