Starting with Foundational Christian Values

What follows is a response to an inaugural posting by Jim Skillen, founder and retired President of the Center for Public Justice, for an electronic conversation he is hosting on “Reformational Explorations.”

In his inaugural posting, Jim Skillen proposes three tasks for our collective consideration, the first of which is to “clarify the norms or standards by which we make judgments about what is positive or negative, constructive or destructive” relative to the “quality of public governance.” He asks specifically whether there are “criteria” for making such judgements.

I will share my initial reflections on this first task, starting with a painful story of what transpired in an Adult Discipleship class that I was facilitating at my home church in Orange City, Iowa.

In this class titled “Christian Perspectives on News Headlines,” we were discussing President Trump’s proposal to limit “chain migration” (or “family reunification,” depending on which side of the political aisle you sit). I asked the attendees what they thought the teachings of the Christian faith had to say about this contentious issue. The attendees invariably shared the perspective of their respective political parties about this issue. “TIME OUT,” I pleaded: “I didn’t ask you what your political party said about chain migration; I asked you what your understanding of the Christian faith might say about this issue,” 

By quickly politicizing this issue, my class attendees failed to dig deep down beneath the surface of political rhetoric to uncover the “values” that were at stake; the values that they would consider to be “Christian values” (not necessarily the values embraced by either major political party).

In order to avoid making that same mistake, and inching toward my initial reflections on the “criteria” that Jim wants us to explore, I will briefly outline some “Christian values” that I try to  start with when making any decision as to what to do or say, in the political realm or anywhere else. 

First, I embrace the broad Kuyperian view of God’s redemptive purposes for the world that includes not only personal redemption but also the redemption of all aspects of creation: Marginalized minority groups that suffer injustice groan for redemption; those ravaged by war, sickness and poverty groan for redemption, as do broken personal relationships, unjust political and social structures, and a polluted environment. Implicit in this understanding of God’s redemptive purposes are certain Christian values such as justice, health, peace, shalom (positive relationships with other persons and all aspects of God’s Creation) and a flourishing environment (which, for later purposes, I will hereafter refer to as my “outcome” Christian values). 

But I am also committed to another set of Christian values that are attitudinal (enduring dispositions that I aspire to exhibit), often referred to as “Christian virtues.” These include the Fruit of the Spirit enumerated in Galatians 5 as well as humility, courage, hope and an insatiable aspiration to understand the “truth” as God fully understands that truth (because this set of Christian values deeply informs my beliefs about how I should “engage” others, I will hereafter refer to these as my “engagement” Christian values).

There is an obvious interplay between what I have called “outcome” values and “engagement” values. For example, I seek to foster the “outcome” of peace among those in conflict, while my mode of “engagement” with others as I seek that outcome should be informed by an enduring disposition of being“peaceable.” Nevertheless, this distinction between “outcome” and “engagement” Christian values is essential to my attempt to answer Jim’s call for “criteria” for judging the “quality of public governance.” That will take some explanation.

In a nutshell, I am making a distinction between the “outcomes” I believe I should pursue, in the political realm and elsewhere, as I attempt to “partner with God” toward the realization of God’s redemptive purposes and “how” I should go about carrying out those endeavors; my mode of “engagement” with others in the public square who may not share my desired outcomes. 

To get beyond abstractions, I will illustrate with a concrete example from my own experience as co-director of an organization in Sioux County, Iowa (CASA of Sioux County – Center for Assistance, Service and Advocacy) whose vision is the “transformation of Northwest Iowa communities that welcome, empower and celebrate people from all cultures.” In particular, we have been advocating for a number of years for greater justice for our increasing numbers of Latino neighbors, many of whom have been marginalized.

One of CASA’s recent initiatives has been to advocate with our local and state political representatives for legislation that would enable all immigrants to our area, documented or undocumented, to obtain drivers licenses. We view this as a win-win-win opportunity – good for immigrant families; good for those who employ immigrant workers; and good for public safety (since obtaining such a driver’s license would require passing driving tests).

How have we gone about advocating for such legislation? By having some face-to-face respectful conversations with political representatives who disagree with us about this issue. Have we been successful? Not yet! Ironically, the greatest opposition has come from the law enforcement community whose purpose is to promote public safety. But we have not given up since working for any kind of immigration reform is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to exhibit a significant measure of the “engagement” Christian values of patience and hope, and “love,” the Fruit of the Spirit that is central to my understanding of how Christians should engage those who disagree with them about public policy issues. Let me elaborate a bit.

There is universal agreement among Christians that we are called to “love our neighbors” (Mark 12:31). But there is much disagreement about “how” that love should be expressed. My efforts to be an agent for God’s redemptive over the past eight years have focused on an oft-neglected expression of such love, as captured by the following premise (which succinctly captures the central aspect of my “engagement” Christian values):

Providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreements is a deep expression of love.

A corollary to this premise is that “you don’t love someone who you have silenced.”

As an aside for readers who may be interested, the major vehicle for my attempts to put this premise into practice in recent years has been my “Respectful Conversation Project” on my website, in which I have attempted to model “respectful conversations” among Christians who have strong disagreements about some contentious issues, including the nature of political discourse, with this latter project soon leading to a book titled Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation (please excuse this self-serving plug). 

So, at long last, what are the “criteria” that I would like to propose for your consideration for making judgements about “what is positive or negative, constructive or destructive” relative to the “quality of public governance?”

In brief, the major criterion for me when evaluating any proposal for public policy is whether the proposal fosters the accomplishment God’s redemptive purposes such as the “outcome” Christian values that I have suggested above. And the major criterion for evaluating the manner in which those who disagree about the merits, or not, of any given public policy proposal is whether the mode of public engagement about the issue exemplifies the “engagement” Christian values that I have suggested above, with special emphasis on the oft-neglected deep expression  of love that I have proposed.

I conclude by anticipating a possible disagreement that readers may have with the above reflections: My proposed criteria for both the content and mode of engagement relative to any public policy issue reflects my understanding of Christian values; but those Christian values are not necessarily shared by others in our pluralistic society. Is that not a fatal flaw in my proposal? 

No, it is not a fatal flaw, but it presents a considerable challenge. In brief, I draw on my understanding of Roy Clouser’s cogent argument about the “myth of religious neutrality” in his fine book having that title. 

No one comes from nowhere! Everyone comes to the public square to discuss public policy proposals with a set of value commitments. My value commitments are informed by my Christian faith commitment. Others come to the public square with value commitments that are informed by their particular religious or secular worldviews.

But these sets of value commitments are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Therefore, the public conversation that I call for should  start with each “conversation partner” laying bare his/her value commitments, on an “even playing field,” in an attempt to find some common ground about underlying values that  can then  inform the ongoing conversation.