Having Faith in Public Life

Professor Jonathan Boston

Having Faith in Public Life

Jonathan Boston

St Michael’s Kelburn

10 April 2022

Texts: Luke 19: 28-40; Psalm 118: 1-2; 19-29

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. This is the day when we remember Jesus riding peacefully, yet triumphantly, into Jerusalem around 2000 years ago, seated on a donkey with large crowds cheering, singing, waving palm branches, and praising God. The scene must have been a remarkable, if not extraordinary. The crowd cried ‘Hosanna’, meaning ‘Lord, save us’ or ‘Pray, save us’.

Above all, it was a very public event – it was open, visible, and plain for all to see; it involved large numbers of people; and it had public consequences, not least in sparking further challenges to Jesus from the religious leaders of the time, culminating almost a week later in His arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Today, having regard to the public events which have prompted this special day, Palm Sunday, it is timely to reflect on having faith in public life. As will be obvious, the title of this sermon has a double meaning. That is deliberate. Both meanings are important.

The first meaning is this: Christianity is a public faith. It entails public duties and has public consequences. It asserts and proclaims fundamental truths about the nature of reality. These truths are essentially public, not private. That is, they are general, accessible, and universal. They are not a private possession or out of reach. They include claims about the existence and character of God, about the nature of the moral universe, and about our ethical responsibilities. Such truths are relevant for all aspects and dimensions of human life, whether public or private, and whether global or local.

As such, Christians have a duty to live in accordance with the truth, worshiping God, professing our faith, and bringing our faith, both thoughtfully and boldly, into the public life of our communities, city, nation, and the world. This means carrying our Christian values, principles, insights, and perspectives into every sphere of public life – our public institutions, structures and policies, our voluntary associations, our workplaces, our recreational and leisure activities; indeed, every aspect of our common life together as human beings. It includes living in accordance with Christian virtues; being salt and light in the world; reflecting in all we do and say the love and justice of God; seeking, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, the ‘welfare of the city’ (Jeremiah 29:3); and striving to transform the world such that God’s will is more fully realized, both now and in the future.

But having faith in public life also has a second meaning: it is about recognizing the immense value and importance of our common life together as human beings, and about creating public institutions, whether political, judicial, or administrative, in which we can justifiably have faith – that is, trust and confidence. In other words, if the common good and public justice are to be properly realized, if we are to live fully and joyfully in accordance with Gospel values, we need well-designed laws and properly functioning public institutions. Private acts of kindness and love, however vital, are not enough. To flourish as human beings and to be good stewards of creation, we need well-funded, humane, just, and accountable public institutions.

Of course, many of our public institutions here in Aotearoa New Zealand are currently flawed, and some aspects of our public life are impoverished, broken or dysfunctional. Globally, there are terrible wars, huge ecological problems, needless poverty, and great injustice.

How, then, can we have faith in our public life or public institutions? Yet, if there are good reasons to lack faith or confidence in our public life or institutions, clearly this constitutes a problem; it is a bad thing which needs to be rectified. Moreover, if public trust in our public life and public institutions is low, there will be damaging consequences, whether economic, social, cultural, or environmental. The common good will not be properly protected and public justice will not be served.

If our public institutions are failing, what is the solution? Surely, the answer is not to withdraw or retreat into the private spheres of life. On the contrary, as Christians our moral duty is to seek improvement, to pursue reforms, and endeavour to build a better world, with better institutions and a more vibrant, flourishing, and rewarding public life. This entails bringing the public truths of our faith into public life.

Hence, the sermon title – having faith in public life – turns full circle. In short, to have a proper faith, trust or confidence in our public life and public institutions we need to exercise our faith – that is, our Gospel values – in public life. This means being deeply engaged in all spheres of life.

I realize of course that most, if not all, within this congregation understand such things. Indeed, many of you have made, are making, and will continue to make, significant contributions to the life of this community, city, nation, and world. And I commend you on these contributions. They reflect a proper understanding the Gospel and the general calling or vocation we have as Christians. Thank you!

Sadly, however, not all Christians, congregations or church communities understand the importance of having faith in public life, whether in the sense of bringing our faith unflinchingly, yet prudently and carefully, into the public realm or seeking to build better public institutions – ones in which we can all have genuine confidence and a proper pride as citizens.

Instead, there is much evidence of the privatization of our faith or, instead, a focus by many Christians on a narrow sub-set of public issues or policy questions. This privatization applies equally to individual Christians and to the role and mission of the church more generally. As a result, the Christian faith risks becoming, in the words of Theodore Rozak, privately engaging but socially irrelevant: privately engaging but socially irrelevant. But any such outcome would constitute a failure to be faithful to the public truths of the Gospel.

The privatization of faith and withdrawal from public life

Let me note, albeit briefly, some examples of a tendency towards privatization and a withdrawal from public life.

First, our prayer life: how much time do we spend individually or corporately praying for issues of a public rather than private nature? In my own case, I am very mindful that my prayers focus on myself, my immediate family, and the needs of friends, rather than public matters, such as war, poverty, environmental degradation, industrial relations, or whatever. And I am sure that I am not alone.

I am reminded of the prayers in a local Wellington church some years ago for a young Christian diplomat who was going to the NZ Embassy in Washington to serve as a second secretary. A dozen or so people gathered around him at the front of the church. But all their prayers focused on his private life: making friends, finding suitable accommodation; keeping safe; finding a good church and so on. There were no prayers for his role as diplomat to represent NZ in a major foreign capital or for wisdom as he grappled with the big international issues of the day – global security, trade relations, financial stability, climate change, terrorism and so on.

Second, consider the lyrics of many Christian songs over the past few decades, with their focus on the personal rather than the communal, the private rather than the public aspects of life. Or consider the topics of sermons: how often do these topics deal with matters of public policy or our public life? (Tim does a great job, incidentally.) How much attention is given to helping members of the congregation to integrate, translate, and apply their faith in their public roles?

Third, consider the reluctance of many Christian politicians in Western democracies to speak about their faith, encapsulated brilliantly in the words of one of Tony Blair’s senior advisers, Alastair Campbell: ‘we don’t do God’. That is, we don’t mention God or use theological language or Biblical categories in political or public discourse, only in private conversations.

Tony Blair, who was received into the Roman Catholic faith after leaving office, has always been a man of deep Christian faith. He could never quite understand why he could not share this with the voters. On one occasion, he wanted to end a prime ministerial speech with the line "God bless Britain", but was persuaded out of it by aides. "One of the civil servants said in a very po-faced way 'I just remind you prime minister, this is not America' in this very disapproving tone, so I gave up the idea. I think it is a shame that you can't since it is obviously part of what you are," he recalled, in 2012.

Or we might reflect on the position of Chris Luxon, who commented shortly after becoming Opposition leader that his Christian faith has little if any bearing on his political views and actions. If so, the divorce between the private and public spheres of his life is complete.

Finally, we could point to the diminished contribution of Christian denominations and their leaders to public debate about important policy issues. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand this includes the loss of the public questions committees of many denominations, fewer statements on public issues by church leaders, and fewer opinion pieces in newspapers and other media outlets – the Conversation, Stuff, Newsroom, etc.  There are of course notable exceptions globally and locally – such as the work of the Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit of the Salvation Army, the Nathaniel Centre on Christian Ethics within the Catholic church, and the Maxim Institute.

But the overall picture is one of retreat into the private sphere – privately engaging, but socially irrelevant.

The reasons for the privatization of faith

There are obviously numerous reasons for this tendency towards the privatization of faith. They include the process of secularization, certainly across much of the Western world, over the past half century, which has contributed to the de-legimitization of the language and contribution of religious ideas and values to public life.

Further, in some parts of the Christian community there has been a loss of confidence in the public nature of the Gospel. It is easier, more comfortable, and less threatening to withdraw into the private spheres of life. And endeavour to apply Christian insights and values in the public realm is often hard work. There are difficult trade-offs to navigate, as highlighted by the recent debates over vaccine mandates. Moreover, Christians over the centuries have disagreed about many big public issues – war and peace, capital punishment, sexual ethics, how to reduce poverty, and many other things.

Such divisions have contributed to a muted public voice: many church leaders are understandably wary of commenting publicly on important policy issues because they fear that to do so will create or intensify divisions within their congregations or denominations, and thus undermine the fellowship of believers. Fear, however, is rarely a sound basis for silence. At the same time, minimizing acrimony and conflict within a congregation is a valid and understandable concern of church leaders.

Another problem is misguided theology. Many Christians have an unduly narrow conception of mission and ministry. They view the Gospel as being solely about saving souls rather than transforming lives, transforming society, enhancing our common life, or exercising wise stewardship of God’s creation. But a theology which is privately engaging, yet publicly irrelevant, is inconsistent with the Biblical witness. Above all, it is inconsistent with the life and teaching of our Lord. Jesus’ ministry was utterly public – as he reminded those who sought to kill him. Moreover, judging from the Gospel accounts, Jesus was not averse to commenting on contemporary public issues, be it the paying of taxes, the basis of political power, the role of religious leaders, the rules surrounding the Sabbath, the treatment of the poor, and many other public matters.

Note especially the words of the Lord’s prayer: ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. It is a prayer for God’s will to be realized here and now, here on this planet, here in Wellington, not simply in the distant future or in a far-off spiritual realm. Plainly, Jesus believed God’s rule was relevant here and now and in all areas of life, both public and private, whether economic, social, cultural, or political. To be sure, the Kingdom of God differs from Earthly Kingdoms or nation states. But human governments are not autonomous spheres and thus independent of God’s will and purposes.

The way forward

What, then, are we to do? What does it mean to have faith in public life in the 21st century here in Wellington and in Aotearoa New Zealand? Any proper response requires thoughtful, prayerful, and faithful action at multiple levels – as individuals, congregations, and as a broader community of faith.

I will focus here firstly on our role as individuals involved in public life, whether as citizens, public servants, elected officials, trade unionists, employers, or investors. But in these roles, we all need the support, prayer, and guidance of our Christian friends and congregations. None of us are expected to be solo performers or lone rangers; rather, we are all part of a dynamic chorus of faith.

In terms of framing our approach as individuals, the prophet Micah summed it up brilliantly (see Micah 6:8): God has shown us what is good and what is required: it is to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. Justice, mercy, and humility thus lie at the heart of our calling. But their application, of course, can be very hard in practice.

Five quick reflections must suffice for now.

First, to contribute faithfully to public life we need a coherent public theology. This must include rigorous thinking about the proper goals of a society, the proper role of the state, and the values and considerations that should inform how we design our public policies and institutions. This is a big task, but we do not need to start from scratch. There are almost 2,000 years of Christian reflections on such matters.

Second, and related, we must have proper regard to the context in which we life. This includes the historical, constitutional, cultural, economic, technological, and environmental context. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, we must give proper attention to the Articles and principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Moreover, many of the policy issues we face today are unique. They require innovative thinking and wise policy responses.

Third, we need to think carefully about our language of engagement in public life. The Scriptures and theological reflection supply many distinctive words and categories, such as the ‘Kingdom of God’, ‘realized eschatology’ or ‘righteousness’, but not all of these are readily understandable or meaningful to those outside our faith community. Where they are not, we need to translate them into contemporary parlance, while endeavouring to be faithful to the distinctive nature of the Biblical witness (i.e. being authentic).

Fourth, we must be realistic. Many policy problems cannot be fully solved; at best they can only be alleviated. Moreover, some problems, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, involve irreversible losses. As Christians, we are called by God to be faithful and to fulfil our responsibilities, even when things seem hopeless, and when the world is collapsing around us. Think of the dreadful situation in Ukraine or Afghanistan. We will be judged by our faithfulness, dedication, and perseverance, not by our success, however that might be assessed.

Finally, faithful discipleship, whether in public or private, is often costly. At the heart of the Gospel is costly grace, not cheap grace. Yesterday, Saturday 9th April, marked the feast day of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, who selflessly and courageously spoke out against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s. Notably, he encouraged and supported the plot to assassinate Hitler in mid-1944. I believe he was right to do so. Sadly, the plot failed. Bonhoeffer was subsequently arrested and later executed by hanging in Flossenburg concentration camp just a few weeks before the end of Second World War.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it people will gladly go and sell all that they have. It is costly because it costs people their lives; and it is grace because it gives a person the only true life.

The implications of having faith in public life for the wider church community

Let me turn, secondly, to the implications of having faith in public life for the community of faith:

First, as for individual’s, the wider church’s contributions to a nation’s public life must be grounded in a rigorous, systematic, and coherent public theology or political theology. This, in turn, must be based on the core Biblical doctrines of creation, disorder and evil, the incarnation, resurrection, and redemption, together with the fundamental moral imperatives of the Christian faith, such as human dignity and equality, the pursuit of peace, justice and reconciliation, concern for the common good or the ‘welfare of the city’, and a deep commitment to neighbourly love. In applying these Biblical doctrines and ethical principles, those who speak on the church’s behalf should have regard to the relevant expertise within their congregations, the insights of different Christian traditions, such as Catholic social teaching, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Second, the public voice of the church must be based on reasoned argument and sound evidence, especially well-founded scientific evidence. The rejection by many leading evangelical Christians, especially in the United States, of evolutionary biology and, more recently, the science of climate change, is profoundly concerning. Almost certainly, it has undermined the credibility of the Christian faith. In particular, it helps explain why many eminent scientists internationally either reject Christianity or prefer not to acknowledge their faith publicly in order to minimize ridicule.

Third, in commenting on matters of public policy, the voice of the church should focus on ethical rather than technical issues, although often the two are closely connected. Equally, it should prioritize the needs of the voiceless, vulnerable, and defenseless. In short, it must stand with the afflicted and speak on behalf of the poor, the disabled, the young, the fail, and the environment. Inevitably, this will mean challenging vested interests.

Fourth, the church must speak with authenticity and integrity. It must live out its message, not merely speak it. Pope Francis is taken seriously by many non-Christians because they recognize his desire to live and speak consistently with Gospel imperatives.

Finally, the leaders of congregations and denominations must encourage and support their members to be active and thoughtful participants in their communities and nation. This includes membership of political parties, interest groups, boards of trustees, councils, and other public institutions. Such involvement must embody and exhibit Christian virtues – truth, honesty, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, reconciliation, self-control and so forth (see, for instance, Tom Wright, Virtue Reborn). While encouraging Christians to participate in public life, those who speak on behalf of the church must endeavour to transcend party politics and state boundaries. Churches should never be party-political. Instead, they should be places of peace, reconciliation, comfort, and healing, both between peoples and among nations.

A concluding prayer

Loving God, you call each of us to care for your world, and not only for our near neighbours, but also for those far away; you call us to care as citizens about the quality of our public life and our public institutions; and you call us to be good stewards of your amazing creation. Show us how to partner with you in pursuing peace, justice, and the common good, in being wise stewards, and in building your Kingdom here on Earth as it is in Heaven.

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