Public Ministry and Political Advocacy
The church exists for the sake of the world. We diminish our understanding of the church and, more importantly, the work of God if we limit the activity of God to the church. There has been a tendency to bifurcate the work of God into a spiritual or religious realm by divisions we make in our minds into separate spheres of influence: religion and politics; church and state; Sunday and the rest of the week; church and world; the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world; spiritual and material; heaven and earth. All these separations tend to isolate the longing of God and God’s activity to things that explicitly have to do with religion.
However, any study of Christianity will clarify that the focus of God’s activity is the world as a whole. The whole concept of the kingdom of God is based on this issue: What would the world be like if God were the governing force? What love and justice would reign if the God who cares for the poor was the driving force behind human activity? What care would be taken for all of nature–human and non-human, living and non-living–if human beings followed the guidance of the Spirit of the one who created all things in the first place? God is concerned over wars and poverty and famine and oppression and rampant illnesses and disease and earthquakes and holocausts and loss of species and destruction of the fragile earth that has formed over billions of years. A theology of incarnation does not limit God’s presence in the world to religious figures and religious movements. Rather God is present and active in all places and at all times to influence and shape the developments of life in the face of human aggression, human greed, and human resistance.
We also reduce the life and activity of God when we limit the work of God to the lives of individuals. To be sure, much of the power of Christianity as a religion has been to affirm that God cares infinitely for each individual. God has numbered the hairs on our head and cares for us as surely as God cares for each single sparrow. The transformation of individuals by conversion, by the discovery of grace, by the forgiveness of sins, by the healing of the body, by the renewal of the mind, by the infusion of love, by the empowerment for goodness and honesty, by the inspiration of the Spirit, by the awakening to hope, by the freedom from addictions, by the blessedness of peace–all these have been the source of human renewal of individuals and those around them who are affected by their transformation. No one can take away from Christianity this attention to the life of the individual that has instilled people with freedom and a sense of meaning and purpose in life that promotes goodness rather than destructiveness.
At the same time, we do God and Christianity a disservice when we limit the activity of God to individuals. We have learned that institutions and structures too can be evil and destructive: governments can oppress, corporations can exploit, economic systems can generate a great division between the rich and the poor, narrow national loyalties can lead to wars and ethnic cleansing, and conventional wisdom can discriminate and abuse women, people of different races, people of different sexual orientation, and people of different religions. Can we imagine for a moment that God is not concerned to transform such structures so as to rid exploitation and oppression and poverty and war? God is concerned for the larger issues of life. And the church exists for the sake of this world.
Furthermore, we do God a disservice when we think that God is only concerned to save people for a life after death, as if this world were only a temporary place of pilgrimage preparing us for the real world in heaven. Such views have led people to ignore the problems we face in the world and to believe that God will save them out of the world, either when they die or when Jesus comes to rescue the believers by some kind of rapture. However, there is nothing in the biblical materials that would lead us to think that God’s commitment to offer humans eternal life keeps us from a concern for this world. Quite the contrary. It is precisely the promise of the gift of life and eternal life that liberates us to give ourselves in the present to the care and redemption of all that God has created. expend, sacrifice, etc.
As a church, what we do is for the world. Of course, the church is part of the world. Our life together can be an alternative way of being in the world. And our lives can serve as leaven in the world to bring peace and justice, and compassion, and healing. When we convert others to our congregations, we bring them in to send them out again. Together, we can address many issues as individuals. But we are called also to address problems as institutions–to advocate for just laws and fair business practices and the preservation of wetlands and the cleanup of brownfields. These approaches represent the public ministry of the church–the church’s commitment to act in the public realm to educate and advocate and act for a better world for all.