Along the narrow ledge
Ten questions to help us keep our civic engagement rooted in Christ.
I know that my faith affects every part of my life. But as I've matured in my faith, I find that it's difficult to figure out how my faith fits into my citizenship. My friends and I often wonder how to hear over the rhetoric and angry name-calling that often surfaces in political discussions. The explanations we've gotten in the past, even in the church, seem inadequate. But we want to be responsible citizens. What would you say we should think about when we want to interact with our government?
Thank you for your thoughtful note. You ask a great question: how do we act as responsible citizens amidst the broken systems, angry rhetoric and other mucky complexities that come with public square engagement? To do so is to walk a slender ledge between opposite and equally miserable ends: triumphalism on the one side—and apathy on the other; veneration of power—and cynicism; false hopes of what government can achieve—and despair at what it cannot.
My experience in government and politics tells me that we won't keep our footing on such precarious terrain by simply aiming for some "golden mean." Christians keep balance only by tenaciously gripping two seemingly opposite extremes—grace and truth, mercy and justice, trust and action. We're devoted citizens of our earthly home, while unequivocally also citizens of heaven. The former gives us a zest and selfsacrifice in practical civic engagement. The latter enables us to do so without worshipping power or utopian delusions.
Even thus prepared, though, the rubber-meets-the-road choices of where, what and how to engage aren't easy. The pitfalls are many. If there is a single roadmap, I don't have it. But I'd like to share some questions that have been meaningful to me—ones I try to ask myself regularly, and also use to stir ongoing conversations with my friends in Washington and beyond.
The questions we take seriously shape the trajectory of our lives. And the questions we ask in the political arena are some of the most critical. It's a realm rife with arrogance and insecurity, deceptiveness and self-deception—like many other places on earth. But the consequences here often carry special weight. When we hoist the picket sign, sit down to carve a new law or policy, or just sign a petition, we are reaching out to impact lives far beyond our sphere of immediate knowledge. These actions can echo, for good or for ill.
And there's no question that Christian activity in the public square over recent decades has indeed echoed, for both good and ill. Christians have been at the forefront of combating human trafficking and implementing effective welfare reform, bringing down the Iron Curtain and banning partial birth abortion. But Christians also have been among the worst offenders in the bloody excesses of the culture wars. Many parading under the banner of the cross have applied an ends-justify-the-means ethic that left many to wonder if Christianity is really just one more brassknuckled interest group.
If we yearn for something different—to continue the best in the noble tradition of Christian civic engagement while avoiding hazards that have claimed many a good person before us—we would do well to make a discipline of asking ourselves well-formed questions. Here are ten that have been particularly important to me over the years, from local campaigns to the White House:
Is my political stance a reflect ion of the heart of God or merely a product of my own culture?
It is disturbingly easy to equate tradition, convention or assumptions of our sub-culture with transcendent truth. That's human. But a disciple to Jesus digs deeper, desiring that every conviction increasingly reflects God's heart. I have to check myself on an almost daily basis on this point. For example, for many years I viewed illegal immigration solely through the lens of resources (that needed to be protected) and laws (that needed to be upheld). The Bible makes clear, though, how deeply God cares about the struggles and sorrows of the alien and dispossessed. I still believe that a fair and consistently-enforced immigration policy is important. But I also desire to encourage public policies and public attitudes that manifest God's concern for the well-being of the alien.
Do the goals I seek to achieve flow from a vision for common grace, or merely the narrow interests of my own group?
It can be perfectly legitimate to petition the city council to make improvements on our own street or to urge Congress to protect our own religious liberties. But to such civic engagement Jesus would likely say, "What more are you doing than others?" (Matthew 5:47) Christ-hearted civic engagement always goes further than self-interest, looking out also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). In this, we mirror the character of a God who brings good things like rain and sunshine to all. Joseph was a great example of a "common grace" statesman—he used his position as second-in-command of Egypt to store up grain and then dispense it judiciously during severe famine. His diligence preserved the lives of countless people, from Egyptian priests to his own rascally brothers. As we act in the public square to bring good to individuals beyond our own "tribe," we point all who observe toward a gracious God.
Will the tactics I use make it more difficult to influence hearts and lives positively in the long run?
Politics sometimes demands hard-nosed conflict. But a disciple to Jesus places a premium on operating in a way that keeps the door to relationship open and inviting. Last year, the U.S. State Department hosted a debate between me and a fierce public critic of the work I helped lead. To be honest, I felt many of his statements severely distorted the facts. But, in contrast to harder-edged words I might have used in years past, I tried to offer counterpoints without accusing him of lying. Afterwards, I asked the man out for a cup of coffee. I can't say we came to see eye to eye, but I think both of us gained a much fuller mutual understanding and respect. Although we may well have future public conflicts, the door to relationship remains open.
Is government really the best way to address this issue?
The Bible affirms a positive role for government (for example, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-14). It also vests many responsibilities elsewhere, including the family, the church, private enterprise and individuals' own choices. Deciding the proper place of each is often the great unspoken debate underneath the policy disagreements of our day. The Bible certainly allows room for differences on these issues.
However, my own experiences within government have led me to believe that a thoughtful Christian will often question current trends toward shifting to government an ever-increasing share of human needs and responsibilities. The issue is not only that government bureaucracy tends to be an impersonal and ineffective means for addressing needs. For the Christian, a central concern will be whether individuals, families, churches and communities will be sapped of both their ability and their sense of responsibility to address needs.
As government powers and budgets grow, resources are shifted away from other institutions. Then individuals and organizations have fewer resources to address God-given responsibilities to provide for their families, care for neighbors, and build up their community. Citizens feel less need to help the poor since "the government is doing it." This is why studies consistently show that increases in government welfare programs decrease private charity. In the face of tendencies to hand government an ever-more comprehensive role, a Christian will remind the public of how critical the family is to the nurture of children; how bureaucracy cannot help a struggling youth the way a caring mentor can; how responsible businesses typically provide goods and services much more efficiently than government offices; and how giving and volunteering is transformative for those who give as well as those who receive.
Am I willing to be unpopular?
Let's face it: it's hip to care about certain causes, from the environment to human trafficking. That's good. But it's important to remember that the public arena isn't always a great place to be if your goal is to be liked. No matter how popular a cause becomes, a day will come when hard decisions have to be made. And then, it is likely, opponents will attack, bloggers rampage, the press distort and rumours flourish like weeds.
Rick Warren's experience last year embodied this. Rick, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, bears no resemblance to the Religious Right. Articulate and winsome, he earned the moniker "an evangelical a liberal can love" from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. He's arguably done more than any other leader to spur the evangelical church to address global HIV/AIDS. But when Pastor Warren took a gently-voiced position supporting California's Proposition 8 Marriage Initiative, attacks began to fly. Magazines and papers called him an "anti-gay bigot," "fundamentalist" and compared him to "racists and anti-semites." If speaking up is only about being cool or earning an "I-care-about-causes" widget, it's probably best to keep your head down.
Do I sincerely love my political "enemies" as Jesus taught, not just in theory but in action?
Frustration with opponents is hard to avoid. But the Christ-hearted will always refuse to let resentment fester. Our goal is an attitude that mirrors God's gracious love towards even the most brutal adversary. For me, the single most important way to try to do this has been to pray for opponents—not merely token words spit through clenched teeth, but a real prayer in which I actually take time to consider the whole person, their struggles and needs.
I think of the man whose writings significantly distorted public perception of an initiative into which I'd poured blood, sweat and tears. For months, riding the metro or lying in bed, I'd find my mind churning with frustration at him and the way I felt he'd twisted the record. Finally, it struck me that if ever Christ's mandate to pray for enemies applied, it did here. I began trying to pray for him whenever he came to mind. Somehow—and I can hardly account for exactly how—I've come to feel very differently about him. The truth is, I've come to see him as being a lot like myself: an alloy of good and evil in need of much grace.
Am I falling off the other side of the horse?
Avoiding the sins of the prior generation is as easy as coaching Sunday night's game on Monday morning. We're all quick to congratulate ourselves for steering clear of the faults of our parents; in reality, that isn't the great challenge after all. We must resist the false gods of our age, not those of the past. Many in the previous generation of Christian activism mistakenly identified the cause of Christ with right-leaning politics; focused narrowly on protecting life and marriage rather than the breadth of issues God cares about; and stood willing to win political battles while losing hearts. These are errors the next generation must reject.
But even more difficult will be to avoid more common excesses of our own age: identifying the cause of Christ with left-leaning politics; avoiding hard issues like abortion and marriage so as not to be off-putting; craving relevance so badly that we gravitate only toward causes likely to win accolades from the broader culture.
Is my political stance reflected in my private choices?
Capital cities overflow with people who imagine themselves generous because they're willing to spend other people's money to help the poor, or believe they are just because they support causes intended to advance justice. But the link between public stands and personal character is sometimes thin. As a passionately humanitarian doctor confessed in The Brothers Karamazov, it is sometimes true that, "The more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love individual people."
In contrast, when I think of Christ-hearted engagement, I think of Kari. She's served as one of the nation's top education officials, championing effective charter schools and other innovations. But many Sundays I see her changing diapers and wiping spit up in the church nursery, and she spends many of her free hours mentoring several young girls from broken homes. For the Christ-hearted, political activities will only be the tip of an iceberg built of less visible private action in the same direction.
Have I embraced disciplines that will sustain me for the long haul?
Public square activity carries ebbs and flows of adrenaline and exhaustion. Our sense that the work really matters adds emotional intensity and a willingness to deplete ourselves to take the next hill. Then there's the inevitable roller coaster of victories and failures, tempting us alternately with conceit one moment and insecurity the next. Only deep spiritual rootedness keeps our mooring.
Along with Scripture, I've found commitments to solitude, prayer and community are particularly critical. Times in solitude each morning, and for a weekend twice a year, return my fractured thoughts from the kaleidoscopic priorities of politics to things of eternal value. Prayer places false burdens I've been carrying back in God's hands and lifts my eyes off my own whirring concerns to the needs of others. My community of trusted friends, both near and far, pick me up in moments of despair and gently pull me to earth in moments of self-importance. Without these commitments, politics and activism can easily desiccate both body and soul.
What is my ultimate goal?
Regardless of the task, the final objective is always the same: to love God and love neighbour. Of course, a dozen thoughtful believers may reach a dozen different conclusions as to what exactly that should look like in civic life. Even so, we'll do well to sift every effort through this grid at each step along the way. Does this action honour my God? Does this action truly model loving kindness to each person affected? All the political victories in the world matter nothing if we fail in this one test. Whatever the issue, this question should always be the first and last we ask.
These questions, of course, are just a beginning. My hope is that they can offer entry points into the kind of selfexamination and earnest conversations that help guide us along the narrow ledge of Christ-hearted civic engagement. They can be one important part of a lifelong commitment to the beautiful tension that comes with holding opposite truths tenaciously in the public square. It is this tension— undergirded by the God who "works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose"—that can produce the one result capable of echoing for eternity: that regardless of political outcomes, onlookers, colleagues and even adversaries will encounter in us the compelling grace of Jesus Christ. I pray that will be true for both of us in every step we take over the months and years to come!
Your brother in Christ,