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Reading the Bible with a pair of scissors

By John McKinnon - posted Friday, 6 May 2005

Once in a while a book comes along that restores one’s faith and that causes one to say with the psalmist “Our God is in Heaven.” For those of us fed on the mainstream media’s reporting of US politics and evangelical Christianity in general, Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics, is such a book.

Let’s be clear up front. Jim Wallis is an evangelical Christian. He does believe the Bible; he does adhere to all the fundamental tenets of historical Christianity; he is morally conservative. What sets him apart from other US evangelicals we observe in the media is that he also socially progressive. Jim Wallis is doggedly anti-war, anti-capital punishment, passionate about fighting poverty and supports gay rights. Furthermore, he does not drape his faith in the US flag and is prepared to highlight hypocrisy in the US church and dangerous imperialism in its government. This unusual but extremely welcome combination makes this book a must-read for anyone interested in global politics per se and a Christian response to politics in particular.

Wallis writes from a US perspective in which the Right (and the religious Right in particular) trumpets moral values but in reality champions only two, namely abortion and homosexuality (strongly against both, of course). The Left, on the other hand, avoids any connection with religion while trying to push its progressive agenda. Hence the books sub-title - Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.


The religious Right, according to Wallis, misses the real essence of Jesus’ moral teaching, and in blindly pursuing its two key issues, actually ends up opposing much of what Jesus said. Hence, they get it wrong. The Left, with equal obsession, refuses to see that Christianity has a lot to say about its key issues of war and poverty. They just don’t get it.

For us in Australia, we might not have this clear delineation between right and left, although some see the Christian Democrat Party (CDP) in New South Wales, and the rise of Family First Party (FFP) as representing the political power of the religious Right. Many commentators saw the Liberal Party embrace this “religious Right” in the 2004 election, particularly in the NSW seat of Greenway. The Greens probably come closest to what Wallis calls the Left.

What Wallis calls for, in place of this current state of play, is “prophetic politics”. He calls on Christians to rise above political allegiances and put their commitment to God first. This would result in Christians lining up with the Left to fight poverty and war but perhaps with the Right on other issues. Rather than the Right using Christianity to push a right-wing agenda, Christians should be non-partisan, judging each issue by biblical standards and prophetically calling the nation to follow God’s standards of justice. He takes as his models the Jewish prophets, who continually spoke the unpopular truth about what they saw and called for higher standards of justice in their societies.

According to Wallis, it is not only possible to be morally conservative and socially progressive, but such a candidate would make a frightening opponent for the US major parties. Can we imagine a candidate in Australia who was pro-family without blaming gays and single mothers for society’s evils; pro-life (meaning a real desire to lower the abortion rate); anti-war; strong on personal responsibility and moral values; but also an environmentalist; supportive of the poor and refugees; tough on corporate and government corruption; and a dedicated multi-lateralist in foreign policy? Would such a candidate be successful here? According to Wallis, US Republicans would panic at the sight of such an opponent. How would Australian Liberals react?

Two issues in particular highlight for Wallis just how much the Right is wrong. The first is the Iraq war. Wallis points out that, whether one is a pacifist or an adherent to the Just War doctrine, the Iraq war was just plain wrong. The world Christian community was unanimous in opposing the war (apart from the US religious Right, of course). So why did the religious Right support the war? Wallis proposes a couple of theories. One is bad theology; a theology of US empire or pax Americana. The second is the religious Right’s belief that their moral agenda would be best served by unswerving allegiance to the Bush Administration. If this were the case, it is both delusional (the abortion rate under Bush is higher than under Clinton) and immoral expediency (the end justifying the means).

How should Christians respond to the “war on terror” and the events on September 11 2001? Wallis sides with other progressive commentators in promoting multi-lateralism, international co-operation, criminal proceedings (rather than military attacks) and addressing the underlying causes, such as poverty and injustice.


This brings Wallis to the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. Perhaps more than any other issue, this one has the potential to divide Christians and define their political stance. Wallis doesn’t enter the theological debate on the role of Israel in God’s continuing program, but simply calls a spade a spade. Terrorism is terrorism whether perpetrated by Palestinians or the Israeli Army. Even if Israel does have a special place in God’s future program, this does not excuse it from the type of justice championed by the Jewish prophets of old.

Wallis claims that the US leadership’s current accepted wisdom is that peace comes through domination; US domination, of course. Drawing heavily on the prophet Micah, Wallis gives the alternative view that peace follows justice. The US, of course, has the resources to pursue either. The recent nomination of Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy US Defence Secretary, as the new head of the World Bank only confirms the Wallis claim that the US still prefers the former approach.

The second key issue for Wallis is that of poverty. He quotes numerous shocking statistics highlighting the plight of the poor, both globally and, perhaps surprisingly given it is the world’s richest nation, in the US. According to Wallis, US evangelical Christians have done exactly what they accuse liberals of doing. That is, reading their Bibles with a pair of scissors. Wallis brings the issue of the poor back into the biblical centre, arguably where Jesus placed it. Rather than being a political football, poverty is a deep spiritual and moral issue. Rather than separating moral and economic issues, Wallis is adamant that budgets are moral documents.

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About the Author

John McKinnon is the NSW State Co-ordinator for Tear Australia, a Christian aid and development organisation. Until mid 2005, John worked as a senior executive in the finance industry. He lives in Sydney with his wife and four children. John has a BSc (Hons) in mathematics and an MA in Biblical Studies (New Testament).

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