Public Service: Call And Response

In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of students and young adults at a number of events. Following every event, at least one or two students will approach me and say, “I am so glad to finally hear someone give me language for how I can talk about what I think God is calling me to do: serve in government.”

Usually this comment is followed by an exchange in which they share about the people and the experiences God has used to impress upon their hearts a desire to contribute positively to the important work of just governance of a political community.

And then they share their sadness over the many, many ways that their intended vocation is not only questioned, but openly and often with great hostility, disparaged. Not by secular libertarians, but by fellow Christians whom they know, love, and respect.

Why Finding the Right Words Matters Right Now

What motivates some Christians to disparage such an important vocation? This is an incredibly complex question with dozens of answers. For the sake of brevity, we can say that within Christianity are quite differing visions of the role and purpose of the Church and the institution of government based on the biblical text. And so it follows that if you hold a view that there are no theologically motivated reasons for Christians to participate in government, then you would likely be motivated to dissuade fellow believers from such service.

But if the denigration of the vocation of public service only came from theologically informed traditions that hold this view, it would be of far less concern. A more troubling development of our day is that the denigration of public service is increasingly being articulated by Christians who come from a theological perspective that says such service is indeed a high calling.

As we find ourselves in the midst of one of the coarsest presidential campaigns in modern history, it has become tremendously easy to let cynicism or even fatalism take root and flourish among us. For example, what can begin as righteous anger about the ways in which some presidential candidates have mischaracterized entire categories of human beings created in God’s image can grow in us into an unrighteous dismissal of those who serve in government. What can start as criticisms of unjust laws can become in us a curse pronounced upon every person who serves in government.

As Christians, we should criticize unjust laws and morally problematic visions articulated by those holding and seeking public office. But how we do this matters. Words that engender either cynicism or fatalism are an unbiblical response to the (admittedly outrageous) conditions of our day. And as God’s people, we must consider how we are possibly telling the next generation of prospective government servant-leaders that their calling is not legitimate, as we show little more than open disrespect for those in public service or those seeking public office.

When we point out the distortion of the office, rather than point to the norms to be upheld, our criticisms have the potential to drive away the very people we need in public service -- people who are passionate about God’s heart for justice. This leaves plenty of space for the self-interested to step in and lead. As our careless words cause future public servants to question the validity of their vocation, people with a passion for God’s heart for justice can and will find other ways to serve their neighbors outside of the realm of public service.

But we desperately need these future public servants. We need men and women willing to become knowledgeable about the scope of responsibilities accorded to government to uphold public justice, making room for other institutions to make their fullest contributions towards flourishing. We need these future leaders to be sober and wise about their service in a pluralistic society, where our most deeply held differences must be given due consideration, not smoothed over, ignored, or silenced. We need people who understand the dangers posed by policymaking that seeks to maximize personal autonomy, embraces utilitarianism, or articulates an economistic vision for every aspect of life.

Please hear me: we are not to be people who put our faith in politics. But neither are we called to lose our hope because the political enterprise needs to be reformed to align with God’s purposes. Instead of using our voices to denounce candidates, office-holders, and those called to public service, we must offer a vision of what ought to be, not only a diagnosis of what seems to be going terribly wrong.

Affirming the Call to Public Service

So how can Christians explicitly affirm the calling of those who are serving in government or those who are considering public service?

First, we should affirm that those who hold such authority are indeed called to serve others. Matthew 20:25 records the words of Jesus, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” This is not Jesus denigrating authoritative office. As David Koyzis writes, “Jesus is not calling his disciples to avoid assuming authority, which, I would argue, is impossible in any case. Rather, he is contrasting the abuse of authority, i.e., tyranny or authoritarianism, with servanthood, which is fully compatible with authority rightly understood and properly exercised.”

Second, we should affirm that the proper task and high purpose of government is to promote public justice for all. God’s task and purpose for government endures in spite of the increasing complexity of fulfilling it in a pluralistic society. Shaping the contours of how we will live together with our deepest differences is the immense task that lies ahead for those in public service.

Third, we should focus our efforts to criticize unjust and bad government policies and public officials by calling government itself to fulfill its proper task and high purpose. This looks very different than the current climate of disparaging government, those in elected office, or public servants categorically, as though these are all illegitimate. Our just criticisms need to be coupled with an articulation of what should be done instead. We must take care with our words, considering our audience and the means by which we deliver our message. For example, social media video mashups replaying the worst antics of presidential candidates, while deeply disheartening, are not accompanied by any effort to point to what should be happening instead. While diagnosing part of the problem, this type of criticism leaves us nowhere to go except towards more cynicism or despair.

A Hope-Filled Response

Imagine instead trading the time spent watching or sharing or liking such videos for time crafting comments to be sent to government officials, whether the local mayor or agency official, a state legislator, or a member of Congress. Exchanges like these remain a primary and effective means by which these officials learn of criticisms of unjust laws and policies, or unjust decisions that they have made. Imagine being part of a group of citizens who sit together and discuss the respective merits and deficiencies of the law or policy at hand, who take the time to articulate the norms to be upheld, and make clear recommendations for what ought to be done instead, and send off dozens of respectful messages.

And imagine the potential positive impact of that group when it includes future public servants, whose vision of the diverse viewpoints held among those they represent is expanded, and who hear their vocation affirmed amidst the group’s efforts to point to needed changes that honor God as they seek to uphold public justice for all.

As the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Government rightly states,

“Those who disdain government and the political process dishonor God and their own humanity.” We must speak out against unjust efforts by those who misuse their authority, but we must take care to uphold the right use of authority given to those serving in government, rather than denigrate the office and delegitimize God as the giver of authority.

What I respect the most about the young men and women who are attending to God’s call to pursue elected office or public service is that they are very conscious of their temptation to despair in the face of disparagements of their vocation. They are grieved by the way God’s role as the giver of authority is disregarded even among God’s people. They recognize that the way things ought to be are not the way they are, and they are sober about it. They understand that serving in government is a high calling, where taking up the mantle of authority given by God means acknowledging that they are ultimately accountable to God for the promotion of justice for all.

In the face of what they openly acknowledge is a mess, we must contribute to their ability to remain hope-filled. Hope is possible precisely because we as Christians know the end of the Story, and that it does not rely on us, but demands our faithful engagement. My prayer is that we are the people who speak words of benediction on their calling.

-- Stephanie Summers is Chief Executive Officer at the Center for Public Justice.