Politics, Partisanship, and Partisanism

Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

It’s always been etiquette in social situations to avoid religion and politics. Fights about these two important areas of life are not a new thing. I would contend though that what has occurred in our time is a move beyond politics and beyond partisanship to partisanism. Let me explain what I mean.

Politics: I know people who say they just don’t want to talk about politics. I haven’t figured out how we live without talking about politics. “Politics” comes from the Greek polis, the word for city, and has to do at root with the affairs of the city. The city was the state in ancient Greece. Since then, we have created additional levels of politics at state and national levels. Decisions about school curriculums, trash pick up and recycling services, policing, the creation and maintenance of state parks, the right of way of roads, what taxes we pay, and the regulations that govern interstate travel all are political.

Politics exist because more of us exist than simply our own households. We all have our ideas of what makes a good place, a good society. Politics is the process of how we figure out together how human societies best flourish. Good political processes are essential to a healthy society. When these processes cease to function well in promoting the common good, social orders deteriorate. Not all at once, perhaps. Societies may live for a while on the capital of formerly constructive political processes. I think that is our current predicament.

Partisanship: If you have two human beings, you probably have disagreements. Often, a number of people will take the same side against others. In many countries there are multiple groups with particular interests. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing because it allows diverse interests to have a voice in political decisions all have to live with. Effective politics recognizes the situations that need to be addressed for the health of a society, allows different voices to be heard, and arrives at compromises that aren’t perfect, but work, at least imperfectly for everyone. Healthy partisanship ensures that all the citizens are considered and that political solutions are ideally common good solutions, not favoring some citizens over others. Partisans keep in mind that they represent a certain interest but also serve those with different interests. Maintaining that tension is important if you believe in the equality and value of all your citizens.

Partisanism: I looked. It is actually a word. I see partisanism as a distortion of healthy partisanship. It is where party ideals become ideology and there is a kind of absolutism about it that says we are right and they are wrong. The point is not seeking some form of common good, but simply the good of our party, our group. Wrong people don’t deserve good. Partisanism stirs up a religious fervor befitting the fact that it is an -ism. If partisanism can’t get its way it obstructs and often complains that the other side is unwilling to compromise. What is really the case is that the extreme positions sides are forced to in these situations brook no compromise–only winners and losers. Nothing is left on the table. We only allow either/or. There is no room to consider both/and.

Partisanism at its worst becomes political extremism in which pretenses of principle are jettisoned for the ruthless exercise of power. It might be a form of fascism on the right or a form of statism on the left. In history, this always ends badly in the loss of human rights, and often, a succession of violence.

As a follower of Christ, I believe both that politics reflects an aspect of the “culture mandate” given Adam and Eve and that in a world of finite and fallen human beings the best that can ever be obtained are proximate goods. Any move toward the absolutism of partisanism and political extremism ignores these realities and substitutes an earthly kingdom for a heavenly one. Hence, I believe at best politicians work for proximate solutions that listen to and serve all those represented by them. I believe it is essential that our parties strive toward this kind of political work and that as a citizenry, we support that work and stop vilifying political compromise and negotiation. Might we release a kind of creativity when we free politicians from the tyranny of “either/or” politics to explore what “both/and” might look like?

I hope those of you reading don’t try to argue with me about what “they” did, whoever “they” are. I’m not interested in those arguments because I’m not interested in that kind of partisanism. I don’t mind a politics where we have different ideas of the common good as long as the common good of all our citizens is our aim. Any other politics is unworthy of us because implicitly we are saying that there are some Americans we don’t need, some Americans who don’t count, some who don’t have the same value as human beings. I’ve watched us espouse the idea of all being created equal on July 4 and ignore it the rest of the year for too long. We won’t get it perfect but a politics that relentless pursued the common good, and vigorously resisted partisanism, could get it better. No matter your party, that’s a politics worth talking about.

Review: Public Intellectuals and the Common Good

Public Intellectuals and the Common, Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A collection of presentations defining, articulating the need for and practice of Christian public intellectual work that pursues the wider good.

Public intellectuals? We don’t have any of them around here. That seems the verdict of many who struggle to name a good example of a Christian public intellectual since the time of Reinhold Niebuhr or Martin Luther King, Jr. George M. Marsden discusses this sense in the foreword to this volume and contends that the size of the audience isn’t the only criterion for a being a public intellectual. What is critical for Christians is that they do this, reflecting not only excellence of thought but also the sacrificial work of Christ in love for those who may differ for this.

In their introduction the editors identify the challenges for evangelicals in considering public intellectual work. Do we see ourselves as our brothers’ keepers? We are both politically divided and as an evangelical movement, fragmented and amorphous. We’ve been distracted from the hard work of excellent scholarship and so our engagement is often mediocre, with some exceptions. We’ve not created the mechanisms of rigorous critique to develop better ideas common in the public environment. And they introduce us to a Catholic scholar of the last century who exemplified loving excellence for the common good, Jacques Maritain.

The contributors of this volume (originally conference presentations) lay the groundwork for a vision of public intellectual work for the common good. The first two essays are theological reflections. Miroslav Volf articulates the need for and character of the public intellectual, pointing us back to Sarah and Abraham through whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Of any essayist he articulates most clearly the challenge of public intellectual work in the time of disorienting change:

“To negotiate all these changes, we need at least three things: (1) to understand the seemingly chaotic world around us; (2) to discern, articulate, and commend visions of the good, flourishing life in diverse and largely pluralistic settings, and (3) to find navigable paths to reach together the goals aligned with those visions.

Amo Yong turns us to the apostles and emphasizes both the discursive and performative acts of their ministry and the essential element of the work of the Spirit. He contends that theologians as public intellectuals should not jettison their theological insights but be resolutely theological in their speech and activities, even as they recognize their pluralistic setting.

The second part includes messages from those in the marketplace. Linda A. Livingstone, president of Baylor University, insists on the importance of presidents of Christian institutions leading in public intellectual work within their institutions as well as facilitating that work among faculty. Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, considers three of their Templeton Prize winners as exemplars of public intellectuals working for the common good, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and Professor Alvin Plantinga. All three are unapologetic adherents of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity respectively. Yet all three are characterized by humility that builds bridges to other faith leaders and scholars who differ with them, exemplifying what John Inazu calls “confident pluralism.” Katelyn Beaty, a former editor at Christianity Today, closes out this section describing the role of journalists in a post-truth era, offering her own example in covering the fall of Bill Hybels, and how Willow Creek addressed allegations against him.

The last section consists of two reflections. One, by Emmanual Katangole, describes his personal transformation when he worked with Chris Rice at the Center for Reconciliation, moving from theoretical work to public engagement around racial reconciliation. Then the concluding presentation is an interview with John Perkins and the centrality of his relationship with Christ to all his reconciliation and community development work.

I traced several themes running through these essays. One is that public intellectual work by Christians must always be grounded in Christian piety and conviction that refuses to mute this in public engagement. Second is the vital character of moral and intellectual excellence rooted in Christian humility. Third is that public intellectuals offer and embody sense and clarity in our divided and fragmented world rather than perpetuating the confusion. Finally, their work is moved neither by animus nor fear but by love that seeks the flourishing of all human beings, and not just the ones in agreement with you.

I appreciated the mix of presenters from academia and the public realm–emphasizing the work of philanthropy, journalism, and community development in particular. This is not a “how to” book but in it we encounter both theory and exemplars. Perhaps the most helpful word is from George Marsden at the beginning: this is not work for a select few, but one for all Christians who recognize the vital role of the life of the mind to bring greater clarity to our disorienting times, to the end of the good of our neighbors–all of them. In this collection, the editors combine vision, urgency, and hope for this noble and much needed work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Uncommon Ground

uncommon ground

Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference, edited Timothy Keller & John Inazu. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020.

Summary: Twelve individuals from different walks of life discuss what Christian faithfulness and the pursuit of the common good looks like in a deeply divided culture.

How are Christians to live in this time where we seem deeply divided about everything from wearing masks to the status of an embryo in the womb to the seriousness of the changes we are witnessing in the world’s climate? Not only are divisions around these and a host of issues deep, but engagement between those who differ seems nearly impossible. So what is a Christian to do? Many have decided that the only options are to “go to ground” and talk about vacations and share cute cat memes. Others have concluded that you must side up on one side of the divide and “unfriend” all those one disagrees with. How is a Christian to live if one cares about the common good and about faithfulness to a kingdom-of-God-shaped life that anticipates the peaceable kingdom and beloved community of the world to come.

These are the questions addressed by the twelve people who contributed to this book edited by Tim Keller, whose Redeemer Church has had a redemptive influence in New York City, and John Inazu, a law professor from St. Louis engaged in a program called the Carver Project whose stated mission is framed in these terms:

We empower Christian faculty and students to serve and connect university, church, and society. We work toward uncommon community, focused engagement, and creative dialogue.

Joining them are theologian Kristen Deede Johnson, InterVarsity/USA president Tom Lin, social entrepreneur Rudy Carrasco, writer and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren, songwriter Sara Groves, rap artist Lecrae, Christian college network leader Shirley V. Hoogstra, psychiatrist Warren Kinghorn, African American community engagement leader in the Southern Baptist Convention Trillia Newbell, and Pastor Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. a peacemaker in Charlotte, North Carolina, leading a multi-site, socially engaged church, The Park Church.

Some essays are more inward looking as is Tish Harrison Warren’s describing her discovery of a calling as a writer, that of naming reality through words. Tim Keller traces his calling from a rural pastorate to New York City and his sense that the gospel critiqued both rural conservatism and urban secular culture, and the sense that in planting a church, Redeemer was called to be salt and light in the city, citizens both of an earthly and heavenly city with the latter taking priority.

Others think more about the terms of engagement of Christians with a divided and pluralistic society. John Inazu advances the virtues of humility, tolerance, and patience as he seeks to translate between the church and the university. Warren Kinghorn talks about walking with the psychologically wounded. Both Trillia Newbell and Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. explore what it means to be reconcilers, peacemakers in a racist society.

Keller and Inazu tie up the strands of the different essays by calling attention to one of the most significant works on Christian engagement written in the last thirty years, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. They single out Hunter’s idea of faithful presence and articulate four themes from the essay of what it takes to find “uncommon ground” in our culture while living faithfully to Christ:

  1. Christians should not overidentify with any particular political party or platform.
  2. Christians should approach the community around them through a posture of love and service.
  3. Christians should recognize that the gospel subverts rival stories and accounts of reality.
  4. Christians should reach out to others with humility, patience, and tolerance.

My one hesitance with the language of faithful presence is that it needs more definition to avoid being reduced to a life of service, integrity and niceness. Particularly considering the issues of justice roiling our culture with women, people of color, immigrants and more, is there something more to be said about Christians stance with those on the margins? Perhaps that is implicit in the idea of a subversive gospel. Several do touch on this. Lecrae talks about the narratives that color our perceptions around race and the necessity of telling different stories. Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. gets closest to “edgy” in stating that “[m]aking peace and striving for justice are intimately intertwined.”

I’ve always wanted to be in the place of reconciling differences, of finding the common ground, even if it is a third way shaped by the gospel. What I wrestle with is knowing when it is not possible to find common or uncommon ground. Are there things with which we cannot reconcile–for example white supremacy? Are there “brightline offenses” that must be called out and resisted without equivocation? What does it mean to love across these kinds of differences? How does one do this without becoming a partisan?

At the same time, the writers cast a vision for being very different Christians from what the world expects, and what is often portrayed in the media. The use of personal narratives helps us identify different examples of what it looks like. Yet this is not engagement “lite.” Most of the writers couple theological frameworks with personal stories, offering us rich fare for thought and community and life. Keller and Inazu not only contribute substantive essays but set up the collection and tie it together well. Even more, they created a conversation among the contributors, who often play off each other, giving the work a coherence not often found in a collection of essays. This was an “uncommon” conversation on “uncommon ground.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Running For Our Lives

Running for our Lives, Robb Ryerse (Foreword by Brian D. McLaren). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.

Summary: A northwest Arkansas pastor decides to run in a primary against one of the most powerful Republican representatives in a grassroots campaign to restore a say in government to ordinary citizens.

Robb Ryerse was a political junkie. He was also a pastor whose developing ministry led him to political views at variance with many of his fundamentalist counterparts. It led him eventually to launch a counter-cultural and inclusive church in northwest Arkansas. It led to weeping when the nominee of his party was elected president in 2016 and joining others who were concerned about the way our political process was going.

All this led to Ryerse being recruited by Brand New Congress to run a grassroots campaign oriented around the common good of the everyday American. He went to a “Congress Camp” with a number of candidates from both parties including Antonia Ocasio-Cortez. What is striking is that Ryerse went as a Republican running against a Republican incumbent. He finds himself at variance with his party, not with the philosophy of governance, but rather with positions on healthcare, climate change, and immigration that have become immigration. He discovered that for all their disagreements, he could find common ground by focusing on the common good with those at Congress Camp who did not share his party affiliation–something they all wanted to take to Washington.

One of the key issues he explores is the issue of campaign finance. He argues that you will only have a Congress responsive to everyday citizens when they, and not big donors fund the campaigns, something Antonia Ocasio-Cortes was able to do. The challenge: this will probably take a constitutional amendment unless Americans refuse to support candidates funded by big money interests.

He traces the high and low points, the latter including a party dinner in a remote part of the district where his name was mispronounced and no one would talk to him. On the other hand were voters dissatisfied with the direction of the party who listened. A documentary crew follows his run from when he pays the $15,000 entry fee set by the party, his early high hopes and his increasing realization that he just didn’t have the votes. He ended winning 15 percent of the vote.

He ended the race a changed person. He reached a position on gun control that focused not only on the right to bear arms, but the “well-regulated” character of a citizenry who did so as a basis for gun legislation that did not take weapons away, but did govern how they could be obtained as part of a package of common sense gun legislation. Most of all, he became even more convinced of the need for a movement that focused on the electing of everyday people by everyday people committed to the common good. So when the invitation to become executive director of Brand New Congress to continue this movement, he said yes.

I suspect a number of people who read this review would not agree with all of Ryerse positions. I don’t. But what strikes me is that Ryerse argues for the kind of politician that I think we need to change the character of our legislative branch — people committed to seeking the common good of our citizens. What Ryerse does not answer is what it takes for such candidates to unseat a heavily funded incumbent on a shoe string. His support from everyday people, which he prided himself on, only amounted to $30,000, a paltry amount compared to his opponent. He can pride himself that he ran a principled race all he wants, but the truth is, he didn’t even come close to being elected. Nor did he generate enough of a movement of “everyday people” to even make the race competitive. Does that say something?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: In Search of the Common Good

In search of the common good

In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured WorldJake Meador. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Observing the breakdown in community in both church and society, the author traces the root causes, and the practices of Christian community that can lead to recovery of community and a church that seeks the common good in society.

Many attentive culture watchers have noted the parallel declines of both church and wider American culture. Attendance is dropping in many churches even as churches are rocked with scandals of sexual abuse and financial mismanagement. The seduction of the church to corrupt political alliances, whether of the left or the right, in the author’s view, is only the final step in a church that has given itself to power instead of the doing of “small things with great love.” While all this goes on, America is “bowling alone” to even a greater extend than when Robert Putnam first published his study of the decline of social capital and community in America. Suicide rates are up, life expectancy is dropping, and the professionalized care industry is booming, even as local community and a sense of cohesion and pursuit of common good is vanishing in a land of toxic discourse.

Jake Meador chronicles these parallel declines and traces them to three factors. One is a loss of meaning, a pervasive existentialism that pretends to meaning in choices of radical freedom, yet without hope. A second is a loss of wonder, a dis-enchantment with the world as the buffered self cuts us off from both danger and wonder, resulting pervasive boredom. A third is the hollowing out of work, where efficiency and profitability is the sum total of work’s meaning, where we are alienated both from our work, and by our work from home, family, and religious life, as work becomes all-consuming.

Meador proposes three practices that may play a crucial role in restoring Christian communities to health, enabling them to exercise a societal presence that fosters a wider common good. He begins with the surprising proposal of keeping sabbath, as a tangible way of underscoring that human beings were made, not for work, but for God, that we are human beings, not human doings. One of the things Meador argues for is corporate worship, as one tangible way of keeping sabbath that begins to restore a sense of our being part of some “common good.” He adopts Wendell Berry’s idea of “membership” in which we recognize that we are embedded in both a human and wider biological community.  He advocates for work that is sacramental–that work is good and offers ways to bless others, that produces wealth, and is attentive to the membership.

His final section consists of two parts. The latter grounds the former, and really all that he has written, in the new heaven and new earth, a hope that is even more real than life in the present age. The former talks about what it means for the community of God’s people to be citizens in earthly societies. It is here perhaps that he makes one of his most trenchant observations:

   Put another way, the political priorities of many American Christians in recent years have been precisely backward. We ought to have begun with doctrine because doctrine defines the good life as it relates to political systems and societies. Then we ought to have turned to the formation of citizens. We should have asked what kind of virtues are necessary to live well in community with one another and what particular virtues are necessary for responsible political action. Then we should have asked how to cultivate those virtues within our people. Finally, only after attending to these issues, we should have moved on to debating policy….American Christians, and evangelicals especially, have done the exact opposite. (p. 161).

He argues for a political doctrine shaped by the Kuyperian ideas of solidarity and sphere sovereignty, and the practice of subsidiarity–that government should only do those things it is large enough to do, leaving other matters to other spheres of life.

Reading Jake Meador as a sixty-something took me back to what it was like to read as a college student a young Os Guinness in The Dust of Death, with his sweeping discussion of culture, and what it meant for Christians to live as a third wayThere is the same scope of considering cultural forces, the intellectual ideas behind them, and a fresh vision of what Christian faithfulness might look like in the present time. Sadly, a boomer generation fascinated with “fast-everything” circumvented doctrine and virtue and communal practices in pursuit of policy influence, power, or a personal prosperity without a sense of our membership and solidarity with others and all living things.

This leaves me reflecting. Os Guinness is still speaking and writing. Jake Meador has written for a number of publications. But who is reading? And who is heeding? I hope someone is and that the American church wakes up to how far it has declined over forty years, before all we can do is cry “Ichabod. The glory has departed!” (1 Samuel 4:21). Meador’s ideas and commended practices offer light for those tired of groping in the darkness.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Reading for the Common Good

Reading for the Common Good

Reading for the Common Good, C. Christopher Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores how the communal practice of reading in congregations fosters a learning community and shared social imagination the results in clearer congregational identity, sense of mission in one’s setting, and wider engagement with the environment, economics, and political order.

I came across the work of C. Christopher Smith a few years ago through an online version of The Englewood Review of BooksThe online site has become one of my “go-to” places to learn about new releases and also great books available for discounts (usually in e-format). Smith is the editor of this enterprise which is tied in with the ministry of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, an urban congregation on the east side of Indianapolis. In his previous book, Slow Church, which I reviewed a year ago, Smith offered a few more clues that books were not just a personal passion that his church indulges but that reading plays a role in its common life. In this book, Smith articulates a vision for reading that goes beyond personal or even common life to the common good of his congregation and wider community.

Fundamentally, he and his community have fostered the idea of becoming a learning organization, building on Peter Senge’s idea in The Fifth Discipline. Learning to read together, beginning with the scriptures both in preaching and the practice of lectio divina, and discussing other works together has helped his church understand its context as well as envision a different “social imaginary.” This is a key idea in the book, borrowed from the work of Charles Taylor. Social imaginaries are our mental images of how things are done in our social context, often not articulated nor evaluated. For example, it might be contended that we have accustomed ourselves to a very polarized political dialogue between two parties. And we may think we must choose one of the two alternatives, both individually, and communally as congregations or church bodies. A different social imaginary might envision a very different type of political engagement.

Smith contends that as we read, reflect, discuss and imagine together around the scriptures, and around books that may speak to our context, we can explore, and be confronted by different social imaginaries that change the way we think about who and why we are as a church, about when and where we are in our context, and how we think about our presence in our communities, in the physical environment we inhabit, in the economic order in which we participate, and the political order of our communities, states and nations.

I had two questions in mind as I was reading this book. One was, can you really hope for all this to happen from our reading of scripture and other good reading? The other was, how does he get his congregation to do this kind of reading together? The answer to the first question was simple. I found myself asking, “isn’t this in fact why I do Bob on Books in the first place?”  I believe that not only the “book of all books” but also other good writing can change the way we see the world and our place in it and shape our actions in ways that seek the greater flourish of the people and the places we share life with. What Smith did here is give me better language for what, instinctively, I’ve sought to do on the blog, both in my own writing and my reviews of the writing of others.

Chapter 9 in the book helped answer the second question for me. As noted already, Smith and his community begin with the slow reading of scripture, and he believes that learning to attend to God’s word in these ways is both foundational and helpful in learning, and loving to attend to other words. Congregational leaders promote reading within various teams related to the particular work they are doing. Their goals are modest. Even one book read and discussed together in a year is good. They create spaces for conversations about reading in classes, book clubs and seminars. They make resources available including books related to a current sermon series, they develop a process for including reviews of books on websites and a process to curate those reviews. And they keep fostering the love of reading among the children of the congregation. I read this and was struck with the conclusion that even in a busy congregation (whose isn’t?) of people who don’t read much, this is doable.

Smith concludes the book with a couple of reading lists: an annotated one of books related to the chapters of the book, and a list organized by subjects of books that have been helpful to his church community. My impression was “meaty, but accessible” for both lists–plainly richer fare that the inspirational fiction and non-fiction that is the typical “Christian reading diet.”

It is refreshing when a book comes along that connects the dots and clarifies one’s understanding of the things one cares about. This was such a book, and in doing so, the book accomplished for me, or rather in me, what the author contends reading does for us. I concluded the book with fresh ideas about fostering learning community around books in the professional and church communities with which I connect. Hopefully, that will indeed lead to some “common goods.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Christians and the Common Good

Christians and the Common GoodChristians and the Common GoodCharles E. Gutenson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011.

Summary: Explores what the teaching of scripture says about God’s intentions for how we live together and the implications of this for public policy.

The title of this book may be perplexing to some for different reasons. For some, their experience is one of Christians seeking their own good, or simply their own idea of the good, which smacks of privilege. For others, the perplexing thing may be the idea of a “common good”. In our current climate of polarized, indeed Balkanized politics, it seems that few people are talking about a “common good”–policies and community practices where both responsibility and benefit are shared by all constituents to a significant degree.

Charles Gutenson, in a book written during the debates on the Affordable Care Act proposes an approach by which Christians may advance proposals informed by their faith that genuinely advance the common good, not just their own. He argues that one gets there by reading the whole Bible to discover God’s intentions for how a people are to live together, not simply the few “government passages” (Romans 13 and Luke 20 in particular) that Christians often reference as the beginning and end of their political philosophy. He contends that this teaching is not to be woodenly applied in a context very different from the biblical one. And he proposes that the life and ministry of Jesus is the definitive expression of how the Triune God would have us live in imitation of him.

He follows these foundational claims with an extensive survey of scriptures from both the Old and New Testament concerning everything from Jubilee and gleaning laws to the continued protection of widows and orphans in the life of the church. A basic thread is a loving concern for the needy among us. It seemed to me that 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 was a particular “control text” for the approach he advocates:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’ ” (NIV)

He contends that it is not enough that the church act along these lines but that this is also a good principle to inform public policy. Often, he argues, private means are simply not sufficient to address the scope of public need, as important as private efforts are.

With this in mind, he thinks the following policies are in line with a biblically-informed concern for the common good: safety nets like unemployment, certain forms of welfare and Medicaid, a progressive (rather than regressive) tax structure, an honest reckoning with the issues of race and protections from racial discrimination, Social Security and Medicare safeguards to care for our elderly, minimum wages that provide a living wage, or absent that, tax breaks that recognize the benefits others enjoy by keeping wages low, earned income credits, access to health care, estate and inheritance taxes, bankruptcy laws, anti-monopoly laws, efforts to strengthen families, and addressing global poverty.

Clearly, Gutenson advocates what would be a “left of center” social policy and he admits as much. He takes a muted approach to the “culture war” issues of homosexuality and abortion. The strength of his case is the argument that a flourishing society seeks the flourishing of all, and not just some, of its people. It looks out not only for one’s own interests but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). It recognizes the role that the public power of government may play when the private power of some interests gains benefits at the expense of others, especially those on the margins.

What troubles me is that while the author welcomes more conservative voices and recognizes that solutions to our pressing social problems will require a degree of collaboration absent at present, he is decidedly silent on some issues that I think require attention, such as the recognition of the deep injustice we commit against our children when we consistently ask the government to spend more for the services we want than we are willing to pay, leaving the debts to those who come after us. Also, redistribution of resources via taxation can help or hurt the poor. Why not for example provide tax incentives to companies who offer living rather than minimum wages? I’m troubled that some of these proposals go beyond emergency relief (such as unemployment benefits) to ongoing relief rather than economic opportunity fueled by economic development.

Nor does he say anything about fundamental electoral reform including re-districting reform and campaign finance reform. As it stands now, most elected officials in state and federal government do not have to be concerned about “the common good” because of the way their districts are drawn. And this further marginalizes people by race and economic status. The rich are basically able to buy their office, or that of those who protect their interests.

Where Gutenson’s voice is welcome is in its clarion call for Christians to pursue the common good, and to wrestle with the “whole counsel of God” on these matters to gain God’s heart for the common, and not just our own good. This can be helpful for thoughtful Christians wrestling with the role of Christians in public life, who want to go beyond proof texts and political pundits to constructive engagement.


I’ve No Plans to Move to Canada

Flag_of_Canada.svgThis is not a statement about Canada, which I’ve always loved visiting. I have good friends who make their home there, and they love their country as much or more than I love mine. No anti-Canada rant here. No rant at all really.

Rather, it is a response to the number of posts I’ve seen recently saying, “if ‘______’ is elected president, I’m moving to Canada!” Depending on your politics, you might be inclined to say this for a various of the candidates currently on offer.

Now I suspect that some of this is overstated hyperbole, or just a form of venting frustration with what seems a bizarre political season to many. But I also wonder if it reveals some unsettling, at least to me, suppositions about the political order.

It seems that the assumption behind statements like the one above is that if such and such is elected the nation is going to go to hell in a hand-basket. Now I will totally agree that it is not an inconsequential thing to elect a president, or any other political office holder. I grew up in a city that was more or less a one party town and often elected those beholden to organized crime. And I live in a city, that while far from perfect, has enjoyed several generations of forward looking leadership.

What troubles me in the sentiment is that I feel it puts too much stock in a single area of our public life–the political. It seems that our discourse tends to turn the politicians we like into saviors, and those we don’t into demons. It’s kind of striking to me that believers and atheists both have something in common in this discourse–they talk about politicians as supernatural, or at least as super-human figures. At very least, it seems that something is out of proportion here. A few observations:

  • Under our system, political leaders derive their power from the governed. Even with the problems of campaign finance, we are still the people who put these people in office, or not.
  • At every level, we operate in a system that balances power between executive, legislative, and judicial functions. It’s inefficient, but it does provide mechanisms to check the excesses of a person or group.
  • I also wonder if we put too much stock in these people, perhaps in part because of the way the 24/7 news cycle distorts our view of reality. So many others are pursuing the common good, whether in starting companies, serving communities, creating works of beauty, and, of vital importance, raising the next generation.
  • One of the things this points to is that what makes a country good are not simply our leaders, but an engaged citizenry that is thinking not only of our own good but the common good. This raises the all-important issue of our character as a people, as David Brooks has so helpfully done on his “Road to Character” website.

This is why I’m not planning to move to Canada, or elsewhere. There is so much I love about the city, state, and nation I live in. I will not give away my own responsibility for fostering what is best about these to the political system. Nor will I lodge my hope in any political leader, nor allow their failings to dissuade me from seeking the common good of “the land that I love.”

This post actually began in church this past Sunday. We were singing these lyrics by Chris Tomlin:

You’re the God of this city
You’re the King of these people
You’re the Lord of this nation

What is disturbing to me is that many of those I’ve heard voicing sentiments about going to Canada are people of faith, and I suspect many have sung this song at some point. What I wonder is, do they believe God will still be sovereign over our nation if the person they disdain is elected? Some may chide me for making too much of a “careless” statement. But I wonder about our “care” for our city, state, and nation if we would talk about leaving it if someone we disapprove of is elected. What are we saying about our faith in God and our love for our place?

Something to think about. . .

Outrage and the Speech of Freedom


By David Shankbone – David Shankbone CC BY – SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3554956

“Why are we so angry?”

That’s a question I’ve been musing on of late.

My Facebook friends are a curious phenomena of my life. I find some expressing outrage against anything that might be associated with the political left. And then there are others equally outraged with anything associated with the political right. It makes me kind of glad that they only meet on my newsfeed! It also makes me wonder what it says about me that I have friends at both these extremes.

Some suggest that outrage with the political establishment explains the attraction of people to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Whether or not these are the best candidates for president, it concerns me that outrage might outweigh more measured judgments of who should serve in this important office.

I come back to my question of “why are we so angry?”

Outrage is defined as “an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation.” I wonder what feeds the anger that shows up in road rage, gun violence, and the vitriolic discourse that increasingly seems to be the social and popular media norm.

I do wonder at time about the capacity of our media to ratchet up our anger as one angry voice augments another, with media personalities egging this on because it means more views to a blog, a talk show, or “news” program. One study suggests that “anger is the internet’s most powerful emotion.”

Could this be one reason why we are so angry?

While expressions of outrage may well be protected free speech, I do wonder whether any of this promotes what I call the speech of freedom–the speech whose aim is to promote the common good of both speaker and those with whom they disagree. It seems to me that all outrage does is solidify my bond with those who share my anger while alienating me further from any who see things differently.

Maybe that’s what some of us want. But I kind of wonder how healthy a community is that is formed around anger. And I think we have to ask ourselves whether we really want to keep fostering the antagonisms that our media seem bent on ratcheting up. Do we really want a world that is divided into winners and losers, a zero sum game? There are many parts of the world that operate like that. By and large, they are brutal, vengeful places where victory and tragedy are never far apart.

Can anger ever be useful? The apostle Paul once wrote, “be angry but do not sin, do not let the sun set on your anger.” I’ve come to realize that anger is a sign, and to ask what that is a sign of, and to act quickly to address the source of my anger. Sometimes, it is simply that a selfish desire has been frustrated, and it may be useful to hold up the mirror and see what this is showing me about myself.

Sometimes, we are angry because of some injustice or grievance that breaks a relationship. I can stew and build resentment, or I can go, before the sun sets, and say, “we need to talk, because this endangers our relationship.” It’s not always possible to work out differences in a day–the issue is not letting them fester. There is an incredible freedom that comes when anger turns to forgiveness and reconciliation.

What about social media and other things that ratchet up anger? I wonder if it is really worthwhile giving attention to these things. What if we took the time we spent posting and reading angry rants to writing a letter to our political representatives on something we care about? What about spending the time volunteering in something we care about? What about having a conversation with a living person with a different point of view–face to face! And for people of faith, what about taking the time we would spend reading and writing things against a person to pray for them. Praying for those in public leadership is commanded in the Bible–attacking them in social media is not!

All these may be ways to turn anger into the speech of freedom.

I began this post with the question of “why are we so angry?” There is a slight twist to that question in the story of Jonah, when Jonah is pouting because God spared the powerful city of Nineveh. God asks Jonah, “do you do well to be angry?”

Do do well to be angry? Do you?

Review: Visions of Vocation

The main thesis of this book is that to live as a called person is to be implicated in what one knows, to have a sense of responsibility that flows out of understanding the world and our place and work in it.

Steven Garber writes this book out of a lifetime experience of helping people discern the calling of God in their everyday lives. He has particularly worked in recent years among young leaders who come to Washington, DC on various internships as the principal of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture. Much of this book is a weave of thinking about vocation and stories of calling culled from the many people he has walked with on this journey.

He begins with talking about what it means to know the world as it is in all its ugliness and love it. Such a love is sacramental and joins with God in his care for the world. Later on, Garber speaks about how those who know and love most deeply also mourn deeply while yet living in hope. Seeing and knowing for a person living attentively to God’s call must eventuate in doing. Yet as he talks about in his chapter “the landscape of our lives”, we live in the midst of a mind- and soul-numbing glut of information that can leave us indifferent to any and everything. He talks about the sobering example of an Eichmann who could read Goethe, listen to Schubert, and plan the destruction of thousands of Jews and somehow see himself not implicated in their deaths.

Perhaps the only remedy, Garber thinks, is to “come and see” afresh the incarnate Christ, the Word become Flesh. The coming of Jesus tells us that words have to become flesh and have to be lived out in our actions in the physical world. He then gives us narratives of friends who have done this in fields as diverse as cattle ranching to health care in indigent communities. He tells of Kwang Kim, who starts asking as a student “what should the world be like” and “what should I be doing” and has translated that into decades of work in the World Bank shaping development plans that are sustainable for loan recipients and not just profitable for the bank.

The latter part of the book explores the dangers of cynicism and the necessity of realizing that all of our efforts to live out our callings will be proximate rather than perfect. We realize that we live between the already and the not yet of the kingdom and do what we can rather than what we cannot. He concludes with the story of his father whose life brought him joy and was contrasted with the high-roller with whom he was a seatmate on a flight and was stopped in his boastful tracks by the simple question of whether any of this had brought him happiness. We are left to conclude that only the life lived attending to the call of God to love the world for the good of the world can bring a deep sense of joy and satisfaction with one’s life. Garber’s book both leaves us wanting that and points the way.