Between the Lines: A Conversation with Charles Gutenson

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Charles Gutenson is the chief operating officer of Sojourners in Washington DC. He formerly served as associate professor of philosophical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary and has worked as a pastor and a corporate executive. Gutenson is also the author of Christians and the Common Good: How Faith Intersects with Public Life (Brazos, 2011).

We recently got the chance to talk with Charles about this new book.

1. Has religion been implicated in political conversation now more than ever? If so, why do you think this is?

Yes. Communication infrastructure is nothing like it once was. The wide range of “news” sites, available from every known political vantage point, makes it very easy to live in an echo chamber of our own choosing. The consequence over time is an increasing conflation of one’s theological and political commitments until they become indistinguishable. Also, both political parties increasingly see Christians as a voting block to be swayed.

I strongly favor Christians bringing their presence to political dialogue. Our theological and biblical commitments define us, and we should not be ashamed of that. At the same time, I do wish we would spend more time working on our understanding of the biblical view of how our common life should be structured.

2. What do you see as the most significant problem in discussions of Christian ideas about politics?

My most significant concern is that most contemporary Christians have a relatively poor grasp of what the Bible actually says on these issues. Also, too often I find that folks have no grasp of the rich Christian heritage. As a consequence we tend to read the Bible through the lenses of our own communities. When we do wander outside our own communities, we tend to read writings from the last fifty years or so. How many know the words of warning St. John Chrysostom issued in his sermons? There are rich, rich resources to be mined.

3. How can we consider the nature of government and policy as part of a broader attempt to understand how God created us to live together?

First, we must try to understand how it is that God intends for us to live together. We can get a fairly good picture of that from mining the various biblical narratives. We then ask which government policies and institutions will empower that way of living together, and which ones are more effective in realizing God’s intentions.

At the end of the day, we cannot lose sight of the most important question we can ask about our policies and institutions: how are those on the margins of society fairing? From a biblical perspective, policies that do not empower their flourishing—and instead overemphasize the flourishing of the well-to-do—are inadequate.

4. What should the role of church be when it comes to having and proclaiming opinions on specific policies or politicians?

Churches should become models of what living together as God intends looks like. This means we’ll divide our attention between critical interactions on given policy issues and making sure that we are embodying what we are called to do. The church as a whole is not another interest group. We are supposed to demonstrate an alternative way of living together, regardless of what our own selfish interests.

5. What is the role of self-sacrifice in political thinking and engagement?

I find myself in agreement with John Howard Yoder, who once said that our call to be imitators of Jesus focuses primarily upon imitating him on the cross. This runs counter to much of the political process, which says we are to pursue our own selfish interests. And the idea that we must put the interests of others over our own becomes intimately connected with the question of how those on the margins are faring under our existing policies.

I think Walter Bruggemann heads in a similar direction. He observes that God’s intentions are for a different sort of political economy, one in which covenant relationship is taken as normative rather than the notion of free, unrestrained markets. Once we make covenant relationship normative, a whole host of things follow, not least of which is a moral vision that makes self sacrifice a key component.