For the longest time, when Christians have thought about political engagement, they have often begun the discussion with the question: what is the biblical role of government? This is not a completely irrelevant question, but it does seem to start in the wrong place and ultimately get things backwards.
Before one can answer questions about the place of government, it is necessary to consider how it is that God has created us to live together. Before we begin to formulate public policies and institutions, we should consider what those policies and institutions are supposed to accomplish.
This is the aim of my new book, Christians and the Common Good.
From Scripture and from the writings of the Christian tradition, from the early church until the present, there is a wealth of material from which to get a picture of the shared life God intends for creation. It is, to put it most succinctly, a life characterized by relationships of mutual inter-dependenceneither dependence nor independence. And these relationships of inter-dependence are to be motivated by a deeply heartfelt desire to elevate the interests of the other over our own. Yes, I know that runs counter to our natural inclinations, but the call of Jesus on the matter is very clear. In fact, as Jesus says, we are to love our enemies as we love ourselves (Matt 5:43-44, for example).
We all know that Jesus said to do to others as we would have them do to us, and we all recall that he enjoined us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Yet, how much time have we spent looking at how these are played out within the Biblical narratives? How many recall that there were a pair of periodic economic re-levelings commanded within Scripture? In one case, every seventh year, God commanded that all debts, regardless of what was left outstanding, were to be forgiven (see Deut 15).
In the other, every 50th year, all lands were returned to their ancestral owners (see Lev 25). It sure seems God cared deeply about avoiding the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of a few, and commanded steps that prevented it. Or, how about many have reflected on the command that farmers not maximize profits by picking their fields clean. No, they were to leave some fruit and grain behind, for the poorest to gather for their own sustenance (Deut 24). Caring for each other took precedence over profit maximization. Moving forward to the New Testament, we find Jesus telling a parable about a hard-working farmer who had a very productive and successful year (Luke 12). His response to his success? Well, in contemporary parlance, he planned to build bigger barns, store his produce, and retire early.
In Gods sight, however, this was foolishness and the man received the harshest judgment in response. The problem? The man did not see that his success was a blessing from God, a blessing not to be hoarded for his own good, but rather a blessing to be shared with those less fortunate. We could then move on to the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16), a case where the Rich Mans primary reason for falling under Gods judgment was that he had the resources to help poor Lazarus, but he turned a blind eye. Wherever you look in Scripture, the picture is the sameGod intends us to use our resources, in whatever form, to ease the suffering of others. Whenever God gave instructions for laws that were to govern humans, prescriptions to care for the least of these were front and center.
Now, I realize we live in a day when Randian objectivism is having new life breathed into it. One only need ponder the recently released movie based on Rands Atlas Shrugged. Yet, even though some self-identified Christians have spoken favorably about the ideology underlying that book, there can be little doubt but that no two books could be farther apart in their basic message about our shared, public lives than the Bible on the one hand and Atlas Shrugged on the other. The life pictured in Scripture, the life I have characterized as one of mutual inter-dependence does not come easy to us, often too easily succumbing to our selfishness. Nevertheless, it is the life pictured in Scripture and one that we, as Christians, ought to embrace and promote at all levels of our lives.
In my new book, , I give many more examples of the sorts of Scriptures one might bring to bear on the issue of our shared life, and how God intends that to be structured. From there, and only after the previous work, do I delve into the question of the sorts of policies and institutions that would be conducive to our living together in ways that all flourish. In the final chapter, I draw tentative conclusions on a number of policy issues, because the goal is more to open a conversation than to close it, more to offer possible solutions that guarantees, and more to give examples than prescriptions.
Chuck Gutenson is the COO of Sojourners and the author of the new book,