Making Citizenship Personal

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

I have spent a good deal of time staring out my window the last couple weeks.  One reason is the beautiful Michigan summer weather.  One reason is that I have been absorbed in reflection on current news, especially the conclusion of the George Zimmerman trial and its painful aftermath.  Whatever else it has done, the verdict has revealed weaknesses in the fabric of our public conversation and public conscience.  We are a nation torn.  But this post is not another foray into the web of American discussion on race or the justice system.  This is about renewing our commitment to Christian citizenship.  This is my attempt to make a call, plea – no, a prayer – that we reignite our imagination for making Christian citizenship personal. 

You see, the other reason I love looking out my office window is that I see dozens of kids of a variety of races running about and playing with all their hearts.  My church, Calvary on 8th St., hosts a summer program for neighborhood children.  As I gazed outside, I was tempted, more than once, to write something about the Trayvon Martin tragedy.  I have opinions and thoughts and emotions that I long to channel into a perfectly sensitive, brilliantly informed, and nationally acclaimed response to this captivating and inflammatory incident.

But as I watched the beautiful faces of the kids playing in our parking lot I asked myself, how many of them will be impacted by my blog post on policy?  The answer is somewhere between none and few.  Too many people have shared opinions, but too few have called for or pointed us toward models of personal dialogue and solidarity (these are two articles that are refreshing exceptions and I am sure there are others) How many conversations have I had with them about their experience with race in the U.S.?  The answer: zero.  Have I ever talked to their parents about the justice system, with which they have much more anecdotal experience than me?  The answer: never. 

I do not phrase it this way to incite guilt.  I myself did not feel guilty in that moment.  But I did feel something we might call unauthorized.  I suddenly felt inadequate to pontificate as a pundit about policy and national dialogue when I had barely scratched the surface of personal conversation.  Yet I still felt adequate as a personal citizen.  In the same moment that I felt unauthorized, I also felt a renewed and authorized call.  A call to support the beautiful work that is happening outside my window, to be a better listener with my neighbors who look different than me, to teach my children well.  And this, too, let us not forget, is part of citizenship.  It is at the core of our citizenship.

  What are the foundations of our citizenship?

What are the foundations of our citizenship?

Once we have heard the summons to be active and engaged Christians in the public sphere, it is easy to forget the foundations of that citizenship.  What do we think of when we think of Christian citizenship?  We think of voting.  We think of policy-making.  We think of thoughtful advocacy.

Yet most people would affirm that the foundation of society is the family unit.  For the Christian, we can go even deeper – the foundation of Christian citizenship is the heart, cleansed and renewed by an ever-merciful God, revealed in Jesus Christ, who is Lord over all spheres of our lives.  Therefore, our call to Christian citizenship is married to our call to be good neighbors, spouses, mentors, friends, and people who exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.

This is not a call to abandon or even diminish our public presence and discussion (the irony of writing that on such a website would be too much!).  This is a call to expand our usual definitions of Christian citizenship to include our neighbors, our families, and our hearts.  Are we people who embody gentleness, kindness, and self-control in our families, in our volunteering, in our local advocacy?  This is our original and most foundational call as citizens.  So my prayer is that as we engage in thoughtful and creative public discussion we do not forget our call to personal dialogue and local action – so local that it extends into our very homes and into each Christ-follower’s heart.  

And there has never been a more important moment to make citizenship personal.  For we forfeit our personal authority to speak about racial reconciliation when we are afraid to enter meaningful relationships and dialogues with people who look different from us.  We only embrace half of our call to public ethics when we wax esoteric about the moral complexities of national surveillance techniques but fail to address the ethical issues that confront us in our daily lives - in our family, neighborhood and church. We weaken our perspective and integrity to speak about education policy if we are not passionate about the flourishing of our local school. 

Racial tension.  Immigration debate.  Failing education systems.  These are issues that require public discussion.  But they also require compassionate personal interracial conversation.  They require listening intently to the stories of immigrants.  They require mentoring in our local school.

Let us make our citizenship personal.  If your brother or sister has something against you, put Washington on hold, unplug yourself from your favorite news source, and go and be reconciled to your brother or sister.  As you pursue being a Christian citizen, don’t make your next phone call to your senator.  Call your neighbor.  Our call as citizens is not just about policy, it is about mission.  We are ambassadors for Christ.  Let us embrace that in every sphere of life as citizens.

And me?  I’m going to stop looking out the window and go play tag.

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.  www.calvaryreformedholland.org