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Faithful Citizenship: A Book Excerpt

Eugene Cho mused after meeting President Obama, "I care about politics not because I obsess over politics. Rather, politics is important to me because it involves policies, and policies, ultimately, impact people." And the Rev. Cho is right: at its heart, political issues concern real live people, often ourselves, often our neighbors, near or far, all of whom should matter to us. As Augustine noted over 1500 years ago: "Friendship begins with one's spouse and children, and from there moves on to strangers. But considering the fact that we all have the same father (Adam) and the same mother (Eve) who will be a stranger? Every human being is neighbor to every other human being." (Sermon 299D, 1)

So if you care about our schools, you care about politics. If you're interested in whether or not you, your children, or your grandchildren will fight in a foreign war, you are interested in politics. If you wonder if your water is safe to drink or why your roads are so bad, you wonder about politics. If you think it's scandalous that we allow people to starve in East Africa or live as sex slaves in Thailand, you are thinking about politics. And if you have feelings about whether or not a woman should be allowed to have an abortion, criminals should be executed, or terminal patients should be allowed to take their own lives, you should have (and probably, if you are honest, do have) feelings about politics.

Politics is the social dimension of our lives, and it rears its head in every area of existence where people get together. It's about how individual people within a larger unit operate together, who's in charge, what rules are followed, how we can best live together. It's at work within families, inside schools, within churches, in organizations, at work, and of course in our municipal, state, and national identities.

We are social beings, as Augustine noted, called by God to practice friendship, called to live in communities. And when we live in community, that will necessarily involve negotiation, conflict resolution, goal setting, power sharing, faithful action—all the elements that we identify as belonging to the political sphere.

Ultimately it's impossible to say—and mean—that we "are not political." Being political is all about negotiating those difficult questions of our common life:

How do we relate to each other in society?

How do we relate to each other in our faith communities?

How do we relate to each other in families, in businesses, and in our churches?

Who should be in charge? How?

What goals should we pursue in our lives together? Why?

Thankfully, the Judeo/Christian tradition has much to say about these questions, both in scripture—whether through the Hebrew Law, the Prophets, the teachings and actions of Jesus, or the letters of Paul—and in the tradition—whether the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Rule of Benedict, the sermons and writings of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, or the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr, or Stanley Hauerwas, among others.

If we are created as social beings—and certainly the Church has thought so since Augustine and earlier—then it is incumbent upon us to think about how we reconcile our lives as social beings and our lives as lovers of God. Among those Christians who have considered the relationship between faith and politics, we find three main approaches. Some believe (as do many who are secular) that private faith and public life should operate in different and mutually-exclusive spheres. Your private faith should inform one part of your life; your involvement in community and political life may be shaped by your core beliefs, but you don't talk about them or try to impose them on your neighbors. You may not even see a connection between your Sunday worship and what you do in the voting booth on the first Tuesday in November.

The second and third approaches insist that Christian life always has a public dimension, and these practitioners primarily fall into two groups that Timothy Beach-Verhey calls "Christian traditionalists" and "political liberalists," who call, respectively, for laws and policies that attempt to enforce a biblical Christian morality, or for laws and policies that attempt to create Christian charity and enforce Christian justice. [Next week, we'll talk to Tim about two of America's most important political and religious thinkers, the Niebuhr brothers.]

Both of these approaches are now identified with political parties and candidates, making them a part of our divisive partisan landscape. In this book, I want to argue a fourth approach: that we can extrapolate from the Christian calls to love, justice, and service to a distinctly Christian way of seeing life in community that transcends partisan politics. In exploring these traditions and moving toward that Christian ethic for political involvement, we'll necessarily be considering these larger questions:

4/11/2012 4:00:00 AM