Serving Others: A New Lens for Political Engagement

Much of New York City sustained substantial flooding during Hurricane Sandy. What lessons do disasters teach us about justice?

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I’m drawn to politics by the chance to seek justice at the intersection of different livelihoods. It can be messy, but what is good about the process deserves more attention, and what is broken requires more redemption.

However, I have made an observation that while talking with Christians about politics, two attitudes often emerge. One is a cry of persecution—a knee-jerk defensive reaction. The other is an unwillingness to engage civically at all.

There are consequences to these attitudes: They prevent Christians from serving civically, and this resulting lack of engagement in turn yields an inaccurate, even self-righteous, view of politics. Furthermore, it leaves a vacuum in the public sphere where there should be a rich gospel view of shalom.

New York City is a laboratory of intersecting lives, as super-storm Sandy made clear. The storm ripped through homes, but it also highlighted the layers of inequality woven into the fabric of our city. The New York Times ran a story which examined some of this tension. I was struck by an unassuming quote in the article about a group of young professionals helping locals:

Jimmy Brady, 35, a New York firefighter who lived next door, was prying up carpet alongside the visitors [the young professionals]. ‘If there is any way you want to get accepted to a family or a community, it is to help,” he said. “I’ve heard it from the hardest locals, that these guys are unbelievable.’

If there is any way you want to get accepted to a family or a community, it is to help.

Disasters peel back layers and bring out the perspective and action needed to put the pieces back together. Disasters are excellent motivators for community service, but disasters are also chaotic and short-lived, and so is the volunteer response.

What is needed in order to pursue public justice for the long term is an attitude to love as though there were no tomorrow, but live as though there will be. This is not an abstract philosophy; I stand convinced there is a record of such hope in the gospel.

The narrative describing the birth of the church—appropriately entitled “Acts of the Apostles”—reflects an important dichotomy: the urgent pursuit of spreading the gospel juxtaposed with the sustainability of establishing a church. What emerges is a story of reformation, not revolution. The apostles did not overturn cultural and commercial centers like Corinth; they ministered to them. Paul did not denounce his Roman citizenship; he invoked it publicly in defense of his gospel mission.

If you serve, people will ask, “Why are you doing this?” The gospel’s answer is laid out beautifully in 1 Peter 3:13-18 and pivots on this point: “…but in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

So, if we all practice serving our neighbors, will we converge on a common political ideology? Far from it. Part of the maddening beauty of our human complexity is that we interpret our experiences differently and reconciling these differences will require civil governance in a fallen world.

But if we are honest, Christians tend to participate in what is perverted about politics, increasing polarization and self-righteousness. We are all guilty of this, and we know it. The saving grace is nothing less than the powerful example of Christ’s service through His incarnation and sacrifice.

If we follow Christ’s example, it informs a public theology for civic engagement based on His call to serve others. It serves as an antidote to attitudes of fear and self-righteousness. The gospel is an awesome motivator for engaging in service, and the experience of serving is the crucible for developing a grace-filled understanding of politics.

Practically speaking, this requires us to adopt an attitude for service framed as first fruits rather than obligation. It means living with gospel-ordered principles, where compassion is elevated over a sense of entitlement. Finally, it means treating politics as relationship-based, not transactional. We are called to view our relationships with our loved ones, colleagues and our church in terms of service and compassion rather than how we can profit from them. We must treat our community in kind. If we did, what would that do to the community’s view of the church? What would it do to the church’s view of the community?

—Daynan Crull is a policy advisor in the New York City Mayor’s Office, focused on long-term city infrastructure planning and economic development. He was a 2010 Gotham Fellow, a program integrating faith and public life hosted by The Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church.