Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
On Taking Public Life Seriously
Stephanie A. Summers
September 9, 2011
by Stephanie A. Summers
As is true for a majority of Capital Commentary readers, God used healthy civil-society institutions to shape me into the person I am today. My love of civil-society institutions began with my mother’s leadership of my Brownie Girl Scout troop in 1980, where I learned that a life lived in service changed me as much as it helped hurting people. I can count hundreds of civil-society institutions that have influenced me, shaping in me a heart for the gracious and patient justice of God, and equipping me with myriad skills to work in solidarity with others to address the social and systemic needs of a broken world. Yet I never gave a moment of thought to the relationship between government and these institutions until I encountered Jim Skillen and his work with the Center for Public Justice.
I first met Jim when I was a student at Kenyon College, on a trip to Pittsburgh for the Coalition for Christian Outreach’s annual Jubilee conference. After growing up with my rudimentary understanding of government as the people in Washington who tax and make war, Jim’s teaching, that the guiding norm for government is public justice, was paradigm-shifting. I came to Jubilee as a Christian who believed that Christ’s Lordship extended to every area of life, possessing strongly-held opinions on what was best relative to various policy issues. But I was missing something completely. Encountering Jim made me recognize my lack of a political-theological foundation for my beliefs about God’s heart for justice. I had embraced a low view of the political community in which we live, and had certainly failed to live up to the high calling on the lives of citizens: to share with government the responsibility to help shape the political community to conform to the demands of justice.
When several years ago my husband became an employee of the federal government, we became residents of Washington, D.C., and all kinds of new questions resulted from these new commitments. We immediately encountered some of the most principled and reflective people we had ever met, who recognized the failure of interest-group politics, and grieved that Christians are sometimes part of the problem in politics. These women and men, many shaped by the Center for Public Justice, embodied the biblical calling to promote public justice for all, and challenged us by their words and deeds to take public life seriously. So began what will be a lifelong journey in community towards understanding and promoting public justice as a responsibility that government and citizens share together. As the new CEO for the Center for Public Justice, I count it a privilege to contribute to the flourishing of this civil-society institution as together we seek to serve God, advance justice, and transform public life.
I’ve been teaching one of my favorite graduate-school courses this summer, titled, “The Role of the Nonprofit Organization in Public Policy” as part of the M.S. in Nonprofit Management degree program offered by Eastern University. I’ve watched a few of my students experience the same progression of understanding I experienced in meeting Jim as a college student: starting off confident in the moral rightness of their policy positions, then humbled by their lack of a political-theological foundation, repentant about the way they have abdicated their responsibility, and ending in a hopeful embrace of the high calling they have as citizens. These students understood for the first time that the biblical theme of justice requires taking public life seriously as the body of Christ, just as Jim Skillen called us to in Christians Organizing for Political Service (1980). “We must admit that apart from Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5), that as Christians we must not refrain from gathering together to stir one another up to good works, yes, even to good political works (Heb. 10:23-25). We must begin working together taking public life seriously because justice requires it, our neighbors depend on it, and the life of the body of Christ cannot come to full maturity without it.” Let me invite you to join in this commitment to taking public life seriously as we pursue the mission of the Center for Public Justice together.
—Stephanie A. Summers is the CEO of the Center for Public Justice.
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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.”