For the longest time, when Christians have thought about political engagement, they have often begun the discussion with the question: What is the biblical role of government? This is not a completely irrelevant question, but it does seem to start in the wrong place and ultimately get things backwards. Before one can answer questions about the place of government, it is necessary to consider how it is that God wants us to live together. Before we begin to formulate public policies and institutions, we should consider what those policies and institutions are supposed to accomplish.
From scripture and from the writings of the Christian tradition, from the early church until the present, there is a wealth of material that can be consulted to get a picture of the shared life God intends for his children. It is, to put it most succinctly, a life characterized by relationships of mutual interdependence, and these are to be motivated by a deeply heartfelt desire to elevate the interests of the other over our own. Yes, I know that runs counter to our natural inclinations, but the call of Jesus on the matter is very clear. Even our enemies are to be loved as we love ourselves.
In my new book, Christians and the Common Good, I try to show how one might work through the key resources to draw tentative conclusions about how God intends our shared life to be structured. From there, and only after working through the questions about how God has created us to live together, can we take on the question of what sorts of policies and institutions would be conducive to our living together in ways that all flourish. Ultimately, the answer to the question about the biblical role of government is, well, that governments are to enable and empower the way of living together for which we have been created.
I say that I draw "tentative" conclusions, because the goal is more to open a conversation than to close it, more to offer possible solutions that guarantees, and more to give examples than prescriptions. I include examples of the sorts of policies that might accomplish the ends God has in mind, but the focus is to invite other into a dialog about how we, as people of faith, are driven by our faith to concern for social and economic justice. If you get a chance, give it a peruse and join my on my facebook page for the book.
Chuck Gutenson is the chief operating officer for Sojourners.