Category: Citizenship

Muehlhoff speaks on civil communication in CT

Tim Muehlhoff 39033Christian author Tim Muehlhoff says believers need to “yield to God’s power from outside” themselves in order to communicate in a civil, Christlike manner.

Christianity Today has published a Q&A with Muehlhoffregarding his book, I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love (InterVarsity Press, 2014).

Muehlhoff says that “in the heat of the moment” of a conversation a Christian should remember the advice of A.W. Tozer. ”You shall receive power, a potent force from another world invading your life by your consent, getting to the roots of your life and transforming you into someone like Christ.” Muehlhoff says the discipline to yield to God’s power from outside “needs to be in place before the conflict actually happens,” and that comes through practice.

In addition to seeking God’s help, Muehlhoff offered some pointers. For a conversation to “make progress, you need to acknowledge the other person’s emotions. It doesn’t mean you agree with what they’re saying, but you need to acknowledge that he or she is upset or passionate. If you don’t, there will be a roadblock in the conversation.”

Also, a good strategy is to ”emphasize points of agreement” or state a “willingness to consider a different point of view.” The result will be that the other person will “begin to mirror that attitude back.”

(This post originally appeared on the site.)

Understanding and promoting the ‘common good’

Pursuit of the “common good” is one of my favorite expressions about the purposes of civic engagement. It’s a term that has a history dating back to Thomas Aquinas and has been resurrected more and more of late.

Andy Crouch, in an article on the Christianity Today web site, has unpacked the term some. In brief, he goes back to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarun, issued in 1891, and then couples that with some contemporary explanation and the perspective of Gabe Lyons. Crouch has done the church a service, but one of his points can be questioned.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the points:

Pope Leo XIII defined the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”

Crouch points out two significant ideas in that definition. First. the common good is “measured by fulfillment or flourishing—by human beings becoming all they are meant to be.” Second, the common good is “about persons, both groups and individuals—not just about ‘humanity’ but about humans, and not just about individuals but about persons in relationship with one another in small groups.”

“The common good can help us avoid two modern temptations—one on the left and one on the right. ‘Leftists tend to be concerned about “humanity” as a collective,’ Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith told me [Crouch] via e-mail. ‘If some heads have to roll to improve humanity’s lot, so be it. A commitment to the common good opposes that entirely. Each and every person has dignity—the good society is one which allows the thriving of all persons, especially the weak and vulnerable.’

“And yet, Smith pointed out, ‘the common good’ challenges the libertarian stream of conservatism as well: ‘Individualists only want to see each individual live as they please, as long as they don’t obstruct the ability of other individuals to do the same. They don’t think anything is “common,” except whatever minimal infrastructures are needed to create equal opportunity.’

“Focusing on the common good has another positive effect, Smith noted: It can both draw Christians into engagement with the wider society and prevent that engagement from becoming ‘all about politics.’ Essential to the common good, all the way back through Aquinas to Aristotle, has been the insight that the best forms of human flourishing happen in collectives that are smaller than, and whose origins are earlier than, the nation-state. Family above all, but also congregations, guilds, and clubs—these ‘private associations,’ with all their particular loyalties, paradoxically turn out to be essential to public flourishing. If we commit ourselves to the common good, we must become more public in our thinking and choices, and at the same time not too public. The common good is sustained most deeply where people know each other’s names and faces—especially when it comes to the care of the vulnerable, who need more than policies to flourish.”

There is a great deal of wisdom in those paragraphs. The only way Crouch seems to go astray is that he does not also have an appropriate appreciation for the role of the larger institutions of culture, most notably the government. It’s interesting that Pope Leo XIII did not make the small-large distinction Crouch sets forth.

There is a role for government in promoting the common good. Crouch does not deny that reality, but he surely underplays its importance. Government action has been required to prevent child labor and abuse, racial discrimination, and air and water pollution, just to name a few. Government has been required to promote oil exploration and home building (through tax breaks), and to oppose Nazi Germany and terrorism, to name a few.

It is not a matter of either/or in regard to the importance of “groups” of people; it is a matter of both/and. And the echoes of ethicist T.B. Maston are heard again.

Battle of the political signs ends with respect

I just heard a nice post-election story.

Prior to the election two residents in the same suburban neighborhood had a friendly sign battle going, each one seeing who could get the most and the biggest signs for his presidential candidate. It was a good-natured competition.

Wednesday morning, when another resident of that neighborhood came outside at 6:30, the Obama supporter already had removed all of his signs. He felt it important to show respect to those who supported Romney.

Since it was a friendly competition I like to think the Romney supporter would have done the same if his candidate won.

We can indeed differ and yet do so in a civil manner.

Bringing virtue and piety into the public square

Nancy S. Taylor

Now may be the time to revive a tradition from the early days of the New England colonies — the “election sermon.”

“The annual election sermon was a Puritan phenomenon that lasted for well over two hundred years, from 1634 through 1884,” writes Nancy S. Taylor in the Fall issue of Yale Divinity School’s Reflections journal. It came after an election and provided an opportunity for elected officials to hear a word from the minister.

On May 30, 1694, Samuel Willard mounted his Boston church pulpit to address the region’s recently elected rulers: “His Excellency the Governor, and the Honorable Counselors, and Assembly of the Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England,” all of whom are sitting in the pews that day, Taylor says.

Willard’s sermon was called “The Character of a Good Ruler.” This sermon had particular significance because it came in the wake of the Salem witch trials of the two previous years. Willard had successfully stood in defense of some members of his church who had been accused. Taylor writes:

“Now, a year later, Mr. Willard preaches the election sermon to the region’s freshly elected magistrates, reminding them that ‘the Weal or Woe of a People mainly depends on the qualifications of those Rulers, by whom we are Governed …’ Surely the Witch Trials are a raw wound to these would-be rulers and Mr. Willard’s words salt. As a pastor it is the weal or woe of the people that matters to him. Will the colonists’ wants and needs be heard? Can they entrust their safety to these leaders? Or will they again be subjected to the foolishness and agony of such tyrannical injustice as blighted the years 1692- 93, leaving thirty-two dead from state execution and almost no New England town or family unscathed?”

With the injustices of the witch trials fresh in everyone’s minds, Willard “insists that civil rulers should be just men. It is not adequate that they understand the law. Surely the justices who presided over the executions in 1692-93 understood the law. That is not nearly enough. They must themselves be just.”

“Ignorance,” Mr. Willard declares, “is a Foundation for Error, and will likely produce it.” Injustice will beget injustice and ignorance will beget yet more ignorance. Those invested with the privilege and responsibility of ruling their fellow human beings “must be above Flattery and Bribery, must hate Ambition and Covetousness,” for “if these Rule him, he will never be a just Ruler.”

Finally, Willard said a ruler “must be one who prefers the public Benefit above all private and separate Interests.”

In today’s American political environment, many politicians seem more driven by ambition and covetousness than by desire for the public benefit. I use “many” and not “all” intentionally.

I wish there was a way for us to choose our public officials without allowing them to campaign for office themselves. It is impossible, I know, but it surely would be nice if we could decide who the most capable leader is and pursue him or her, rather than having ego-driven men and women decide they are the best and pursuing us. Of course, we did have that in George Washington. The first, I believe, was the best.

It does us little good, however, to indulge in wishful thinking, except to the extent that it reminds us that ambition and covetousness should not be the primary qualifications for our leaders. Ambition, of course, doesn’t have to be bad. For instance, ambition to pursue the benefit of all is a much higher aspiration than ambition to pursue the benefit of self and one’s friends.

As Willard said, “A People are not made for Rulers, But Rulers for a People, and just as there is a great Trust devolved on them, so is there an answerable Reckoning which they must be called unto. …”

Taylor, now senior minister of Old South Church in Boston where Willard once preached, also offered a warning to today’s pastors who desire to preach an election sermon. “[R]eligious leaders have no business holding our political leaders to moral account or challenging their characters if we have not attended to our own characters and our own moral fortitude. We, too, must be just.”

Samuel Adams came along almost 100 years after Willard and was a member of Old South Church, as well. Adams maintained “democracy depends on a common commitment to key principles,” Taylor writes.

“He conceived of these principles as an interconnected triad of virtue, piety, and love of liberty (not only one’s own liberty, but everyone’s liberty as a God-given, “unalienable right”). By contrast, when democracy is reduced to liberty alone – liberty unhinged from the rigorous disciplines and high principles of virtue and piety – everything gets off-kilter. Today’s politicians routinely give tremendous attention to liberties and liberty, but when was the last time you heard a politician wax passionate on virtue or piety? Perhaps that is where we come in – ensuring a healthy balance to that symbiotic relationship between political and spiritual leadership, each challenging and inspiring the other, each embracing responsibility for the greater good, each serving different functions in a greater whole.”

As we speak about virtue and piety, let’s be careful that we do not make the error of thinking this or that political party has the corner on the virtue and piety market. Neither does. If we let Christ speak through us into this day’s challenges, then we will be doing both His Kingdom and our nation a great service.
This is the third post related to the the current issue of Reflections.

Our faith points to hope and the need for courage

Diana Butler Bass

Today is election day. When the results are in, some of us may feel a sense of hope, others may feel hopeless. Either reaction denies our greater reality of hope in Christ and the divine purposes of God.

“Hope is not a political slogan,” writes Diana Butler Bass inReflections. “In Christian tradition, hope is one of the three theological virtues. According to Paul in First Corinthians 13, hope, along with faith and love, form the core of Christian life. In classical theology, hope is the opposite of despair, of which John Chrysostom said, ‘It is not so much sin that plunges us into disaster, as rather despair.’”

Butler contrasts the despair that life can implant in one’s soul with the hope that Christ brings. Lament provides the pathway out of despair.

“We must lament the state of things because we believe a different future is possible; we must acquaint ourselves with despair because we know the gulf between the two. But lament and understanding do not end in despair. Rather, despair points toward a spiritual reality: at the center of all doubt is, as the Hebrew prophets write, a steadfast and compassionate God.”

We would not lament if we thought there was nothing beyond despair, because to lament is to mourn for the loss of something. We have lost Eden. We have been cast from the garden. But there was a God of Eden and a God who draws us toward a new Eden. Thus there is hope.

Bass couples hope with courage. For the Apostle Paul, she said, “hope goes far beyond sentimental feelings. Hope is the driving vision of a world restored by grace, and the ability to act upon what is only partly seen.”

“To those who trust that the future holds the promise of God’s salvation, hope-filled action is courage. Indeed, without the courage to act, hope is just a word or a slogan on a fading poster. However, when we act with deep assurance that things can and will be different, acedia [the desire to flee from the good, toward apathy, isolation, even death] loses its hold and we can move back into the world. Hope and courage are intimately connected in a mutual exchange of expectation and transformation. Hope without courage is a platitude; courage without hope is folly.”

The hope God has given us was never meant solely to apply to a heavenly afterlife. Hope, like love and faith, is for life, and life begins now.

Watch the election returns, because they are very important to our national life. But raise up no political figure as a messiah for we already have The Messiah. And tear down no politician as an anti-Christ for he or she is a child of God.

“[H]ope comes not through political campaigns. Rather, lasting hope will spring from a rebirth of courage in faith communities, when God’s people prophetically act on divine intention for a world transformed. . . . [T]he groaning of creation strangely cheers me. After all, these are the labor pains. Redemption awaits.”

This is the second of several posts I am going to write related to the the current issue of Reflections.

A prayer for lawmakers, a hope for our nation

Christopher Coons ’92 M.A.R., ’92 J.D. is a United States Senator of Delaware. Elected in 2010, he serves on the Foreign Relations, Judiciary, Energy & Natural Resources, and Budget committees.

“Open the eyes and hearts of our lawmakers so that they will know and do Your will. . . . Help them to think of each other as fellow Americans seeking Your best for our Nation rather than enemy parties seeking to defeat each other. Replace distrust in each other with a deep commitment to creative compromise.”

Those are the words of a prayer uttered by Rear Admiral Barry Black, chaplain of the U.S. Senate. They are recalled in a piece written by Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware for Yale Divinity School’s Reflections publication. It is a prayer many of us are praying.

Coons has written a hopeful article, and that hope arises from the religious faith of many of the Senate’s members. Several members of the Senate gather each week for a nondenominational prayer breakfast.

“With no staff, no lobbyists, and no pretense, these meetings are rare opportunities for us to get to know each other as people: as parents, as children, as spouses, and as individuals shaped by life’s great triumphs and tragedies. When we see each other this way – as more than two-dimensional cutouts mapped to preconceived expectations – we can begin to focus on what brings us together, rather than what drives us apart.”

On the outside, we tend to only see the “two-dimensional cutouts” shaped by partisan politics. Coons gives a deeper look.

“In Senate prayer breakfasts, I have witnessed acts of extraordinary kindness and genuine compassion for each other as fellow human beings, rather than as walking distributors of party-line talking points. These weekly sessions are powerful reminders that from the most liberal to the most conservative, we share a love of family and country that far exceeds any policy or political disagreement. . . .

“Modern politics has pulled just a few threads from the cloth of faith tradition and made them points of division. In recent years, more often than not, faith has contributed to the divisiveness of our politics.

“That has not always been the case. The history of churches and political change in America is long and distinguished, and makes good on our obligation to ‘learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed’ (Isaiah 1:17). From the American Revolution to the end of slavery, from women’s suffrage to the movements for civil and labor rights, positive, progressive paradigm shifts have been centrally informed or directly led by faith groups.

“Our faith traditions – even the same faith tradition – can inform our politics in diametrically opposing ways. Yet the opportunities to find common cause are not as rare as some might think, and I have seen moments where interdenominational faith-based and secular leadership have come together to unite members of the Senate who might not otherwise see eye to eye. . . .

“We may disagree on policy and ideology, but share a view of humanity that is rooted in a calling and a commitment to those we serve – and that is a good place to start.”

Thank you, Sen. Coons, for reminding us that government in the United States is more than partisan wrangling; it is about serving.

This is the first of several posts I am going to write related to the this current issue of Reflections.

Citizens of two kingdoms, but one deserves ultimate allegiance

Scripture can get under skin. Take for instance 1 Samuel 12:12. Samuel is speaking to the Israelites about their desire to have a king like all of the other nations around them.

“But when you saw that King Nahash of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us’, though the Lord your God was your king.’” (NRSV)

Reading this during our election season made me think of Christians in America. As we choose a president, it is wise for us to remember that we have a King, to whom we owe ultimate allegiance.

“Now after John [the Baptist] was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15 NASV)

The coming of Christ ushered in a new phase of God’s kingdom, and all who follow Christ are now subjects in that Kingdom.  We seem, however, more concerned in the U.S. today with who is president than who is King.

Christians are citizens of two “kingdoms” — God’s and the earthly one in which they live. American Christians have the privilege of living in a democratic nation where we can actually have a voice in the kind of government we want.  That has been a very rare privilege in the history of humanity. It is, of course, also a rare responsibility.

As we approach our time to vote, we should do so very seriously. The values that arise out of our relationship with God, as revealed in Christ, should impact the choices we make. We have an opportunity the early Christians never had; we can actually make a difference in government in order to make it more like what the Apostle Paul envisioned when he said government is supposed to be “God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:4A)

Government has a God-ordained role. And since in the U.S. the government is literally ours, then our voting makes us collectively responsible for our government. In this amazing historical setting, we are not only to be good American citizens but good Kingdom ones, as well.

Going back to the story of the Israelites in 1 Samuel. They got pretty much what they deserved – a king who looked good and fought well while not being very wise. We can see similarities in the U.S. today. Thanks to television, you really need to be handsome or beautiful to get elected, and those who kill our enemies or like to use fighting words get an extra measure of respect. It is an ego-driven nationalism at work, and God’s Kingdom can become lost in the makeup and clamor.

God, however, is always at work, even when political leaders fail us. In 1 Samuel, God raised up David, who did much for God and God’s people while Saul still sat on the throne.

What we do on election day is very important. But as we vote it is good to remember that those of us who are Christians still answer to a higher authority because we are part of God’s Kingdom, and this is a Kingdom that stretches far beyond our national borders.

We vote and are good American citizens. More importantly, we love God with all of our being and we love other people as much as we love ourselves. In so doing we are good Kingdom citizens, and this allegiance will last forever.

For the health of the nation

“The Scriptures make it clear that a biblical agenda is broad and urgent. God’s concern extends from the protection of marriage and the family to justice for the poor and the oppressed, from the sanctity of human life to care for creation, and the furtherance of peace and freedom.”

Thus begins an introduction to “For the Health of the Nation” on the web site of the National Association of Evangelicals. It is a document produced in 2004 with the subtitle, “An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.”

I guess I had my head in the sand back then, but I don’t remember reading this until a friend sent me the link this week in advance of a meeting that is about to be held in Dallas regarding global childhood hunger.

“Political or policy prescriptions alone will not solve all of our problems, but we are called to action and the renewal of human structures as we wait for the fullness of God’s kingdom,” the site continues.

Well, in my neck of the woods, I don’t think many believers would say they have been called to “the renewal of human structures” while we wait for Christ’s return. Where does that come from? The authors of this document would say it and the “call to action”  come from Scripture, and they spell this out in the 12-page document.

“For the Health of the Nation” outlines seven issues that are important to evangelicals, including religious freedom, family life and children, sanctity of life, poor and vulnerable, human rights, peacemaking, and creation care.

Political partisans seldom put all of those issues together in the same platform. For instance sanctity of life (Republicans) and care for the poor and vulnerable (Democrats) make strange political bedfellows. Now, many Republicans would say they care for the poor and vulnerable, and many Democrats would say they believe in the sanctity of life, but their policy initiatives do not always bear that out.

The Bible, of course, gets it right, not the political parties. Holy Scripture challenges us in ways that political parties seldom do.

I commend this NEA document to you. We might quibble here and there, but it’s a good evangelical statement on why civic involvement is important for Christians.