Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Civic Revival in the Face of Scarcity

Dean Trulear


Four decades ago, the French ethicist Jacques Ellul warned Christians about the dangers of allowing the media to determine which social issues to engage. Ellul’s concern was with the short shelf life of the media’s attention to certain social problems. When churches become socially active solely because of such media coverage, Ellul reasoned, they drop the issue when the media turns its attention elsewhere. This truncates religiously based social engagement, leaving it incomplete, captive to press interests, and unable to discern its own course of action. In the rush and pressing immediacy of today’s events, we are in desperate need of deep and long-term discernment.

The recent election of Barack Obama as president both reflected and created a renewed spirit within a significant portion of the American people. As we now witness the beginning of the president-elect’s hard work of personnel and policy development, we need to keep alive the sense of hope and change. In a real sense the Obama campaign created space for the subsequent work of statecraft by initially focusing on the attitude and spirit of the American people.

People of faith need to discern and then demonstrate this relation between “ideals to embrace” and “ideas to enact.” In recent years, religious organizations have ramped up their social-service delivery systems with partnerships through the Faith-Based Initiative and with increased support from the private sector. This has been a good thing. But the values of hope and change and the capacity to build strong relationships must remain constants as capital characteristics of the life and work of any congregation.

In this era of economic crisis, focus on scarcity and loss is understandable. Jobs, pensions, industry, and government all feel the crunch. The financial capacity to support social-service delivery takes a hit just like everything else. Congregations, however, can rise above the crisis to remind their members as well as the larger society that they represent the resources of hope and community, both of which strengthen social and civic engagement.

Hope and community become valuable strengths in a nation threatened by scarcity. Congregational size does not matter; having an attached social-service organization or community-development agency is not essential. Many new needs arising from the current recession as well as the unfinished business of addressing poverty, prison reform and reentry, and failing public schools call for continuing discernment in our churches. Our ability to offer hope and community should not be subject to economic trends.

The election campaign appealed to middle-class interests, as if trickle-down could be shifted from rich-to-middle classes and made to work for middle-to-poor classes. That could lead us to overlook the poor in the shuffle created by the economic downturn. We can discern better than that.

Prisoner reentry programs, an early priority of the Bush administration, continue to require serious effort as the number of persons returning from incarceration escalates. With jobs at a premium prior to the current economic crisis, the employment situation for these returning citizens looks even bleaker. But congregations can offer hope and community.

The Baptist Pastors’ Council of Detroit, a city whose political and economic troubles need no rehearsal, is working to strengthen the social network into which incarcerated persons return. Increased numbers of churches are adopting schools and PTAs, helping with babysitting, transportation, and meal services.

These modes of civic engagement arise from congregations recognizing that their true and lasting value transcends the policies of any administration and the material resources of any agency. And from their strength of offering hope and community they become a source of ongoing civic renewal. 

— Harold Dean Trulear, Prof. of Practical Theology
     Howard University Divinity School

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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.”