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The Jim Wallis Interview: What Abe Lincoln, C.S. Lewis, Narnia and Puddleglum can teach us about the Common Good

Click the cover of the book to visit its Amazon page.

Click the cover of the book to visit its Amazon page.

THE COMMON GOOD. When is the last time you heard that phrase? Perhaps it came from a memorable high school teacher, a beloved mentor in your profession, or a wise aunt who taught you a lot about life. Now, best-selling author and social-justice activist Jim Wallis is barnstorming the country trying to rescue that phrase from the cob webs of nostalgia.

This idea is so powerful, Wallis argues, that it may hold the key to finally resolving the political and cultural wars that have brought America and the rest of the world to a standstill.

In today’s interview with ReadThespirit Editor David Crumm (below), Jim Wallis talks about how this idea suddenly resurfaced in his own life—during a retreat in a remote forest where he says he could almost feel the great Lion Aslan from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels walking at his side. This is part of the inspiring story that Wallis tells in his new book: On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.

All this week in the OurValues column, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker will explore the practical implications of the Common Good in today’s political, cultural and global crises. If you order a copy of Jim’s book (click the book cover, above, to visit its Amazon page), you will find that this interview and Baker’s OurValues series cover the book’s two major parts: Part 1, Inspiring the Common Good, and Part 2, Practices for the Common Good.

Here is David Crumm’s interview with Jim Wallis …

OUR INTERVIEW WITH JIM WALLIS ABOUT
‘ON GOD’S SIDE’ & REDISCOVERING THE COMMON GOOD

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural inscribed inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural inscribed inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

DAVID: Your book makes an eloquent Christian case for rediscovering the Common Good; you show how this concept flows upwards to us from the roots of Christianity in Jesus’s teachings. You explain how C.S. Lewis’s Aslan the Lion reminds you of this truth. However, before you introduce readers to Aslan, you introduce Abraham Lincoln. You quote, at length, from his Second Inaugural. The Common Good is a deeply religious idea, you argue—but, first, you point out that it’s also an American civic ideal as articulated by Lincoln and enshrined in Washington DC. Why did you decide to start with Lincoln?

Detail of the inscription of Lincoln's Second Inaugural inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

Detail of the inscription of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

JIM: Readers actually meet Lincoln right on the book’s cover. That cover is a lovely photo of the Lincoln Memorial at night. It’s my favorite of all the monuments in Washington—and I love the Second Inaugural. When I was tutoring inner-city kids and trying to help them learn to read, I sometimes would take them to the Lincoln Memorial and ask them to sound out word-for-word the Second Inaugural, especially: “With malice toward none, with charity for all …” In his final years, Lincoln was working so hard to bring the nation back together that he was no longer interested in simply identifying who was right and who was wrong.

There is so much in the Second Inaugural that we should study today. He actually talks about how Americans on both sides of the Civil War “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” Then, he points out that “the prayers of both could not be answered.” What Lincoln is describing here is conflict resolution. In the real world, we do resolve most of our human conflicts without resorting to violence. We resolve conflicts—large and small—in a peaceful way every day. War really is a failure, Lincoln is saying.

THE COMMON GOOD: AN OLD IDEA FORGOTTEN TODAY

DAVID: This is a good point to ask a practical question on behalf of our regular readers: If we already own some of your other books—why buy this one? And I think you’ve just touched on that unique, central theme of this new book. Right after quoting Lincoln in the book, you argue: “Lincoln had it right. The biggest problem with religion is that people, groups, institutions, nations, and all of our human sides sometimes try to bring God onto our side. When people and groups are sure they are right, they want to confidently say that God agrees with them. … The much harder task, and the more important one, is to ask how to be on God’s side, as Lincoln is suggesting.”

Jim Wallis, courtesy of the publisher.

Jim Wallis, courtesy of the publisher.

JIM: This is really the first time I’ve focused a book on the common good, which is such an old idea and yet is almost forgotten today. In our various traditions, the common good really is a powerful notion that we are all accountable for each other. If we can restore that sense of the common good, we can move forward. In the book’s subtitle I say that politicians don’t learn about serving the common good anymore. Now that I am touring the country and talking about this book with readers, I actually wish I could go back and make that subtitle even stronger: Now, I’d say “Politics is the Enemy of the Common Good.”

DAVID: In the new book, you’re also saying something quite provocative about the nature of your own Christian faith. You’re saying that Christianity is not about each person grabbing a ticket to heaven. More than that, you argue that the purpose of religion is not to prove that we’re right and then to impose our slate of pre-determined values on others. You write that Jesus’s “better way of life wasn’t meant to benefit just Christians, but everybody else, too.” Am I fairly summarizing this?

JIM: Yes, you’re doing well in explaining it. We are called for the sake of other people, not just ourselves. That’s the point of the whole thing. We live in a  pluralistic society—religiously and politically—so I’m asking: How do we evoke our faith in a context that is democratic? The whole idea is that we cannot lead by control, by imposing our control on others. But we can lead others by example, by lifting up the values we can all hold for our common good. This is a servant posture, not a posture of campaigning to impose our will on everyone. Dr. Martin Luther King never said: I get to win because I’m a Christian. He never said that. He said: We have to win the debate about the common good. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were not just good for blacks or for Baptists. These laws were a part of restoring and protecting the common good. King understood that.

THE COMMON GOOD IN CHRISTIANITY AND NARNIA

DAVID: In the second chapter of your book, you shift from Lincoln and your critique of the sorry state of American politics to the heart of your own faith—Christianity. You put it bluntly: Christians disagree about the main message of Christianity. You write: “If Jesus is mostly a private figure for our individual lives, our faith will be primarily personal and not much engaged in the societies in which we live. If Jesus just provides us a pathway to heaven, we won’t be much concerned with what happens on this earth. Or if we create a Jesus mostly in our own image, he won’t be very useful to ‘others’ who are unlike us.” Then, you add a crucial “But”!

You continue: “But if Jesus came because ‘God so loved the world,’ he will be a different Jesus for us. … If Jesus came to create a new community and not just save people, then that community’s collective life in the world will be of crucial importance. And if we as individuals are so drawn to Jesus that we want to learn the ways he would have us live, he becomes the Living Teacher who walks among us. All of which brings me to a lion.”

That’s how you introduce the section on Aslan. So, Jim, tell us about your encounter with Aslan the Lion.

JIM: I devote a whole chapter to that story. I began the sabbatical I took to write this new book by taking a retreat with a monastic community overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I’ve always loved Lewis’s stuff; I own all of his books. I’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia to our boys. We’ve seen the movie versions. I’ve been very familiar with the stories for years. But, there in this isolated retreat, I found some old copies of the Narnia novels in a little library they had organized for guests. I pulled out The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first Narnia novel, and decided I would re-read just that one.

DAVID: In describing this dramatic new encounter with Narnia, you write: “Sometimes I felt like Aslan was walking beside me, up and down the coastal hills to the sea, teaching me again what it means to be a Narnian. The lion helped inspire my hope to write a biblical and theological defense of the common good, something that has been almost lost in an age of selfishness.”

JIM: As you know, I didn’t stop with the first novel. In my retreat, I wound up going through all the novels. Aslan struck me as the archtypical leader for the common good in Narnia, particularly for the most vulnerable creatures. What is so very important is the ongoing personal relationship that Aslan has with many of Lewis’s main characters—the children who travel to Narnia and also some of the creatures from Narnia. They could walk along side him. They could reflect with Aslan about their own decisions and challenges and choices.

Sometimes, walking among the redwoods and along the ocean on that retreat, I did feel that Aslan was walking along side me. This really got me thinking about the image of Jesus as the loving teacher who walks among us in an ongoing way—rather than Jesus as a remote Savior who many traditionalists like to describe as having gone off to Heaven to prepare a place for us. I don’t want to sound overly judgmental in describing two extreme images of Jesus like this. What I’m trying to explain is how important I think it is to realize that Jesus is a living teacher who walks among us, reminding us of the common good we need to restore and protect in this world.

THE HOPE OF C.S. LEWIS’S PUDDLEGLUM
AND ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU

Puddleglum in C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair.

Puddleglum in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair.

DAVID: That’s Aslan’s message and purpose in Narnia. Yes, I think Narnia fans will understand your point here, right away. But you go an important step further—because the truth is that we can’t all go off on intense retreats all the time and feel Aslan walking with us in a paradise landscape. You point to one of my own favorite characters in Narnia—the “marsh-wiggle” known as Puddleglum who appears in The Silver Chair. When I was growing up in the early 1960s, my father’s hardback copy of The Silver Chair was the first Narnia novel I ever read—and I loved this strange half-amphibian-half-human sort of figure. He lives in the marshes and can easily blend into the green landscape.

You actually quote nearly as much of Puddleglum in your new book as you do of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.

JIM: Yes, the real question is: When we return from these intense periods, like the one I experienced on the retreat, how you keep believing in things even on days you don’t feel it? How do we keep the vision of the common good in front of us?

DAVID: For readers who don’t know Narnia—or have forgotten Puddleglum—the young heroes of the Narnian stories encounter him way out in a remote part of the C.S. Lewis landscape. Then, in the Narnia novel called The Silver Chair, they wind up trapped in a deadly underworld kingdom where they are completely locked away from real life up on the surface of the world. The deadly temptation is to forget about Narnia, to doubt that Narnia even exists and to turn away from Aslan’s vision for Narnia. But, in the midst of this terrible darkness and temptation, Puddleglum does something absolutely heroic, right?

JIM: I quote Puddleglum on the first page of that chapter and then again in the heart of the chapter. My question is: How do we keep believing in things, even on days when we don’t feel like it? Or on days when our belief may be fading? Well, Puddlegum is a great model for us. He courageously declares: “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

I have to say: Thank you for asking me about this portion of the book. In all the interviews I’ve done so far about the new book, the interviewers just ask about politics, Washington, Barack Obama and the common good. Reporters seem to have a very narrow political focus on this book. But the truth is that writing the chapter on Lewis, the Lion and Puddleglum was the one I enjoyed the most. You know, the only real piece of art in my house is of a South African lion. It’s a beautiful piece of art I got years ago and this big lion has eyes that seem to be watching you wherever you stand—much as I imagine Aslan looking into our souls.

DAVID: As a reader, I found this book inspiring and full of fresh perspectives. Did you intend this book to be hopeful? Do you feel hopeful?

JIM: One of my mentors, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, helped me to see the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is about how you look at things today, your mood at the moment and your assessment of the latest news. Optimism is about your immediate response to how things are going and your personality plays a big part in that. But, hope is not a feeling or a mood. Hope is a decision that you make because of a thing called faith, whatever faith may mean to you. Hope is really a decision that people like Arcbhishop Tutu make that shaped his whole life and the world, as well. Many years ago, he decided that there was going to be a free South Africa—long before anyone could imagine how that could happen. He made his decision to hope for a free South Africa—and he bet his life on it. Am I hopeful about our future? Yes, I am, and I’m betting my life on that hope, too.

Care to read more about Jim Wallis,
‘On God’s Side’ and the Common Good?

VISIT OUR VALUES FOR MORE: This interview focuses mainly on Part 1 of Jim Wallis’s new On God’s Side, called Inspiring the Common Good. In this week’s OurValues series, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker looks at the book’s Part 2, Practices for the Common Good.

OTHER LINCOLN LINKS: 2013 is packed with 150th-anniversary milestones from Lincoln’s life. Here is a convenient Index to many of our most popular Lincoln-themed stories this year.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. I appreciate the juxtaposition of optimism and hope, one anchored in the present, one assumed in the future. Yet for hope’s goals to be realized, they must be girded by action, courage, determination. And as Jim so clearly put it, betting our lives on it.