A revealing thing happens when you remove yourself from the daily drum of politics and become a mere observer. I did just that last year, during some of the most divisive moments of the presidential election. Sitting back and watching the deluge of insults and accusations that feeds our political system, I witnessed the worst of us as a nation. And I came to the conclusion that it’s time to reframe our priorities.
When did we trade the idea of public servants for the false idols of power and privilege? When did we trade governing for campaigning? And when did we trade valuing those with the best ideas for rewarding those with the most money?
We’ve lost something as a nation when we can no longer look at one another as people, as Americans, and — for people of faith — as brothers and sisters. Differing opinions have become worst enemies and political parties have devolved into nothing more than petty games of blame.
During a three-month sabbatical, observing this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, I prayed, meditated, read — and then I put pen to paper. The resulting book gets to the root of what I believe is the answer to our current state of unrest. It is not about Right and Left — or merely about partisan politics — but rather about the quality of our life together. It's about moving beyond the political ideologies that have both polarized and paralyzed us, by regaining a moral compass for both our public and personal lives — and reclaiming an ancient, yet urgent and timely idea: the common good.
I called the book On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, pulling from a famous Abraham Lincoln quote: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
That was probably the most important thing about religion ever said by an American president. Presidents and policymakers usually want to claim that God is on their side, their country's side, and even their political party’s side. But what does it mean to be on God’s side?
I believe it starts with focusing on the common good — not just in politics, but in all the decisions we make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, communal, and, public lives. That old but always new ethic simply says we must care for more than just ourselves or our own group. We must care for our neighbor as well, and for the health of the life we share with one another. It echoes a very basic tenet of Christianity and other faiths — love your neighbor as yourself — still the most transformational ethic in history.
As a Christian believer, I hold that call close to my heart and see that the biblical call to the common good means caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, and valuing others as ourselves. These ideals inform my steps as a follower of Jesus, but they are also key to moving our country forward regardless of our religious faith, spiritual identity, or none of the above. The common good is a moral call for us all as men and women, husbands and wives, daughters and sons, employees and colleagues, friends and acquaintances, religious and secular. It’s what we owe each to each other.
How can we inspire the common good in every aspect of our lives? What does the common good in practice look like?
Well, we are seeing it today, even in some corners of Washington, D.C. It is playing out in the immigration debate as bipartisan groups come together to find common ground for the 11 million individuals whose lives are torn apart by our broken immigration system. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have come to understand the moral imperative of ensuring the well-being of those within our country — of keeping families together and welcoming those who already share their lives, their work, and their church pews with us. If we can uphold the common good on immigration, I believe it is possible elsewhere.
It’s time to ask what it would look like if we could practice the common good in the massive debates that are now dividing our country: economic fairness and social trust; the purpose rather than the size of government; the moral path to fiscal sustainability, ethics for globalization; coming together to holistically prevent gun violence; conflict resolution over endless wars; and countless others.
And if we are truly committed to discovering what it means to be on God's side, it is time to go much deeper in seeking a redemptive path forward. It's time to move beyond our shallow and superficial, often hateful politics and media. It’s time to do the spiritual reflection that could provide the moral compass that our politics and economics have lost and that even our religions can forget.
As I wrote, my purpose became ever more clear: to help spark a national conversation about the meaning and application of the common good. Although the call to the common good goes back centuries, the need for a new dialogue about what it means and what its practice would require of us has never seemed more critical.
On Monday, I begin a nationwide tour — 40 events in 16 cities so far. During these “Common Good Forums,” I hope to help lead the conversation on how we can move forward in our communities, cities, neighborhoods, and ultimately as a country, joining together in the common good.
And you can join me: on Facebook and Twitter, I will be posting my thoughts, sharing photos from the road, and offering exclusive access to the conversations that will help shape this national dialogue. And I want to hear back from you, too!
I think it is fitting that this whole process begins right after we walk through Holy Week. I’ve felt the weight of this season on my soul as I look at where we are as a nation. It’s a weight that reflects the very real brokenness of this world, evident in not only our politics, but in our daily walk as we ‘do life’ together and too often fail to see the face of God in each other.
But there is a hope and a true joy in the redemption that we get to share this Sunday.
I pray that this book’s message will carry with it that hope during a time when many still feel quite hopeless. For a whole new generation, the common good is becoming an ethic and a vision worth committing one’s life to. The opening sentence carries a hope that many people are hungry for:
“Our life together can be better.”
Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, releases April 1. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.