The US faces policy challenges of gargantuan proportions. Immigration, social security, drugs, race, crime and prison reform, health care, Islamicism and other international challenges. I’d put same-sex marriage, the ethical issues surrounding biotechnology, and abortion high on that list, and some would add environmental issues to the short list.
For ordinary Americans, that list poses two challenges. First, each is a hugely complex, apparently insoluble problem. A health care reform bill has been passed, but many doubt whether it will improve health care or lower costs. The difficulty of formulating a policy on immigration that answers to all American interests and values is evident in the fact that no such policy has been formulated and legislated. There are limits on what a war-weary America can do about ISIS.
Second, ordinary citizens don’t have the capacity to do much about any of them. We can vote, but few have the ability or opportunity to do much else. At best, we respond by bitching about the state of the world or engaging in Facebook polemics; at worst, we throw up our hands and find some way to avoid thinking about it.
For Christians, there is an alternative approach that disaggregates the problems and opens the possibility of constructive action. Instead of treating these issues as questions of national or state policy, we can examine them as ecclesial questions, questions about the ministry and mission of the church.
I don’t mean that we stop debating the merits of policy proposals. Institutional and legal patterns are critical, and there are definitely healthy and unhealthy, good and bad ways to organize our life together. But public policy isn’t the only way to address social needs, and for the church, legislated policy isn’t the primary way to address social needs.
No group of citizens can build a wall along the Mexican border, and few contribute in any meaningful way to formulating immigration policy. But nearly everyone lives in a town with a Hispanic minority. In addition to (or before) asking, “How can America control immigration?” Christians should ask, “What obligations do churches have toward immigrants? What can we do to proclaim the gospel to them in word and deed?” We shouldn’t merely ask how Federal or State governments can make health insurance available, but how churches can provide affordable basic medical care to the poor in a local area. We may not have the policy answers to the drug trade, but many churches support or provide help for addicts and some have effectively intervened to reduce gang violence. We can’t stop ISIS, but churches can send and support missionaries in Islamic countries, and churches can mount targeted evangelistic campaigns to Muslims in our neighborhoods. We can think of Muslim immigration to the US as a threat to our Christian heritage; we can also recognize it as one of the greatest opportunities for Muslim evangelism since the sixth century.
Many churches are already deeply involved in this sorts of “social services.” In her study of American congregations (Pillars of Faith), Nancy Ammerman describes how the work of churches extends from the members to the surrounding community. She speaks of “the tremendous breadth and diversity of ways congregations in the United States attempt to have an effect on the world beyond their front doors. From soup kitchens to evangelism campaigns, from ecology groups to nursery schools, from vouchers for a tank of gas to job training programs, most congregations are concerned about more than their own members” (156). One doesn’t have to agree with all of the their conclusions to agree that with the authors of United by Faith that multracial congregations are (in the subtitle’s words) “an answer to the problem of race.” Ministry to prisoners has grow has exploded since Charles Colson founded Prison Fellowship.
These are not “private” ways of dealing with public concerns. The line between public and private is not a sharp one in any case, and it’s a mistake to think that the church’s ministries have only private effects.
This approach may simplify, but it doesn’t make things simple. Organizing affordable medical care through a local church or coalition of churches is a large undertaking. It certainly doesn’t make things easier: Far easier to cast a vote or even campaign in favor of a war-on-terror President than to engage a Muslim face-to-face. This proposal doesn’t ensure success in fully addressing a social problem. The pro-life movement serves as an example of both the possibilities of limits of this approach: Roe remains the law of the land and there continue to be millions of abortions each year, yet many churches and Christian organizations have offered support and assistance to unwed mothers, protected and cared for unwanted children, raised awareness of the grisly business of killing babies.
It’s not a panacea. Yet ecclesializing policy questions may enable Christians to overcome the paralysis that often dogs policy impasses. It gives Christians an opportunity to do something about public issues, which is a far sight better than coming to a slow boil in front of the evening news or venting on social media. Ecclesializing policy questions may not make the lame leap like a dear, but it enables the lame to take a few baby steps.