Church and State

Christian Faith and Public Policy

Adapted from "The Case for Citizen Action Against Hunger" (1985) by Arthur Simon, former executive director of Bread for the World

Biblical Roots of Social Concern

God's concern for poor and hungry people is central and deep, if we are to believe the biblical writers. The wonder is how so many of us could escape noticing. the references flow from the central redemptive event in each testament, where any examination of biblical ethics must begin. In the Old Testament, the exodus more than any other event revealed to the Israelites who God was -- and who they were. All Old Testament theology flows from and relates to this dramatic iintervention of God to rescue the chosen people from slavery and establish a covenant with them. Respect for life, persons, relations, and property grows out of gratitute to God for doing so. Again and again, the instruction to remember people most vulnerable to hunger and poverty is tied to the exodus.
Thus Deuteronomy 24: Do not deprive foreigners and orphans of their rights; and do not take a widow's garment as security for a loan. Remember that your were born slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God set you free; that is why I have give you this command.
When you gather your crops and fail to bring in some of the grain that you have cut, do not go back for it; it is to be left for the foreigners, orphans and widows .... Never forget that you were slaves in Egypt; that is why I have given you this command. (Good New Bible)

The Law, the Prophets, the Psalms and the Wisdom literature echo the same theme, often with deep emotion, for "the Lord judges in favor of the oppressed." (Psalm 103)

Just as the exodus was pivotal for the Old Testament, so the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus became pivotal in the New Testament. But do we realize how pervasively his ministry is embedded in a special compassion for poor and oppressed people? The them isindicated in Mary's great song:

[God] has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
(Luke 1:52-53 RSV)

After baptism, Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and read a text from Isaiah that he clearly understood to characterize his own forthcoming ministry:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19 RSV)

From his constant reaching out to people on the bottom of the social heap to his depiction of the great judgment scene (Matthew 25), Jesus' work reflects so strong a focus on the poor that we cannot understand his view of the kingdom apart from it.

These passages barely hint at the biblical evidence, which is vast and deep.

One practical meaning of rooting our understanding of hunger in God's rescuing love is that we live by grace, not by guilt. Hunger leaves many people feeling guilty. However, guilt is a poor motivator. It immobilizes us because it underscores our captivity to sin. But grace -- God's extraordinary gift of love -- sets us free to live for others.

Mixing Religion and Politics?

Still, what makes many Christians uneasy is not our obligation to poor people, which they may readily affirm, but the invitation to express this obligation in the political arena. Is that really what Christians should be doing? And doesn't that involve a questionable mixture of religion and politics? Let me suggest a fundamental distinction between the separation of church and state and the separation of religion from life. We tend to confuse the two. The separation of church and state should be affirmed. The separation of religion from life, however, is pure heresy. To take major areas of life -- those having to do with social and economic decisions that vitally affect all of us -- and put them outside the boundary of faith contradicts the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Still, the saying that "It is the church's job to preach the Gospel, not get involved in politics," has validity, in my view because it is a mistake for the church to get mired in partisan politics. But that is much different than Christians as citizens helping to shape public policies. I believe it is the very essence of the church's mission to preach, teach and celebrate God's work of creating and redeeming us through Jesus Christ. But such preaching and celebration cannot occur in a vacuum. It occurs in the context of real life and real problems, both individual and social.

If someone were to tell us that it is the church's job to preach the Gospel and not get involved in family life, we would instinctively protest that the church, if it is to proclaim and live the Gospel faithfully, must inescapably be involved in matters of family life and cannot remove such an important area of life from its concern. For much the same reason, the church cannot duck issues of great moral importance that profoundly affect the lives of others.

This leaves open the question of how the church should address such issues. There are wise and foolish ways, of course. I believe that the church does best when it encourages lay Christians to speak up on key policy issues as part of their service to Christ.

On some issues, there is no such thing as "not getting involved." The classic example was the church in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler. There were notable and courageous exceptions, to be sure. But for the most part, pastors, priests and people said the church should stick to preaching the Gospel and not get involved in politics. It was a comfortable, safe response. But in retrospect, far from being uninvolved in politics, the church was deeply immersed in it; the church's neutrality was understood as consent to the Nazis, and the consequences were tragic.

Another example closer to home is the tragedy of millions of people needlessly dying each year from hunger -- needlessly because we lack the will, not the technology or resources to overcome it -- calls the church, as well as individual Christians, to something far more courageous than neutrality.

Related to separation of faith from life is the tendency for some Christians to concentrate solely on the spiritual and eternal welfare of others, compared to which temporal needs seem unimportant. This position is seriously flawed, first because people who espouse it have usually provided well enough for their own temporal needs, so what they are really willing to sacrifice are the temporal needs of others, and second, because it is the very nature of God's love at work in us to reach out to people in physical as well as spiritual need. To withhold love is to dishonor God, discredit our witness to Jesus and invite others to look elsewhere for salvation. That is why our work on public policy can be a powerful sign of God's reign.

Discerning God's Will

The Bible's witness concerning justice for oppressed people gives us a clear sense of direction, but it offers us no "Christian economics," no political blueprint, no public policy prescriptions that we can lay before Congress or other public officials. As in may other areas of life, when it comes to picking issues and developing policy positions, we have to struggle to discern God's will and live with something less than absolute certainty.

We do well to distinguish between the confidence of faith, to which we are urged, and fleshly yearning for security -- that comfortable feeling of mastery over matters concerning which God has not yet tipped a hand. We cannot simply leap from faith in Jesus Christ to public policies and claim certainty for them. Our judgements are fallible because we are human; the less we acknowledge this, the more likely we are to be wrong. In the carrying out of responsible citizenship, there is plenty of reason for humility, no reason for arrogance. When it comes to policy analysis, Christians have no shortcuts, no special revelation.

For this reason, we do well to avoid ideological approaches. Instead, we can ask: What practical steps could be taken to solve a problem such as hunger? Rather than coming at the issue with pre-packaged political or economic schemes, we can try to find out "what works." The approach is people-oriented and evidence oriented rather than theory-oriented.

Making a Difference

It is not hard to understand why people are instinctively nervous about getting involved in public policy. It is complex. But so are junior high school, farming, and marriage; the world is untidy. With regard to all of these, Jesus calls us not to play safe by avoiding responsibility -- as did the servant in Matthew 25 who buried his talent -- but to live as fully as we can for God, knowing we will do so imperfectly and need forgiveness.

The other side of the coin is that if we participate in efforts to change policies that affect poor or oppressed people, our lives can count in an exceedingly important way for others. Through public policy, we can become advocates for them.

An advocate is one who pleads the cause of another. So the work of citizen advocacy should not be entirely foreign to us. After all, we have an advocate with God, and it is our advocate who calls us to care about others and speak up on their behalf.

Additional Resources on Christian Faith and Public Policy

  1. Christian Faith and Public Policy: No Grounds for Divorce by Arthur Simon (1986).
  2. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder (Eerdmans: 1972).

On Mennonites and Government

  1. Speaking to Government

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Last Updated: 11/10/96