Christian Public Engagement and Christians of Three Sorts

Rev Tarris Rosell, Ph.D., D.Min.

How do Christians, members of the Body of Christ, engage the body politic?

As with many ethics questions, the most fitting response begins with, “It depends.” On what? On the sort of Christian you are. Meet some of the Christians in my circle of friends and family who represent three different sorts with distinct approaches to public engagement.

Fr. “Jonathan” is a monastic friend from a Benedictine abbey. He went to college there, stayed on for graduate level seminary training, and then joined the Benedictine order of monks for whom the abbey is home. Fr. Jonathan ran the monastery’s farming operation for many years as a young man. Now in his early 70’s and Professor of Spiritual Formation in the seminary, he participates in daily prayers and readings and Gregorian chant of the Benedictine liturgy, up to eight times daily. His citizenship in the monastic community is all consuming. Jonathan’s work in the world is prayer, scholarship, mentoring and modeling a life of commitment to spiritual things in community. The Body of Christ in that place, and with Benedictines elsewhere, is his life. The secular body politic? Not so much, if at all. This sort of Christian aims to “separate and meditate.”

My life partner, Rev Dr Ruth Lofgren Rosell, is a Christian who takes seriously citizenship both in the Body of Christ and the body politic. She is a church leader and church member. She has been a pastor, professor and counselor for many years. But Ruth is also much attuned to news and workings of governments. Maybe she is too much attuned some days, for the news of political shenanigans is morally distressing, especially in regard to climate change and environmental policies of the current American regime. This disturbance of mind and soul propels Ruth to action. So she communicates with lawmakers, attends or leads meetings addressing climate change and other social concerns. She signs petitions, participates in political protests, demonstrations, marches—all aimed at impacting both the Body of Christ and the body politic. It seems to her that this is a matter of good and faithful citizenship. Our son Nehemiah thinks and acts this way, also. He is very much a political activist who has for many years participated in the Catholic Worker Movement, living in community and taking to the streets, sometimes to be arrested for trespassing as an act of civil disobedience. His approach, and his mother’s, is one that I’d characterize as “participate and demonstrate.”

Some of my extended family members are Christians, also – staunchly conservative and supporters of the currently reigning “principalities and powers” in Washington, D.C. They are particularly enthusiastic about the Trump regime because they feel and believe that he is God’s anointed for “taking back America” so as to “make America great again.” These family members are excited about President Trump’s and the Republican Party’s political successes. It means that “we Christians are winning.” The current president is “our President,” “chosen by God” despite his “imperfections”. They pray for Christians of their type to retain the White House, to fill the Congress, to be appointed to the courts, to maintain a majority on every level of government from local school boards to state capitols and especially in Washington. They pray to dominate, in the name and power of Christ–and in the name of his “anointed” one in the White House.

These family members of mine and their evangelical comrades don’t just pray; they also propagate. They have lots of kids and grandkids, whom they home birth and home school—at least until such time as the public schools are “taken back” so as once again to “allow prayer and Bible teaching in school.” They hope to have prayers in the classrooms and locker rooms and on the playing field, prayers along with the Pledge of Allegiance. They pray for “God and Country,” a “Christian nation,” placement of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns, and protection of Second Amendment rights. After all, “In God we trust” adorns our money. We need to stand ready to protect our traditional American way of life, with force if necessary. That is how it was and should be still, or so some of my extended family members believe as patriotic American Christians who take seriously their citizenship rights and responsibilities. Two terms that are characteristic of them would be “propagate and dominate.”

How do Christians approach public engagement? It depends. How ought we? There are elements of each sort described here that I find attractive.

Sometimes when frustrated by the current regime and its evangelical supporters, I long for “moderate” Christians of my type to rule. More of Us than Them would seem good, with Us as dominant. That would, of course, entail abandoning my preferred approach otherwise, and that of my nuclear family, opting instead for the propagating, dominating sort which some of my evangelical extended family members find attractive.

And yes, I am inclined also to participate and demonstrate, at least on most days.

Other days, many days, I long simply to separate and meditate like Fr. Jonathan and his monastic brethren. Perhaps that is the more effective means of change anyway. Is it?

I continue to wonder and ponder Christian public engagement, at least when not out on the street participating with a close family member in a demonstration of one sort of way to be Christian.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.” We invite readers to submit perspectives of their own to for possible inclusion in the blog series.

Rev. Tarris Rosell, Ph.D., D.Min. is Professor of Pastoral Theology—Ethics & Ministry Praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, KS.  He also holds the endowed Rosemary Flanigan Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics. In conjunction with that role, Dr. Rosell is a Clinical Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, and Director of the Clinical Ethics Consultation Service at the University of Kansas Health System.

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