Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Public Justice and True Tolerance
James W. Skillen
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This excerpted essay was originally published in a collection entitled Confessing Christ and Doing Politics (1982).
September 2, 2011
by James W. Skillen
Politics in our day usually begins and ends with “the People,” perhaps in the form of “We the people of the United States…,” or “The People’s Republic of China,” or “the will of the people…,” or “return power to the people.”
Christian politics begins and ends with “the King of kings and the Lord of Lords.” […]
Jesus acknowledges, as we know, that people do have political responsibilities and that people do indeed belong in certain political offices (cf. Matt 22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:19-26; Jn 19:11). But in the biblical view of life, human responsibility in earthly politics is never a self-contained and self-sufficient affair of “The People.” Human politics is always God’s business. […]
The Christian view of political justice should be built directly on [an] understanding of God’s gracious patience and love. If this is done, then Christian politics will manifest itself not as the Church’s selfish attempt to control the state, nor as an interest-group effort to “get” benefits primarily for Christians, nor as a campaign to flood political offices with Christians so that Christians can control government for the enforcement of Christian doctrine on the populace.
The biblical view of justice for every earthly creature will mean instead that Christians will work politically for the achievement of governmental policies that will protect, encourage, and open up life for every person and community of people, whatever their religious confession and view of life. Justice in political life cannot be based on the biblical teaching about church discipline since earthly states are not churches. The state is not a community of Christian faith; it is a community of public legal care for all people which must not favor or persecute any particular group or society. […]
What we have seen in the last two centuries is that our supposedly “neutral,” “secular” political communities have given birth to the most passionate and unjust religions that now control most of these political communities…American democratic nationalism has developed into one of the most powerful “civil religions” in the modern world…a religion of secularized Christianity where the American nation has come to be seen as God’s specially chosen kingdom—the political community through which the world will be saved politically. God’s will is supposedly revealed through the will of a political majority, and all private religions have their primary place of honor as supporters of the nation’s common, unified progress through history as God’s nation. […]
We can see, then, that politics does not exist as a neutral enterprise…If a Christian approach of patient, gracious justice does not rule human political life, then some other religious dynamic will control it. If all people are not cared for in an evenhanded way in the public legal domain, then another religious impulse will lead to injustice and discrimination…In America today, we believe we are doing justice to all people by keeping religion out of politics and letting the majority rule. But actually we are keeping a truly Christian work of justice out of politics only to have a democratistic religion of the people dominate majorities and minorities in a way that oppresses and discriminates against certain people and communities of people. The only answer to the present difficulties facing democratic political systems (as well as non-democratic systems) is to recognize that people are basically religious creatures and that religion can, therefore, in no way be kept out of politics. Political life must be opened up to the full diversity of human religious impulses, and evenhanded justice must be the norm by which this diversity is allowed to live publicly.
In the contemporary world of injustice, both domestic and international, Christian politics will begin with the repentance of Christians who come to see that they have not always been ministers of God’s gracious, patient justice to others. Christian politics will grow when Christians begin to take seriously Christ’s command for us to love our neighbors…Christian politics will mature in America when Christians recover the biblical vision of the communal responsibility they have for others. When we begin to see that the body of Christ is not a “part time” or “private” organism unrelated to the political realities of human life on earth, then we will be able to break away from the individualistic conception of political responsibility which dominates our democratic political system. […]
Christ is King! Will we now serve Him in our political offices or will we continue to limp between the part-time service of Christ and the part-time service of other Gods?
—James W. Skillen is the former President of the Center for Public Justice.
The foundational essay collection, Confessing Christ and Doing Politics, is available for a special price of $6 (includes shipping), in our online bookstore at http://www.cpjustice.org/cpjbookstore or by calling 1-800-387-8895. Please note that the appearance of the text is vintage first-edition with yellowed pages. The collection includes: "Christ's Call to Service" by Senator Mark O. Hatfield, essays on "Public Justice and True Tolerance" and "Christian Action and the Coming of God's Kingdom" by Jim Skillen, Rockne McCarthy's essay on "American Civil Religion", Joel Nederhood on "God's Will and America's Destiny", Gordon Spykman on "Beyond Words to Action", and Bernard Zylstra on "The Bible, Justice, and the State".
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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.”