In an article posted today on Christianity Today entitled “We Must Not Despair”, Chuck Colson (one-time Special Counsel to President Nixon and now founder of Prison Fellowship, a Christian prison outreach and criminal justice reform organization ) with Catherine Larson, addressed what he views as a Christian withdrawal from politics. He asks the question “is ‘faithful presence’ enough for Christians even as the forces of secularization grow stronger and more militant” and assumes that “faithful presence” is the same as disengagement from politics. While Colson does not define “faithful presence” it is likely that he is referring to another article, “Faithful Presence”, in which Christopher Benson reviews the book “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World” and interviews the author James Davison Hunter. Hunter asserted that Christian faithful witness or “faithful presence” occurs in the public sphere in a compassionate act rather than in a political sphere that demands a coercive act.
Colson fails to differentiate between Hunter’s understanding of the the public and political spheres, and seems to ignore the questions of power and coercion that go along with political (read state/federal government) involvement. He suggests that it is imperative that Christians be engaged in all realms of public life, including the coercive political realm, and that there is nothing un-Christian about being intimately involved with the application of socially-sanctioned coercion and violence. In fact, it seems that in his opinion to disengage from this mechanism would constitute unfaithfulness to the witness of the Kingdom of God.
Hunter’s distinction between the public and political arenas give us hope for an engagement with our culture that is more like Christ in his humble entering into the world. If you find yourself lacking in love as you engage in the political process, perhaps you need to rethink the way that you are a witness to the love of Jesus. Instead of electing those who will legislate your beliefs you should put your beliefs into public action. For example if you are really against abortion, find a way that you and your family or church can support young pregnant women who aren’t sure if they can get through a pregnancy and are considering an abortion.
Political action requires no real immediate sacrifice: you can vote and put the matter out of your mind (and blame the people you voted for for “giving in” to the other side). However, you run the risk of looking unlike Jesus in his humility and like the coercive forces that put him to death.
Public action, when motivated by the love of God for the world, is the extension of the offer of a better way, the free gift of grace that is not forced upon us. This kind of action requires much more sacrifice, and looks a lot more like Jesus and those distant brothers and sisters in the faith who were once called Christians because that acted like Jesus.