by Stephanie Summers
Chief Executive Officer, The Center for Public Justice, Washington D.C.
A US Senator had finished his remarks and was taking questions from a group of college students who were visiting Capitol Hill. I was the next speaker and was rapidly revising my talk to respectfully address some troubling aspects of the Senator’s comments.
The Senator stated, “The most important thing for Christians to know is if the church would just do the church’s job, we could get rid of a lot of this government.”
A student stood, and respectfully asked, “Sir, I’m from Appalachia. My dad died. My mom is disabled, and she can’t work. If I’m hearing you right, what you’re saying is that our church, in our community, should have made sure my family kept our house, had food on our table, and got me and my brothers and sisters to and through college?”
The Senator replied, “Yes.”
This I found troubling. Where I come from, the Senator’s prescription would likely have worked very well. But in an Appalachian community, the likelihood is far less. This is not a judgment about the generosity of Appalachian Christians. This is a statement describing the reality that great need and the resources to address those needs are not always co-located.
How Do We Serve the Least of These?
Most Christians get this right away when we think about serving those whom Jesus calls “the least of these” through our gifts of time, talent, and treasure. We know that there are all kinds of people in God’s world who don’t have what we have and whose proximate neighbors could never provide what we can offer. We understand the invitation we have been given by God to steward and share what we’ve been entrusted with, putting aside selfish desires and showing preferential treatment instead to those who are not like us. We get that.
But we don’t get what it means to serve our neighbors as citizens, as members of the political community. The political community is the bond between citizens to government and government to citizens. The purpose of the political community is to uphold public justice, a different purpose from other communities in our society (like the community of parents and children in a family, of teachers and students in a school, or of employers and employees in a corporation, for example). We don’t think much about the proper role and responsibilities of the government of our political community and our role as citizens in it. This is a problem.
Serving our neighbors as citizens is not a matter of distorting the purpose of government to meet every material need, nor is it about subjugating ourselves to perspectives that are more popular than ours. It is a matter of citizens and government participating in the high calling to fulfill public justice, which ensures equal treatment in a diverse political community.
Government’s High Calling
Both institutions, the church and the political community, have important God-given purposes. The government of a political community is given the high calling of ensuring public justice. This has two parts.
First, government and citizens have the responsibility to shape the political community to ensure that all other aspects and responsibilities in human life are not morphed into political ones and have the room they need to flourish—meaning that our families, our educational institutions, our businesses, our churches, and the like are able to fulfill their God-given responsibilities because of, not in spite of, the way the political community is shaped.
Second, upholding public justice requires seeking the good of the political community in its own right.
This second point is not very popular. While the messy effects of the Fall of Genesis 3 on our families, workplaces, and churches are often able to be kept behind closed doors, the messy effect on the political community feels disproportionately large because it plays out in public. This public messiness of the political community sends many Christians in the direction of a brand of politics that espouses individual freedom as the highest virtue.
At its worst, this embraces ways of thinking like Bentham’s “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” This utilitarianism is not compatible with the Gospel call to value every human because they are created in the image of God.
I Was Hungry and You Fed Me
I studied poetry as an undergraduate student, and while I don’t recommend this route to anyone as a secure career path, it taught me some things about why we humans don’t see difference. Poets generally are trained to do something our brains don’t do very well on their own: to point out seemingly unusual circumstances, see the people best described as quirky, and have our attention arrested by things outside of the norm. Poets notice the reality that the world God made is actually not very uniform at all, but is manifestly full of difference. Jesus was a poet.
When Jesus told the story about the sheep and goats at the end of the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, both the groups describe themselves as having not seen Jesus in all the needs and care that he describes (“When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?”). But Jesus invites us to see those different needs and to respond as though we are caring for … him.
As Christians who embrace our responsibilities in political community, we must be those who see differences. We must reject utilitarian calculations that seek to maximize the happiness of the many by ignoring the differences that require preferential treatment, lest we leave behind those in the minority.
In every situation where a law or a policy might be enacted, there is possibly a group that is outside of the norm, who may be in need of special consideration. This kind of preferential treatment, of seeing the breadth of our political community and the diversity of our neighbors, and seeking to respect and protect the differences between us, is the way we are called to serve our neighbors as citizens.