Common good

Paul’s Politics

Paul's Letter to the Galatians, Stephen Orsillo /

Paul's Letter to the Galatians, Stephen Orsillo /

The apostle Paul calls the church in Corinth a body — and that’s political language: “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be …  As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (1 Cor. 12:18-20).

As Dale Martin argues in his book The Corinthian Body, Paul gets his language about the social body, the political body, from other Greco-Roman speeches and letters. He uses a style of writing and speaking called a “concord” — homonoia in Greek. Politicians would give speeches or write letters trying to convince the diverse people of the city to unite in a common project, to share the same goals for society, to share a common politics. In these “concord” addresses, politicians would call the society a body, just like Paul does in his letter to the divided church in Corinth. We are one body, politicians would say, so we need to act accordingly. We are one — united, bound together. Of course, politicians only made these speeches when they needed to: that is, when dissatisfied segments of society wanted to revolt (see Martin, Corinthian Body, 38-47).

Give Us This Day Our Daily Vote

Photo: Voting booth, Steve Cukrov /

Photo: Voting booth, Steve Cukrov /

In a few weeks citizens will choose who serves as president of the United States. As many from all sides of the political spectrum have already recognized, the nationwide decision of Nov. 6 will affect the direction of 50 states – as well as the international community – for generations to come.  

Since the opposing candidates offer contrasting views for the future, the choice is indeed critical, thus all are encouraged to listen openly and attentively, critique the various policy positions carefully, and when the first Tuesday of November arrives, make an informed choice for the collective benefit of our global common good. 

While one should affirm and appreciate the importance of Election Day, we should also recognize and appreciate our ability to shape society far more frequently than once every four years. While several years pass between presidential elections, we vote for the collective benefit of our global common good on numerous occasions with each passing day.   

How to Choose a President

Joseph Sohm /

Joseph Sohm /

[editor's note: This article was originally published in 2012. References to elections or politicians without specific dates attached are in the context of the 2012 election cycle.]

AS I CAREFULLY watched both the Democratic and the Republican conventions this summer, I realized, once again, how challenging and complicated it is to bring faith to politics.

For example, the phrase “middle class” was likely the most repeated phrase at the conventions. And even though both parties are utterly dependent on their wealthy donors (a fact they don’t like to talk about), they know that middle-class voters will determine the outcome of the election. Now, I believe a strong middle class is good for the country, but Jesus didn’t say, “What you have done for the middle class, you have done for me.” Rather, Matthew 25 says, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

When your first principle for politics is what happens to the poor and vulnerable—and I believe that is the first principle for Christians—you keep waiting at conventions for those words and commitments. There were a few moments when the poor were briefly mentioned, but it certainly wasn’t a strong theme in Tampa or Charlotte. “Opportunity” for the middle class was an important word in both conventions this year, but Christians must be clear that creating new opportunities for poor children and low-income families is critical to us.

The conventions also talked a great deal about “success,” but how we define that is very important. Is success mostly about how much money we make, defining the “American Dream” as being able to pass on more riches to our children than what our parents passed on to us? Or is success measured by how we as a nation prioritize, in our spending and political choices, the sick, the vulnerable, the weak, and the elderly? Is it determined more by the values we pass on to our children—evaluating our lives, and theirs, by how much we are able to help others?

America is a nation of immigrants, and how we welcome “the stranger” in our midst is another Christian principle for politics. So is our racial diversity as a nation, where all our citizens must be treated as having equal value. The most inspiring stories at the conventions for me came when that diversity was evidenced on the stage—from a young undocumented “dreamer” and a black first lady on the platform at the Democratic convention to Condoleezza Rice telling her fellow Republicans how a little girl from a segregated Southern city became secretary of state. But little mention was made at either convention of the racial disparities in America’s burgeoning prison industry or voting suppression efforts that most affect minorities and people who are poor.

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On the Incalculable Power of the People

According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Similarly, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution declares “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise of; or abridging the freedom of speech…” 

While certain opponents exist, most of us agree that free speech is an essential ingredient for a mature democracy, thus it should be encouraged, protected, and further developed. With these thoughts in mind, while we should indeed celebrate the numerous positive outcomes of free speech in the USA, we should also account for its costs, for even the most worthy of causes – such as free speech – bring an assortment of unintended negative consequences.

As our November Election Day draws closer, we are mindful that a defense of free speech has led to millions of dollars directed toward ads, phone calls, literature distribution, and other activities that seek to sway the electorate. As countless studies have shown, the totality of these campaign strategies holds a significant impact on voter decisions and overall turnout.

6 Suggestions for Christians for Engaging in Politics

Democrat / Republican sign, eurobanks /

Democrat / Republican sign, eurobanks /

With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions having taken place over the last two weeks, we can officially say that we’re entering the election season (i.e., that time when the general public begins to pay attention).

A couple of friends who pastor churches in non-D.C. parts of the country asked me if we feel the need to address politics at The District Church, being in the very belly of the beast (my words, not theirs). Specifically, they were asking: Given the intense polarization and often-unproductive arguing that we see around us, even in the church, about the need to address how we interact with those who disagree with us.

So far, we haven’t needed to. In our church community, we have Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and yes, even people who don’t care about politics; we have Hill staffers, White House staffers, activists, advocates, lobbyists, policy wonks, and more — and we’ve all come together as the body of Christ, recognizing that our allegiance is first to Jesus before any party or even country.

Even so, every four years (or every two, if you pay attention to mid-terms; or all the time, if you’re even more politically engaged), posts about politics pop up with increasing frequency on social media, eliciting often-furious back-and-forths that usually end up doing nothing more than reminding each side how right they are and how stupid the other side is.

So I figured I’d try to offer a few suggestions on how we can engage with one another on matters of politics in healthy ways.

The Politics of Aslan

The lion helped inspire my hope to write a biblical and theological defense of the common good, something that has been almost lost in our age of selfishness.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

What Chief Justice Roberts Did Not Say

Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images.

SCOTUS Chief Justice John Glover Roberts, Jr. Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images.

In 2009, during the debate over health care, I devoted a good deal of my time arguing in favor of President Obama’s efforts to provide some form of universal health care to the people of the United States. I argued that universal health care is a human right. I argued that providing a way for people to get medical care without the worry of going bankrupt or of having to be shackled to a job because they or someone in their family needs health care is a matter of establishing justice in our country. It is a matter of distributive justice.

In the Supreme Court decision upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA a.k.a. Obamacare) Chief Justice John Glover Roberts, Jr., writing for the majority of the court, in effect said that the act is constitutional because Congress has the power of taxation. He quotes Benjamin Franklin: “Our Constitution is now established . . .but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Opponents of the ACA argued that the individual mandate that requires people to buy health insurance was unconstitutional. They argued that it was an overreach of governmental power to require someone to buy something. Supporters of the ACA argued that the individual mandate was constitutional under the powers granted to Congress under the commerce clause and because Congress has the power of taxation. The penalty imposed on people who do not buy health insurance will be collected by the IRS when a person files h/er income taxes. The penalty or tax only applies to people who can afford to buy health insurance but who choose to not buy it.

The chief justice’s opinion does not judge the morality of the law. Roberts does not speak of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the goals it sets for the entire human community, including universal health care. He does not speak of the concepts of liberty and justice for all, that the government has an obligation to its citizens to make health care something that is available to all.