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.

The Weekly Hit List: March 23, 2012

We’ve been posting a conversation we had with Dr. David Benner about his recent Brazos book Spirituality and the Awakening Self here on the blog.

Meanwhile, over at Patheos.com, Benner’s book is being featured in their Book Club. In a great article written for Patheos, titled “Being and Becoming: Learning from the Mystics,” Dr. Benner writes:

“Most Christians find the mystics mystifying. Their language often makes it hard to identify with them, their lifestyle seems out of sync with modernity, and their message simply doesn’t seem relevant to life as most of us know and live it. It’s easy, therefore, to think of mysticism as a hobby for people on the fringe of life—spiritual gurus or others seeking esoteric spiritual experiences. But this easy dismissal would be unfortunate because the mystics are surprisingly relevant to modern life and their message is much more practical than usually realized.”

Check out the entire article here.

See the rest of the Book Club content here.

Earlier this week we offered Charles Gutenson’s recent Brazos title Christians and the Common Good: How Faith Intersects with Public Life free as an ebook.

If you missed out on the offer (which, if I may point out, is a great reason to follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook!), the ebook is still available at an extremely reduced price!

You can get the ebook at Amazon, BarnesAndNoble.com, and Christianbook.com.

This price is only around for a limited time.

 

Today Only: Free “Christians and the Common Good” Ebook

We are running a special promotion today, offering a free ebook book of Charles Gutenson’s Christians and the Common Good: How Faith Intersects with Public Life!

Get a free digital copy at:

 Amazon

 Barnes & Noble

 CBD

 Praise for Christians and the Common Good:

“This is a splendid springboard for political discussion and action.”—William J. Abraham

“This is an ideal book for Sunday school classes, Bible study groups, and other discussion groups.—Jim Wallis (from the foreword)

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Charles Gutenson

image from sojo.net

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.