What does it mean to be a Christian citizen? In the United States of America in the year 2020, this question has particular bite:
- in an era of seemingly unprecedented division between political parties, races, social and economic classes, nations, lifestyle groups – you name it;
- in a presidential election year, with stakes particularly high as to what vision of our common life will prevail for the ensuing four years and what roles church and state will play; and
- amid a multitude of morally and existentially urgent issues that remain unresolved, many of them global in scale – race relations, violence, human rights, economic justice, life/choice, environment, immigration, cyber security and more.
The global coronavirus pandemic further amplifies these dynamics, as does the knee-on-neck killing of George Floyd, yet another unarmed African American, all of it exposing major fault lines and vulnerabilities that set us on edge. What, indeed, does it mean to be a Christian citizen in 2020?
Would that we could turn to our faith as Christians for a simple answer. Would that we could turn to our sisters and brothers in the congregations we attend for collective guidance. The truth is, this question defies a simple answer. What’s more, when we turn our eyes to the churches of North America, we immediately confront a complicating diversity that stymies our discourse, decision-making and engagement in public life.
Too often, our churches merely reflect the polarities of the day. We tend either to silo ourselves in congregations on one side or the other of the cultural divides (I actually stumbled across a “Republican Baptist Church” during a recent drive through rural America) or we fall into a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” silence, in which case our Christianity collapses into a privatized religion that’s polite, palatable and toothless.
Surely there’s a better way. Surely, we not only can, but must move beyond the code of silence to explore these matters together and learn to interact across the divides and down into the deeper dimensions of things that matter to God and to our time. Surely the resources of our faith (scripture, tradition, reason, experience) don’t leave us bereft of a common wisdom that can shape our “facing of this hour,” our “living of these days,” to borrow from Harry Emerson Fosdick’s wonderful hymn.
In fact, for all the complexities and sharp disagreements among Christians on matters that shape our citizenship, a certain foundation of shared faith can guide all of us who believe we have a constructive, even transformative, role to play in society. Consider these principles of 20/20 vision for 2020 Christians:
We anchor ourselves in the Triune God rather than one political party or another. This is a fundamental alignment issue. Remember, Jesus prayed that we would be in the world but not of it (John 17:13-19). As has been said in more than one corner of Christianity recently, we aren’t people of the Donkey or people of the Elephant; we are people of the Lamb.
We cultivate our inward lives as ones vivified by the Spirit. Faith, after all, isn’t simply a checklist of convictions; nor is it merely a call to worldly action. Foundationally, it’s a Divine-human relationship that inspires an ongoing conversion of mind and heart. Something profound happens as God’s Spirit changes us from the inside out. As Jesus reminds us, what we say and do flows from what is in the heart (Luke 6:43-45).
We discipline our relational lives as imitators of Christ. In his 2019 book, Love Your Enemies, Arthur C. Brooks bemoans our current “culture of contempt.” He offers antidotes to this contagion that are rooted in time-honored wisdom, and it’s not an accident that he draws the book’s title from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27). Our faith has much to say about how to get along with one another. It guides our attitudes and interactions with friend and foe alike.
We shape our public lives with a missional mindset. When we see ourselves as agents of God’s mission for the world (John 20:21) rather than merely loyalists of one interest group or another, it alters the nature of our engagements. It reframes the questions we ask as we cast our votes and develop our agendas. It alters the ends we seek AND the means by which we pursue them. It also forces us to reconsider how we measure “success.”
We deepen our congregational lives as diverse members of the one Body of Christ. When the first four principles get translated into congregational life, new possibilities are born for understanding God, one another and the world. New possibilities for personal and collective action arise as well. It becomes safe – and increasingly fruitful – to come out of hiding and talk about difficult, important things that matter to our time and place, acting in concert when we can, disagreeing agreeably when we can’t and loving each other unconditionally, always.
These principles of 20/20 vision for Christian citizenship take us beyond the divisions of our day into deeper considerations of our presence in culture as the people of God. They enhance the likelihood that we actually will be what God calls us to be: the salt and light of the world.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 20/20,” a BNG content collaboration with Central Baptist Theological Seminary.