Between the Lines: Charles E. Gutenson on Christians and the Common Good

Charles E. Gutenson (PhD, Southern Methodist University) is the chief operating officer of Sojourners. He formerly served as associate professor of philosophical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary and has worked as a pastor and a corporate executive.

In today’s post, Charles Gutenson discusses the questions that led him to write Christians and the Common Good: How Faith Intersects with Public Life.

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Do you suppose God’s expectations for our lives extend beyond the realm of the so-called personal? Does it matter to God how we structure our public life? If God does care, how are we to discern what those expectations are? Do we begin our reasoning from a set of neutral presuppositions, ignoring what we can learn from the Scriptures? Or can we, as persons of faith, as followers of Jesus, appeal to what is revealed in Scripture in an attempt to discern God’s expectations?

These are the questions that drove me to write Christians and the Common Good. In particular, I wanted to move beyond an abstract discussion of “guiding principles” and instead take a look at what we might learn from the biblical texts about answers to these questions.

However, this territory is fraught with landmines and misperceptions that have to be carefully navigated, which is why the first part of the book deals with how one might appropriate Scripture. In short, we have to be cautious and attentive to the overall biblical narrative, not just a couple of favorite texts here and there.

My goal was both to lay out a framework for reading Scripture and to develop a robust picture of the life that pleases God by appealing to many places within the overarching story of Scripture. The picture that emerges is, it seems to me, quite clear—a picture of a life that we share with each other in what I called relationships of interdependency. We are neither completely dependent on others nor fully independent from them. Instead, God calls us to lives in which we do have obligations to those around us—in fact, much deeper obligations that we normally would like to admit or accept.

Because I believe there is much for us to learn from Scripture about these questions, all of this had to be addressed before we could begin to think about different kinds of policies and institutions that might enable the way of living together that God intended.

One of the common misperceptions I was most interested in exposing is the belief that there are only two positions on the theo-political spectrum—liberal/progressive and conservative. I realize this misperception often serves the agenda of those who perpetuate it, but it is false.

When one identifies theological/political positions, there are at least four: conservative/conservative, progressive/progressive, progressive/conservative, and conservative/progressive. And, as strange as it might sound, even that is too simplistic, because persons are rarely, if ever, monolithic in their political or theological positions. Among American Christians, you will find individuals all along this broad and rich spectrum, which means the attempts to paint God as a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian is, at best, misguided.

While these initial tasks had to be undertaken first, what I took to be perhaps the most important goal of Christians and the Common Good was to provide an analysis that moved beyond abstraction in order to talk about specific policies and their relationship, as I saw it, to the life that pleases God.

I was careful to present those relationships in a tentative, dialogue-inviting framework, recognizing that there are Christians who will come down differently than I on these issues. But I have long felt we are past the point where we need more abstract discussion about first principles—abstract discussion that often, unfortunately, provides little by way of concrete suggestion.

We, as Christians, need to look long and hard at particular and specific public policies, critiquing them from the perspective of the way in which God’s revelation indicates he wants us to live together. Will we all agree? Of course not, but we desperately need to have the discussions, and we need to air the debates. Agreements forged across theological and political boundaries are not just good for civil and respectful dialogue; they also are often the best solutions, because they take advantage of the best thinking of all sides.

If you have a passion for the intersection of Christian faith and political engagement, or if you just really want to begin to parse the specific issues in the debate, I’d recommend you consider Christians and the Common Good. Then, as you think through the issues, be in touch with me. I’d love to hear your thoughts—whether you share my conclusions or not.