Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Christians: Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?
James W. Skillen
By James W. Skillen
January 5, 2015
This edited version of James Skillen’s essay, originally published in 1987, offers a timeless exhortation for this new year to “give public evidence of a selfless concern for justice.”
The May 25, 1987 issue of Time magazine portrayed the United States as undergoing a grave ethical crisis. Some dismiss such alarmist rhetoric as inappropriate for a weekly secular news magazine. Others say our society’s sick condition is much worse than imagined—that the United States is under severe judgment.
What do news stories revealing sexual immorality in the televangelism world, deception among top appointed political officials, and unethical trading on Wall Street tell us?
Beyond the questions of personal misbehavior lie numerous additional problems of serious national concern. Will we ever put the destructive drug culture behind us? Are the schools really preparing our children for a responsible future? Do we see any possibility of reaching a society-wide consensus on [the issues that divide us]?
At the highest public-policy levels we face challenges calling for the utmost wisdom and determined responses. International trade, budget, and financial crises spark ever-increasing warnings about trade wars, deep recessions, and even a potential world depression. Congress and the president show little evidence of being able to provide coordinated leadership to guide us through trying economic eras. … [Our many global crises] are crying out for multilateral international diplomacy in which the United States should be engaged. But is the United States ready to give capable leadership?
In the midst of all these critical and confusing circumstances, are Christians offering some solutions to the problems, as we imagine we are, or are we simply part of the problem—part of a self-interested, materialistic culture that is running away from responsibility rather than shouldering it?
To make a difference, we need to examine ourselves in the light of God’s Word to see how to repent from sin and turn to paths of righteousness in our families, professions, churches, and neighborhoods. We must also step forward to serve and reform the public order. Just laws and good public policies will not automatically flow from a renewal of individual ethical concern, and public justice will not automatically take care of itself if we simply concentrate hard enough on our families and schools and churches. This is not to say, however, that we can neglect any aspect of personal ethics in areas in which we hold responsibility. A healthy republic and a relatively peaceful international community cannot be built on sexual immorality, deceitful bankers, slovenly employees, drug-addicted children, and preachers enticing followers with dreams of materialistic success.
Equally true is the fact that the moral recovery of society must take shape in each area of life—including the political and legal realms—by way of dedicated, purposeful action fit for each arena. A republic cannot be reformed apart from action by citizens prepared to serve their civic neighbors through laws and policies that do justice to all. Political renewal requires political action. Legal reform requires wise jurisprudential acts and judgments. No shortcuts are available. Nothing human automatically takes care of itself.
Now is the time for Christians to accept their civic responsibility with thanksgiving, to join together for service and to give public evidence of a selfless concern for justice that others will not believe possible until they see it demonstrated. Today is indeed a day of God’s judgment, a time for repentance. But by God’s grace, as long as it is still today, we also face opportunities to offer light in the darkness and to put some leaven in the loaf…
This article was originally published in 1987 for the Christian Legal Society. It has been republished as a collection of pieces in the Journal of Christian Legal Thought (2 J. Christian L. Thought, at 12 (Fall 2012))
- James W. Skillen is the former executive director and president of the Center for Public Justice. He is the author of The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (2014); In Pursuit of Justice: Christian-Democratic Explorations (2004); and With or Against the World? America's Role Among the Nations (2005).
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”