This morning I was asked to speak to a select group of students for a breakfast session on the topic of “the Christian as citizen.” I’m just coming back from that meeting now, and hope that my thoughts were helpful for them.
In brief, I walked through two initial options for citizenry in the Christian sphere: 1) full-fledged Constantinian direct political action, engagement, and politicking (with all the messy confusions, compromises, and conflations involved), and 2) a retreat from the world as represented by early monasticism. Though both images are overdrawn, I used them to represent the false dichotomy presented to many evangelicals today: super-political involvement or disgusted and pietistic withdrawal.
I encouraged them to think about a third way of deep involvement for reform and service within the spheres of our own influence, and played with the idea of 19th century evangelicalism as a possible model. I also provided them some thoughts about Christian living from blogger Rachel Held Evans and a fascinating recent article from Christianity Today about the possibilities of working for the “common good.”
Can we be Christian in the public sphere without being unChristian? Can we be political without being “political?” I left them with these and other thoughts at the end of our brief breakfast meeting. I concluded with an excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus, a 2nd century Christian apologetic text:
“To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world…the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments. Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together.”