On Oct. 22 2016, Davenant President Dr. Bradford Littlejohn spoke at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA on “What Does it Mean to be a Christian Citizen?” The lecture focused on questions such as “Should I be focused on building the church or reforming the state, or both? How should and shouldn’t the Bible guide/govern/regulate/inform my political discipleship?”
Text of the lecture:
What Does it Mean to be a Christian Citizen?
In his great treatise, On the Freedom of a Christian, which served as something of a manifesto for the great reforming effort he had just undertaken, Martin Luther famously declared, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” This paradox echoes the statement of St. Paul in 1 Cor. 9:19: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all,” and his injunction in Romans 13:8 to “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” The Christian’s dual citizenship, I hope to convince you, can be best understood within the terms of this paradox. In the talk which follows, I want to pursue two main objectives. First, I want to distinguish the Christian’s two citizenships, to show that Christian life really does need to be seen as characterized by a certain kind of dualism (though not the kind of dualism that many Christians carelessly assume or critique). Second, once I’ve convinced you of the difference, I want to take some time to unite these two citizenships, to show you that the Christian’s earthly citizenship is still a form of distinctively Christian citizenship; it is not as if the Christian is different on the inside, because of a different spiritual state, but looks exactly the same on the outside, and pursues life in society and politics the exact same way, as his non-Christian neighbor. I will do this by looking at the Christian motivation for politics, the Christian content of political ideals, and the Christian method of political engagement.
So first, let’s distinguish those two citizenships.
Distinguishing Two Citizenships
Free Lord of All
What does it mean for a Christian to be the “free lord of all”? Freedom is of course the dominant theme of American political discourse, even if we rarely know quite what we mean by it. This theme also dominates not merely Luther’s writings, but the New Testament as well. Galatians 5:1 proclaims, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” In Romans 6:13-14, Paul admonishes us, “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” And in the next chapter he says, “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ. . . . But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom. 7:4, 6) And then just a bit later, in one of the most famous chapters of Scripture, we read,
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . .
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:31-39)
What is this message of freedom? It is a proclamation of freedom from sin, from death, and from the law, the three masters that have enslaved fallen man since Adam. But how? For we know too well that we are not free from any of these three things in the sense of having them wholly removed from us. We all still sin daily, hourly, sometimes grievously. We are all still under the authorities of laws of all sorts—not just the civil laws that we are so fond of complaining and bickering about, but the moral law of Scripture and nature that governs all our conduct and reveals the fact that we sin daily and hourly. And of course, we are all subject to death, the ever-present reality of futility, grief, and separation that we in the modern world have sought to hide ourselves from but which has a way of thrusting itself into our lives when we least expect it. So in what does our freedom consist? It is that “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Death is not a separation for the faithful, but a reunion. Sin is a separation only if harbored and clung to. And therefore the Law draws us toward God rather than highlighting how far short of him we fall.
In short, the freedom of a Christian is the freedom from fear. Hebrews 2:14-15: “he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” And 1 John says,
“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” (4:16-20)
What does all this have to do with a Christian’s citizenship? Everything. Consider how much of our lives of earthly citizenship are dominated by fear. Fear of enemies abroad drives our defense policy. Perhaps even more intensely in recent years, fear of our political foes at home drives our partisanship and our voting. Consider this election. Most voters hate both Hillary and Donald, or did at least when they felt they had other options. So why are they they voting for them? Because they’re terrified of the alternative. By stoking and channeling fear of Hillary, Trump has managed to sustain a strong coalition through every misstep and humiliation. And likewise Hillary with Trump. Fear of persecution, of loss of influence, or simply fear of regulation and taxation, hits to our pocketbooks, drives most of American politics. And of course, when you put it this this way, you should see that the Christian’s earthly citizenship includes an awful lot more than politics strictly speaking. Our social lives, beginning with kindergarten and continuing right through our careers, are dominated by the kind of jostling for position driven by fear of being an outsider, fear of being unpopular, unloved, or insignificant. Fear of change, change that might destabilize things I hold dear, or leave me marginalized, is another dynamic that drives our social lives. The same dynamics underlie so much of church politics as well.
Such fear is to some extent inevitable whenever we try to find meaning or rest our identity in our social lives, for we are restlessly seeking something that our souls can rest secure in, and nothing finite and fallible can possibly provide such security. When those around us fail, then even when we turn to religion to sustain us, we seek security in our own actions and merits, hoping to impress God somehow so that he will give us his stamp of approval.
It is to all this that the New Testament, and later the Protestant Reformation, pronounces a firm “No.” In Christ alone we find our rest, we find our safety, we find our security, and in Christ as grasped by faith alone, not earned by any works or status. In him alone we are to find meaning, in him alone we are to root our identity, and having done so, we find that this identity is unshakeable whatever the world may throw against us. Our family may fail us, our church may blow apart in an ugly scandal, our government may turn godless, or crumble altogether, or fall to an invading hoard, and yet the Christian need not and should not fear or lose heart. This is what it means for Paul to say that “our citizenship is in heaven,” that “our lives are hid with Christ in God.”
The primacy of this citizenship serves to radically qualify and relativize all earthly loyalties and sources of identity, to establish a radical detachment from all earthly attachments. By this means the Christian learns to walk by faith and not by sight, clinging not to the things that pass away, but to the source of resurrection life.
Dutiful Servant of All
Does this mean, then, that the Christian is to float heedlessly above the troubles and travails of the world? “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through”—we’ve heard this sort of line from many Christians in many eras. Is this faithful Christianity? No, for while we must not cling to earthly loyalties and attachments out of fear, as we so often do, we can and must cling to them out of love. Let’s look at the flipside of many of the passages we’ve quoted.
Galatians 5:13-14 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Romans 6 and 7 say, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (6:17-18) “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” And of course, 1 John 4:7-8: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
This is the second half of Luther’s paradox: the Christian is the dutiful servant of all. He is worth quoting extensively on this point.
“Although, as I have said, inwardly, and according to the spirit, a man is amply enough justified by faith, having all that life requires to have, except that this very faith and abundance ought to increase from day to day, even till the future life; still he remains in this mortal life upon earth, in which it is necessary that he should rule his own body, and have relations with men.
. . . For man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others and not for himself. For it is to this end that he brings his own body into subjection, that lie may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely; as Paul says: “None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord.” (Rom. xiv. 7, 8.) Thus it is impossible that he should take his ease in this life, and not work for the good of his neighbors; since he must needs speak, act, and converse among men; just is Christ was made in the likeness of men, and found in fashion as a man, and had His conversation among men.”
For this reason, law, which has no power to condemn the one who clings to Christ by faith, retains a relevance and a certain kind of authority in the Christian life. Freed from slavery to sin to become slaves of God, we should each desire to present ourselves as sacrifices of thanksgiving to God, cleansed of sin that defiles us and harms our neighbor. And the second great commandment, to love our neighbor as ourself, flows out of the first, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Accordingly, no sooner must the Christian turn inward and upward, turning his gaze away from the things of earth that entice and intimidate, claiming a loyalty and significance that they do not deserve, than the Christian must turn back to the things of this world, the people around him, and the social and political structures in which he finds himself. The law of God directs the believer in how he can serve his neighbor in love, but civil law and earthly authorities also have a role to play, and this is particularly significant given our topic today, so let’s pause and make sure we understand this role.
Clearly, from the standpoint of our heavenly citizenship, our identity hidden in Christ, the laws of princes and parliaments can be laughed at. For law gains its power by fear, fear of the consequences if we should disobey. To be sure, law also has an instructive component, which we shall come back to in a moment, but the thing that makes it law specifically, rather than mere instruction, is its capacity to impose penalties for disobedience. Since the Christian knows that none of these penalties can separate her from the love of Christ, such laws in themselves have no power over her. And even as mere instruction, human laws can claim authority only inasmuch as they correspond to Christ’s authority, only inasmuch as they instruct us to value the things that he tells us to value. It would seem, then, that the conscience bound to Christ has no need of human laws; the Christian can ignore them and focus simply on serving Christ and doing his will.
But we know that it is not so. Paul himself, not long after proclaiming the Christian’s freedom from earthly powers, admonishes us, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Rom. 13:1) Why would he do this?
Well, let’s begin with the call to love one another, the principle that governs the Christian’s earthly citizenship. We are called to love one another as human beings, not as disembodied souls. Human beings have flesh and blood and inhabit history. As such, they need to be fed and clothed and sheltered. They need to be treated when sick, comforted when suffering, cared for when dying. They need homes, not merely for shelter, but for a sense of belonging, and sources of sustenance to nourish themselves. As those called to exercise dominion over the world, they need a parcel of the world to call their own and improve and beautify. They need ways of getting from place to place. And they need money to buy all these things. They need jobs to earn this money and fair opportunities in those jobs.
And they need more than all this, for although we are animals with bodily needs, we are more than mere animals, needing more than to eat and sleep and reproduce. We have a life of the mind and soul that needs cultivating. For this reason, loving one another as human beings means seeking to ensure that we each have education, as much as our short time and scant resources permit, and are blessed with arts and culture. And it means of course drawing each of us to the highest blessings offered by religion, and specifically the true religion of Jesus Christ.
So while our citizenship is heaven, our vocation is lived out on earth, and our vocation means trying to achieve all these things for our neightbors. It might possibly be that each of us is meant to pursue these goods alone, but we know that is not the case, for God said from the beginning, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We were made to live with one another, we were made to live in community. And that quickly gets complicated. Really complicated, really fast.
Try to ensure, while working alongside others, that your neighbors are fed and clothed and sheltered and employed and educated, and you’ll find pretty soon that good intentions aren’t enough (even if they’re important). You’ll find pretty soon that a heart inflamed by love of Christ and neighbor isn’t enough (even if it’s important). You’ll find pretty soon that the Ten Commandments and all the admonitions of Scripture aren’t enough (even if they’re important). For the only time the Bible does give us a detailed blueprint for social and political life, it is after all a blueprint only for a particular society at a particular point in history that is far far different from our own. Indeed, that’s the thing about political societies in history—each one will pose unique challenges that make it impossible to simply borrow a set of laws and standards from an earlier era. If we’re going to pursue love of neighbor, then, in these circumstances—these ever-changing circumstances—we’re going to need to come up with laws to govern our lives together, and constantly tweak them as circumstances change and we learn from our mistakes.
And of course, we will make mistakes. Even assuming the best political process, we will have fallible leaders framing our laws and these laws will not always be best for the purpose at hand. Sometimes the mistakes will be glaring. Sometimes we’ll be convinced we know better. But here’s the thing. We will still be obliged, more often than not, to obey. Not, mind you, because of what human authority is in itself—as we’ve already noted, it is nothing in itself, but only as a channel of God’s authority, and to the extent that it directs us badly, it cannot be channeling God’s authority. Nor, mind you, because of the power it has to compel us with penalties if we disobey, for we’ve seen already that for the Christian, such penalties ought not to be able to instill any fear. Rather, because of humility and love of neighbor. Humility should lead us to constantly question our own judgment; when we dissent from the laws established and think we know how to do better, we should think twice, and even thrice. There are few arts in human life that demand more skill. Love of neighbor should lead us to ask, “Even if I am convinced that this law is making my neighbor’s life worse, do I think that my unilaterally disobeying it would actually make his life better?” Indeed, if everyone is allowed to unilaterally disobey whenever they think they have a better plan, our laws will crumble altogether and our common life be reduced to chaos. Thus it is that the Christian, while a bondservant of Christ alone, is obliged to be in his earthly citizenship a dutiful servant of all, and especially of those to whom God has granted political authority.
Uniting the Two Citizenships
Now, we have established that the Christian’s earthly citizenship, his vocation to serve his neighbor, is distinct from his heavenly citizenship, his hidden identity in Christ. And indeed it would seem that even though the Christian might be (certainly should be!) more concerned with serving his neighbor than the average Joe, that there is nothing particularly Christian about his vocation in this realm. Simply by virtue of our creation as human beings, we are obligated to try to see to it that one another is fed, clothed, sheltered, and all the rest. If this is the business of the Christian’s earthly citizenship, in what sense is it a Christian citizenship? Are all the things that make us distinctively Christian inward and spiritual things, so that when it comes to our earthly life together, we are mere Americans or Canadians or Frenchmen, called to the same kind of conduct regardless of creed?
Well, in some respects, yes, but there are several important ways in which ours is a distinctively Christian citizenship. I will survey these under three main headings: motivation, content, and method.
We have already said, at least in outline, most of what needs to be said under the heading of motivation. Whereas the majority of earthly politics proceeds on the basis of fear, the Christian’s political engagement ought to be characterized by a profound freedom from fear. Yes, bad politics can do a great deal of evil, and we should not be apathetic or complacent. But bad politics, even at its worst, cannot do as much evil as we often fear—it cannot bring the world to an end, it cannot overthrow the kingship of Christ or frustrate God’s purposes in the world, it cannot even succeed in separating a single saint from his Lord. And while dangers of Hitlerian proportions do sometimes loom on the political horizon, the reality is that they are far rarer than we like to think. The conviction that in every election, the apocalypse is upon us, that with every foreign policy misstep, the fate of our nation and the stability of the globe is doomed, and with every bad domestic policy, our freedoms are gone and we are about to be subjected to tyranny, is perhaps a particularly American pathology, displaying the misplaced millenialism of the American civil religion. But a tendency to invest politics with too much significance, and accordingly to respond in fear every time it doesn’t seem to go our way, is a natural human temptation that can be tamed only with the recognition that there is a king above all earthly thrones, “who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance,” before whom “the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales” (Is. 40:12, 15)
Imagine if Christians could actually live in light of their conviction that the Lord is King, working out his will despite all of our bad decisions, that Christ is coming to make all things new, and that nothing can separate us from his love? Imagine what a difference it would make to have millions of citizens engaged in the political process motivated by courage, conviction, patience, and fortitude rather than reacting in fear and insecurity? This alone would mark a transformation, even if the policies the Christian pursued were in no way distinctive.
Since the Christian is not motivated by fear, as the world so often is, she is motivated instead by love, love of God and love of neighbor. Earthly politics, on the other hand, is too often driven by various forms of self-love. This is evident of course in the naked ambition of politicians determined to rise to the top, or the economic self-interest of corporations and their lobbyists, the “special interests” that have crippled American politics, as they have crippled so many commonwealths in the past. It is evident in the “don’t tread on me” mentality that drives much American conservatism, particularly clear in the recent Tea Party movement and the embrace of tax evasion that has appeared among some on the Christian Right. It is evident also in the preoccupation with national self-interest when it comes to foreign policy, irrespective of our responsibilities among the global family of nations. (Of course, there is an appropriate prioritizing of national interest that is the responsibility of any government, so long as it is not directly at the expense of others.)
At this point, a Christian politics would start to look different in terms of concrete policy, although the details would be subject to much debate and prudential application. It would insist that there was such a thing as the common good, and that it was the task of political action to pursue it, rather than accepting the conception of politics as a never-ending war of private interests trying to get their piece of the pie. It would insist that each of us should ask first not how a particular policy affects my bank account, but whether it is just and whether it respects the needs of the whole community. It would refuse to accept the notion that any particular nation has been specially anointed by God and deserves his unique blessing, a claim that so often justifies violence and oppression toward all that stand in the way of that nation’s interests. Rather, again, it will seek peace with enemies both at home and abroad, and accept war only as a last resort.
But here motivation is shading over already into the distinctive content of a Christian political witness. So let’s turn to consider that a bit more systematically.
The first thing to say is that there is no reason to necessarily expect that the basic content of Christian political action need look all that different from the content of non-Christian political action. This is because political life is grounded in mankind as created, and since we all share the same created nature and same basic human vocation, regardless of whether or not we confess the name of Christ, our basic duties to one another in society hold across religious boundaries. Moreover, to the extent that our basic human nature is there for anyone to observe, there is every reason to expect that unbelievers can often grasp the basic shape of these duties. Consider the examples I already gave of the importance of pursuing the common good rather than private interest. Although this should be a priority of Christian political action, it’s hardly a principle that Christians have a monopoly on. Cicero and Aristotle made much the same point, just by observing that humans are naturally sociable creatures, and (with some exceptions) share a basic equality that makes it unjust for one group in society to use others as a means to their own self-interest.
On the other hand, the Fall has both perverted our nature and perverted our ability to rightly understand it (as well as perverting our ability to see just how perverse we are!). It is for this reason that people like Cicero and Aristotle would make some exceptions to their claim of basic human equality—some people, they were inclined to think, had a naturally slavish nature and hence were intended to serve as instruments for the benefit of others. Although Christianity did not immediately abolish slavery, and indeed was by no means consistent or uncompromising through its history in opposing slavery, it did teach from the beginning that slavery was an unnatural state of affairs, contrary to God’s created order, and in the end it was Christians, campaigning on this conviction, that brought the hateful practice to an end in most of the Western world. To the extent, then, that the gift of regeneration and the revelation of Scripture offer the Christian renewed insight into God’s original intent for the world, and the depth of our current depravity, to this extent Christians will often have a distinctive agenda to bring to the political discussion, though they should not be surprised to find it frequently resonating with non-Christians.
With this in mind, then, let’s survey nine points where I think the Christian tradition, and in some cases Protestantism in particular, has tended to identify key elements of a Christian social and political agenda. All of these will remain quite general, reflecting both the limitations of time, and my conviction that politics is more often a realm for careful discernment and prudential improvisation than for detailed dogmatic blueprints.
- Limited aims and aspirations
A Christian politics recognizes the limits of politics. We have already seen that the Christian’s dual citizenship serves as a warning against investing too much hope and meaning in political identity, expecting too much what good politics may achieve or fearing too much what evil it may bring about. A Christian politics recognizes that the true fruition of our human life together lies outside the bounds of history as we know it and beyond any human power to bring about; it also recognizes that God will bring about this fruition no matter how much we might seem to screw things up along the way. It might seem like an obvious and banal point to say that politics can only achieve so much, but in fact, it is something of a uniquely Christian contribution, since the natural human tendency is to look to earthly powers for our redemption and fulfillment, investing nations and rulers with a religious significance rather than recognizing that their authority is derivative and limited.
- Mindfulness of human sin and frailty
Following from the previous point, a Christian politics is mindful of the depth of human sin and frailty. As Richard Hooker says, “Laws politic, ordained for external order and regiment amongst men, are never framed as they should be, unless presuming the will of man to be inwardly obstinate, rebellious, and averse from all obedience unto the sacred laws of his nature; in a word, unless presuming man to be in regard of his depraved mind little better than a wild beast, they do accordingly provide notwithstanding so to frame his outward actions, that they be no hindrance unto the common good for which societies are instituted: unless they do this, they are not perfect.” This also means that Christians have tended to be hesitant about investing too much authority in any particular ruler, insisting that rulers too must be limited by laws and that authority should be well-dispersed in a society. These principles were famously operative in the American Constitution, reflecting the Christian intellectual heritage of the Founders.
Subsidiarity is the principle that “matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.” This follows from the previous point about the sinfulness and weakness of human authority, but it also follows from the way that God has built human society from the bottom up, rather than the top down. We find our identity first in families, then in clans, tribes, cities, and finally larger communities. One of the consistent political teachings of Scripture is the value of respecting this bottom-up structure when organizing any kind of authority. Those closest to a problem, with personal and natural ties to the people involved, should be the first ones charged with fixing it; only if they fail, or the problem is too large, should a higher authority intervene. Now this principle does not necessarily mean government should always be small or decentralized, for there are many problems that do require the attention of a higher authority. But this has to be justified, rather than assumed.
- Ordered liberty
If you think about it for long, you realize that the principle of subsidarity entails also a strong commitment to individual liberty. After all, the lowest level of all is that of the individual. If a problem can be competently handled or a decision competently made by an individual, and it concerns only the individual, there is no need to bring the family in, much less the federal government. God created each and every one of us with his image and the vocation to be rulers of the world under him; accordingly, political authority should respect this dignity and not infringe liberties without cause. However, this Christian commitment to liberty is not quite the same as that of modern liberalism, for it recognizes that it is an absurd fiction to pretend that individuals can ever be just individuals. In fact, before anyone is a rational decision-making individual, she is first part of a family, a child who is subject to the authority of others. And likewise, every family is embedded in a society from the beginning. For this reason, our actions really do have profound effects on one another, and our laws need to recognize that, ordering our liberties to encourage us to exercise them in ways that serve the flourishing of all.
- Charity and forbearance
One of the most important freedoms of all is freedom of conscience, and although Christians cannot accept the modern secular rationale for such freedom—that is, that ultimate truth cannot be known and so every private creed is as good as any other—they can and should still defend this freedom. Why? Because of the first point about the limited aims and aspirations of human political life. It is beyond the ability of politics to make everyone believe rightly, and the attempt to do so usually brings more harm than good to the cause of truth. A Christian politics, then, while reserving the right to openly name and oppose error, and indeed to restrain certain forms of error from being carried out in action, seeks to exercise as much charity and forbearance as possible to those of other creeds, putting its trust in patient witness and persuasion rather than legal force.
- Respect for human life
While a recognition of the value of human life tends to be natural to us regardless of creed, Christians are particularly mindful of it given our knowledge that God hase created each of us in his image and endowed human beings with a unique dignity above other creatures. Christians thus rightly prize human life as a priority of public policy, with a particular emphasis on the lives of the innocent and the vulnerable. This means an urgent concern for the lives of the unborn, an issue on which Christians have been particularly vocal in recent politics, but we must remember that it should translate into a concern for life across the board. Christians should be the first to confess that black lives matter (and that white lives matter), and to insist that not just American lives matter, but the lives of those abroad as well, who are often the victims of our callous pursuit of national interest.
- Respect and concern for the poor
A Christian politics, recognizing that, again, God created each and every one of us in his image, recognizes that this also means that we each have equal rights to the fruits of the earth, and will seek to ensure that the greed and acquisitiveness introduced by the Fall does not succeed in depriving the poor of access to the means of survival and indeed flourishing. Mindful as they are of the limitations of politics and of human sin and frailty, Christian citizens should not operate under a utopian delusion that they can bring about anything close to perfect material equality, but they do not have to let grotesque inequalities run unchecked either. Moreover, they must be committed not merely to alleviating the poor’s material needs, but to restoring their dignity, which poverty robs from them. Our goal, then, should be to give the poor the economic means, education, and legal protections they need to provide for themselves as equals in society.
- Respect and concern for the non-human creation order
A Christian politics, thankful as it is to God for the beauty and bounty of the world, and recognizing that every single creature is a unique masterpiece of God, remembers that we were put on this earth to care for it rather than conquer it. Obviously human life is most valuable of all, far more so than any other creature, and so the Christian cannot accept those forms of environmentalism that seek to put humans on the same level as the non-human creation. But that is no excuse for callously ignoring the needs of the non-human creation. Indeed, to do so is the height of foolishness, since God created the world as a profoundly interdependent network of creatures that depend on one another for their flourishing. A politics that ignores the environment in which we live for the sake of protecting human interests will soon find that it has failed to truly protect such interests.
- Respect and concern for the human creation order
Of course, if we are to respect and rejoice in the intricate order, beauty, and interdependent design that God has built into the non-human creation order, we should hardly be inattentive to the order, beauty, and interdependence that characterize human nature. We have referenced this a few times already in relation to the social and community structures that define human life, but the most fundamental of these is the family, and at the heart of the family is God’s call for us to embrace our two-fold vocation as male and female, a sexual difference that we share with the animals but that for us also images the marriage of Christ and the Church. It is a pity that those in modern America most committed to protecting the non-human creation order seem often intent on destroying the human creation order in matters of sexuality especially, while those intent on preserving this human creation order are frequently oblivious to the needs of the non-human creation.
Indeed, it should be evident that this list of eight principles will situate the Christian citizen pretty uncomfortably in relation to the current political options on offer in America, and particularly those of the two-party system. Principles 2, 3, 4, and 8 might title one toward “conservative” positions, while principles 5, 6, and 7 tilt more toward “liberal” concerns, and Principle 1—limited aims and aspirations—serves as a critique of both mentalities as they often manifest themselves in contemporary political discourse.
This recognition, that the faithful Christian citizen may find herself at odds with both political parties, compels us to conclude with a few reflections on the method of Christian citizenship. It ought not to be the method of either the Christian Right or the Christian Left of recent years. Why not? I think there are at least three reasons.
First, both sides have adopted a highly adversarial posture toward one another and the other half of the American people, dmonizing their opponents and turning the American political landscape into a scorched earth, seeking victory at all costs. There is a time and a place for Christians to fight doggedly for their convictions, but the mere fact that there are faithful Christians on both sides of many current political issues should suggest that these questions are not so black-and-white as we might think, and Christian charity demands forbearance and patience. This does not mean that one can never vote Republican or Democrat, but it does mean that Christians should be very hesitant to identify themselves in an unqualified way with either party, and should be willing to recognize that compromise is an inevitable and necessary part of political life.
This is particularly so for a second reason, namely, that the two main parties in American politics have become more interested in preserving their own power and influence than in the good of the American people, and both have cynically coopted Christian voters into their coalitions, counting on them for votes without really taking their concerns seriously. If we continue to pander for influence with increasing desperation, as the Religious Right has done this year, we are in danger of losing all credibility in our witness.
Third, both the Christian Right and Christian Left have tended to focus too narrowly on gaining short-term electoral victories at the national level, rather than patiently working to build consensus at multiple levels of government and try out their policies with local reforms before imposing them on the whole country. The principle of subsidiarity, which we mentioned a few minutes ago, should lead Christians to pursue a more long-term, strategic, and locally-engaged form of politics.
But should we perhaps withdraw from the earthly mode of politics altogether, and seek to live out a different kind of politics within the Church? This is the call that many have issued in recent years, responding to the profound politicization and polarization of the American church. Such a call, known as “neo-Anabaptism,” emphasizes that the church itself is meant to provide an alternative community, an alternative city, with its own modes of life and hence its own politics, thus modeling a better way to the watching world. While there is much that is attractive and compelling in this call, ultimately, I think it is misleading and deeply unhelpful to the task of Christian citizenship. Let me again give three reasons.
First, it is really not at all clear what such movements mean by “the Church.” If were were all to convert to Catholicism, there might be some clarity in the call, though it would be alarming. The church is not a single institution with a defined set of laws and rulers. Even if it is meant to be at some point (which I actually doubt, on theological grounds), it certainly is not right now. It is a collection of many denominations, each of them composed of numerous individual parishes, plus countless non-denominational churches. It is not clear how this multitude is meant to serve as an alternative political community. Even if we focused on single congregation, we might ask whether it was a community consisting of all of the baptized, or only the faithful, or perhaps, as in some formulations, only the clergy. The church is a wonderful and magnificent reality, but most of its most important features (including its King and its true members) remain hidden from view, which makes it rather unserviceable as a political community.
Second, it is not clear what it might mean for the church to practice an “alternative politics.” Perhaps it means merely something like, “modeling a just and charitable form of human community as the members of the church love one another, and lead by serving.” Well this is great, and it is certainly part of the church’s political calling, but if that’s all it means, well, everyone could agree with that, and in fact, it should be clear that we practice this kind of community in the church in order to be able to live it out in society as well. We ought to be loving one another and leading by serving outside the church as well, as tradesmen, businessmen, civic leaders, etc. Clearly it does not mean that the church should be maintaining its own police force, collecting its own taxes, or monitoring its own physical borders, all core features of government. The church should be practicing and modeling what true community life looks like, and training its members in it, but precisely so that they can go out and, to the extent that sinful structures allow, imitate it in the world at large.
Finally, piggybacking off of this last point, such calls for Christians to practice their citizenship within the church risk undermining the doctrine of vocation. Each of us has been called to serve the Lord and the world in different vocations, different spheres of society. Some are plumbers, some are teachers, some are lawyers, some are accountants, some are chefs, some are policemen. The gospel is the sort of thing that can and indeed must be lived out in each of these spheres, as we learn what it means to be a free lord of all, liberated from fear, and a dutiful servant of all, bound by love. All of us have the vocation of citizens in society, and some have a particular calling to political engagement and action. We must be able to give an account of what it means to live out our Christianity here, rather than treating these as mere worldly functions, and living Christianly only within the four walls of the church.
In short, the Christian life is one in which we are summoned, in James Davison Hunter’s words, to a “faithful presence” in all spheres of life and culture, learning to live as free people who do not fear the bondage of sin or death or law, and who are determined to let the love of Christ shine through in our dealings with our neighbors day by day. Recognizing that we were made for one another, we know that we cannot escape life in community, and thus our faithful presence must be a presence as citizens in the commonwealth. Recognizing that ours is a commonwealth defined by diversity, we must patiently, strategically, and winsomely seek to show, through our motivations, our method, and the content of our political witness, the difference that the kingship of Christ makes, knowing all the while that we will not see that kingship properly revealed until the Lord returns.