As we close in on an important election day it is a good time to ask this question: What is the role of individual followers of Christ in the public arena? By this I do not mean solutions presented by the political parties and the governing philosophies that must guide public policies. For evangelical Christians in public life there must spiritual first things–the bedrock that precedes and provides the foundation for actions, traits, and political positions, and that must supercede interest in re-election.
Individuals that are engaged in the public arena in any way find it tremendously difficult to find—and even to do—thinking about public policy and public life that precedes political philosophy and does not rely on the positions articulated by politicians, media commentators, and other political observers.
With some exceptions, Christians looking at public issues are faced with religion-based information in two groups. First, biblical teaching on spiritual life and personal growth that does not attempt to address public issues. And second, political discourse that starts with political philosophy then seeks biblical proof-texting.
Here is a list of what I’ll call 12 First Things that should be embraced by faithful Christians whatever their political philosophy. While there can be honest and worthy disagreements on how to apply political philosophy to adddress these concerns, they should transcend the call of the party.
1. Value Character
2. Support Human Rights
3. Develop a Consistent Ethic of Life
4. Honor and Protect Families
5. Help the Poor and Imprisoned
6. Be Responsible Citizens
7. Be Good Stewards
8. Do Justice
9. Recognize Evil
10. Seek Spiritual Vision
11. Demonstrate a Graceful Spirit
12. Share Your Faith
Now, a closer look at each of these:
1. Value Character: Recognize, honor and create public policies that promote personal character and virtue, such as personal responsibility, temperance, duty, respect, kindness, perseverance, and patience. These and other virtues are clearly held in high regard in the Scriptures, and they need champions among policymakers.
2. Support Human Rights: I do believe that the basic human rights of safety from abuse and bondage, the opportunity to worship as we please, freedom of movement and livelihood, and fundamental fairness are God-given, not government-given. It is the role of government to confirm and protect these human rights.
3. Develop a Consistent Ethic of Life: The ethics of life are perhaps the most difficult and divisive issues in the public arena, although there are those who would say that they are the simplest.
When people say life ethics are simple they are in most cases speaking of the unacceptability of taking innocent human life through abortion. I agree that it impossible to develop a Christian ethic that supports abortion on demand as a means of birth control. To back up a bit, it is essential that the Christian in public life develop a consistent ethic of life. Something like this: To influence culture and create laws to best save and extend lives; to honor the inherent value of human life, made in the image of God; and to safeguard lives in the present and in future generations.
A life ethic that argues only against abortion is not complete. I believe it must also re-examine the death penalty, which is routinely supported on both sides of the aisle. The taking of human life by the government is always troubling, and must be constantly scrutinized. If execution is necessary to save lives, then there is an ethical reason to continue its use for capital offenses. But both the death penalty and life imprisonment without the chance of parole effectively remove the perpetrator from society. As such, the death penalty is not necessary for that purpose. If, however, it can be proved that the death penalty is a deterrent to other potential murderers, we should support the death penalty, because it will save lives. I haven’t seen such findings, by the way, but would be open to this proof.
Is it necessary to kill a murderer in order to exact justice or fairness, or is that simply retribution masquerading as “closure?”
Life is a precious gift of God. But what should we allow when the gift is a terrible burden to its holder. Should we allow the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit? Strong emotional arguments for euthanasia are presented in cases where an individual’s pain is overwhelming or remaining days will be essentially unconscious. But as merciful as it seems at times, I do not believe that we are granted the divine right to take innocent life before God’s time.
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, M.D. wrote:
“… we must be wary of those who are too willing to end the lives of the elderly and the ill. If we ever decide that a poor quality of life justifies ending that life, we have taken a step down a slippery slope that places all of us in danger. There is a difference between allowing nature to take its course and actively assisting death. The call for euthanasia surfaces in our society periodically, as it is doing now under the guise of “death with dignity” or assisted suicide. Euthanasia is a concept, it seems to me, that is in direct conflict with a religious and ethical tradition in which the human race is presented with ” a blessing and a curse, life and death,” and we are instructed ‘…therefore, to choose life.” I believe ‘euthanasia’ lies outside the commonly held life-centered values of the West and cannot be allowed without incurring great social and personal tragedy. This is not merely an intellectual conundrum. This issue involves actual human beings at risk…”
Our Christian duty as we approach the issues of war and peace is to first look at them as issues of life and death, not geopolitics. Although the temporal issues may need to be factored, questions of life must be first because warfare kills people. Not going to war can either save lives or cost many more lives that the war itself. That recognition is why a longer view of impact must be considered in life ethics. I do believe that strength is the best peacemaker, a contention that has gained great credibility with the collapse of communism.
However, war is unacceptable to satisfy national ego, to gain creature comforts, or to settle scores.
4. Honor and Protect Families: God ordained the institution of the family and His children need to try to keep it together. We must recognize that the family is the primary conduit of the values that civilize us. The leading cause of economic and moral poverty is a broken families. Kids need to grow up with a mom and a dad to love them, to teach them virtue, and to train them up in the ways of the Lord.
There is probably no greater challenge for our culture than maintaining strong families, and there are many forces pulling in the opposite direction. Curbing these negative forces is a worthy role of the public servant.
(By the way, I believe homosexual unions are way down the list of dangers to the traditional family).
5. Help the Poor and Imprisoned: There is no clearer mandate in Scripture than to bear good news to and serve the poor, those in prison, and the brokenhearted. (Luke 4:18). To care for the widow and orphans. This should be high on the agenda of individual Christians and the church. It is vital that believers personally demonstrate that they follow Jesus Christ by their care for the poor.
How do we deal with this mandate as it relates to the levers of government?
If government largesse was effective at creating anything but dependence, I believe we could assume biblical support. The Bible certainly doesn’t prohibit action of the state to assist the poor. But our history shows that government isn’t good at anything but providing relief. Government fails at community and personal development.
6. Be Responsible Citizens: As Christians we are called to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13). Although in cases when the laws of the state violate God’s laws civil disobedience is the right path, there are far fewer times when that is necessary than some lead us to believe. The Bible clearly calls for submission in most cases, even when the authorities are unjust.
Christians in public life must lead by adhering to this teaching, but must also appreciate and teach the tension between the state and the church.
“The heavenly city, or rather the part of it which sojourns on earth and lives by faith, makes use of this peace only because it must, until this mortal condition which necessitates it shall pass away. Consequently, so long as it lives like a captive and a stranger in the earthly city, though it has already received the promise of redemption, and the gift of the Spirit as the earnest of it, it makes no scruple to obey the laws of the earthly city, whereby the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life are administered; and thus, as this life is common to both cities, so there is a harmony between them in regard to what belongs to it.” (Book XIX, Chapter 17)
7. Be Good Stewards: We should expect evangelicals in public life to acknowledge that all good gifts are from God and that He calls on us to be grateful for them and to be good stewards and worthy caretakers of all he has given us.
When there is bounty, God calls for personal generosity. We are to enjoy good things in moderation. And we are to care for the earth, our temporary home. It is right to determine the truth on the impact of human actions on the environment, and exaggerations and blatant lies have undercut the credibility of environmentalists. We cannot fall prey to the emotional earth-worship of hyper-environmentalism.
However, there is simply no biblical support for being anti-environment. When we blindly follow the ravings of many conservative commentators in their criticism of all things pro-environment, we are falling in line with a political strategy, not biblical teaching.
8. Do Justice: When we hear someone calling for justice, it is usually a cry for a wrong to be righted or for the government to help with pay-back. Getting even. Micah 6:8 says that God requires us to “do justice,” or to “act justly.” The task of the public servant is to look deeply at the biblical call for justice, which has embedded the understanding of fairness, of justification, of equal treatment, and of reconciliation:
“[In biblical times] when wrongs were done, ordinary people went to the city gates to seek justice in a ‘legal assembly’ in which citizens participated. The focus of this court, sometimes called an ‘organization of reconciliation’, was not to satisfy some abstract concept of justice but to find a solution. Restitution and compensation were common outcomes. Biblical Justice seeks first to solve problems, to find solutions, to make things right, looking toward the future.” (H. Zehr, Changing Lenses, p. 140-1, 152)
9. Recognize Evil: The Bible teaches that the forces of evil are aligned against the forces of good. Evil is not a concept; it oozes from every heart not constrained by love. It seeks to overcome the world. The Christian seeking to impact public policy must recognize what the founders did—man is inherently inclined toward evil and dominated by self-interest. It is not a popular thought, but thinking otherwise makes for deadly policy.
“The total depravity of man,” said G.K. Chesterton, “is the one doctrine empirically validated by 4,000 years of human history.”
We have lost sight of this in modern society, which endangers the republic.
“The most common myth of [our time] is that people are good. We aren’t,” wrote Charles Colson, who after a career in cut-throat politics and 25 years in prison and prison ministry knows of what he speaks.
10. Seek Spiritual Vision: The Christian cannot view the struggles and triumphs of our days only through the lens of our immediate interests and of our age. The eyes of the Christian soul must see further, with a view of the unseen (spiritual vision) and a view of the world (world vision).
Although we acknowledge in our churches and personal study that we are only passing through this world, it is difficult to apply this to the rough and tumble struggles of our days and in public life. When we are granted spiritual vision, we see a spiritual dimension to how history is unfolding and our role in it. Paul wrote: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Corinthians 4:18).
Also, I am not sure that a mature Christian can be a thorough isolationist, at least not as he or she becomes aware of the violation of human rights around the world, and the persecution of the church. This requires a world vision.
11. Demonstrate a Graceful Spirit: The Christian in public life undercuts his witness and diminishes his effectiveness if he does not show the grace that his been shown to him by God. For the many in leadership the twin challenges in this area are showing humility and forgiving others. Both of these graces are in rare supply in the halls of power and there is no higher work for the Christian public servant than to model these disciplines.
C.S. Lewis said to British servicemen after World War II (the text of which was to become Mere Christianity):
“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. “That sort of talk makes them sick,” they say. And half of you already want to ask me, “I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?”
So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must no deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do—I can do precious little—I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.” There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do. “
12. Share Your Faith: Those who observe evangelicals for any length of time should at some point be aware that they are telling others about their faith in Jesus Christ, about His grace to help us to live each day, and His plan for our eternal salvation. In a day when “proselytizing” is said with curled lip and a sneer, it should be known in the public square that this is part of the Christian’s obligation. To be obedient we must tell of the hope that is in us and the source of that hope. It is gives us joy to do so. To do otherwise creates a much high level of condemnation.
Finally, observers should also expect evangelicals, along with everyone else, to fail. We are but “jars of clay” who recognize that it is through our weakness that God’s strength can be seen.