4. Citizenship in Community

PJR Vol. 1 2017, Distinctive Christian Citizenship Series


Rachel Anderson

Rachel Anderson is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice. She is an attorney and founder of the Faith & Credit Program at the Center for Responsible Lending.

Millions have assembled for multiple marches and demonstrations these past weeks on the National Mall, in cities and towns across the country, and in many airports. And while these protest and rally crowds demonstrate an important form of corporate political expression, as Americans, we most commonly live out our politics as individuals, not as a community. Rallies and conferences can inspire and awaken us to new issues, but most of us return from those mountaintop experiences on our own. We may share (and perhaps dispute) political opinions among relatives and friends and make the occasional call or write an email to our representatives. But after that, we may soon find ourselves wondering again what difference our opinion, our voice, or our vote makes.  

If we tend toward disappointment and alienation from politics, it may be because our experience of citizenship is too individualized, too separated from community.

A 2008 survey found that, while nearly two-thirds of Americans participated in some form of political activity, fewer than one-third worked with others in their community to solve a problem. Only 15 percent of Americans are active in a citizen group that seeks to participate in or influence public policy or government. Sociologists like Robert Putnam connect low participation rates with long-term declines in civic associations and social capital. One manifestation of this trend: our current president may be the first whose political base consists of unassociated voters - voters with few ties to political parties and civic organizations.

A Christian understanding of citizenship would argue that, though it must respond to each person’s conscience, citizenship should not be a solo pursuit. Community is integral to the biblical mandate to steward and govern the earth. Healthy citizen organizations can help cultivate the virtues we need to be faithful citizens and shape an overarching perspective on the role and responsibilities of citizens rather than fostering single-issue engagement. Acting in community lends strength and effectiveness to our public participation.

If we feel isolated in our calling to citizenship, then it may be our responsibility to find and build community. This means committing not just to political principles or positions but to the practices that build community: relationship, deliberation, common action, and persistence.

“If I am only for myself”: Individualistic Citizenship

Individualistic citizenship manifests itself in several ways: self-interest, self-flattery, and passivity. Self-interest is the most obvious of the three. It corresponds to Rabbi Hillel’s famous question: “If I am only for myself, who am I?” Self-interested citizens vote only on “pocketbook issues,” for their own security, and nothing more. To be only for one’s self denies the three-part commandment to love God, others, and oneself. Self-interested citizenship ignores Scripture’s commands to defend the poor and speak up for the voiceless.

A more subtle individualism is not self-interest but self-flattery. Self-flattering citizenship considers one’s own opinions and point of view the measure of all things. It seeks out people and information that confirm rather than broaden one’s thinking. A toxic combination of this self-flattery and social media is currently fueling American politics. As Karen Swallow Prior commented in Christianity Today, the 2016 election was “a referendum on the echo chamber, and the echo chamber won.” 

Finally, individualism can manifest in passivity. When we think that governance is primarily the function of great or powerful individuals, then we’re less likely to attend to our own citizenship responsibilities. We may simply become wrapped up in the spectacle of politics, satisfying ourselves as consumers of political drama but not participants. Or we may develop a sense of despair that, as members of a vast public, our action matters little.

Citizenship in Community: A Biblical Vision

In the biblical vision, citizenship is marked by interdependence, not individualism.

Christian citizenship derives from our identity: persons created to bear the image of God, authorized to work, create, and govern. In the biblical account of creation, God authorizes humanity to govern the earth not as individuals but together, “male and female.” (Genesis 1:27)

Throughout Scripture, God’s reconciling work in the world occurs not simply through individuals but through community: a chosen nation, a community of disciples, a church gathered together by God. Writers C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison put it well: “the people of God are at the heart of God’s mission for reconciling creation.”[1] We live into God’s kingdom on earth in community.

When our citizenship flows from our identity as bearers of God’s image and the people of God, many principles follow. We must steward creation as a whole, seeking the flourishing of all persons not and not only our self-interest. We are to ally more closely with the Kingdom of God than with any political party or ideology, arriving at our political opinions prayerfully using divine truth as our measure. We must act with courage to defend those who are most vulnerable. In short, Christian citizenship strives for stewardship rather than self-interest, wisdom rather than self-flattery, and responsibility rather than passivity.

Cultivating Citizenship in Community

Because community can take so many forms, it may be helpful for the sake of this discussion to focus on specific practices that help us embody these principles of stewardship, wisdom, and responsibility in community. These include relationship, deliberation, action, and persistence.

Relationship. Two decades ago in Boston, a Lutheran pastor named John Heinemeyer started meeting regularly with other pastors in his community. In his years of urban ministry, Heinemeyer had picked up the community organizing tradition of face-to-face relational meetings dedicated to learning about one another’s values, motivations, and life stories. He met with everyone: the Irish-Catholic priest in South Boston, the African- American pastor next door to his church, the Congregational minister downtown. He listened. As a result of those meetings, Heinemeyer and other clergy founded the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization that, over the years, helped create jobs for urban youth, raise money for affordable housing, and enact statewide health care legislation.

The practices of listening and intentional relationship build social capital. They also facilitate a stewardship orientation to politics. When we listen to fellow citizens - especially across lines of race, class, and ideology - we’re more likely to see a wider range of interests than just our own and we can focus better on the overall well-being of our political community.

Deliberation. I spent Martin Luther King Day, 2007, with a dozen young Christians in a retreat center, staring at Post-It-covered walls. We were the instigators of a newly launched organization dedicated to social justice as an expression of faith. We had held relational meetings and house meetings listening to hundreds of people share their calling to justice. Now the leaders had to decide what to do. We prayed. We made proposals. We debated. We posted and tallied notes on the wall. Eventually, the group arrived at the seed of an idea: seeking justice on the big issues like global poverty must occur alongside transformative changes in each Christian’s life. That idea shaped the group’s trajectory for years to come. We would never have arrived at the idea if we’d jumped straight from listening to action.

There are countless techniques for collective deliberation. Respectful deliberation with others helps us overcome our quick judgments, our self-flattering echo chambers, and practice citizenship with wisdom.

Action. An Anglican priest who was involved in community-based advocacy once shared with me that his biggest frustration was his fellow clergy. Many of them agreed with the goals of his advocacy but declined to help arrange meetings with their legislators or collect signatures for a ballot petition. “They think that having the right opinion is enough,” sighed the priest. 

In the practice of Christian citizenship, right opinion is not enough. Opinions alone don’t fulfill our calling to govern God’s creation. Gordon Martinez and the pastors of Springcreek Church discovered this when they took on predatory payday lenders in their town. Martinez, an active member of Springcreek and a musician, had lost thousands and pawned an $8000 tuba to secure a $500 loan. He was not the only community member driven into financial and familial crisis by lenders charging triple-digit interest. Martinez, his pastors, and church members knew this was wrong. So when their local city council was considering proposals to rein in these businesses, fifty members of the church attended and spoke, one after another. Martinez’s pastor recalled: “There were about two or three people to speak on every agenda item, and we had 50 people from Springcreek walk in. So all of a sudden the city council takes notice.” The council ultimately passed a resolution reining in predatory lenders.

On one level, the value of collaboration in a democracy is clear: acting together yields power. The primary mechanism for influencing and holding our government accountable is through our vote. But votes are most influential when they comprise a majority. If we want to successfully advance the common good, see public justice upheld by government, then we need many people voting and advocating along with us. The members and pastors of Springcreek church would also say that acting together instills courage. It enabled individuals like Martinez to overcome the shame of debt and speak out against unjust practices.

Persistence. After many years of participating in and advising coalitions, I’ve come to believe that one of the most important members of any group is not the lawyer who analyzes public policy or the speaker whose eloquence inspires. It is the person who ensures that the group assembles again for the next meeting. And the next one. And the next one. Persistence is the heart of citizenship in community. 

Persistent communities are formed by ritual. Commitment to ritual in our citizenship communities can function as an antidote to the spectacle and individualism of politics. When groups meet, simple rituals help shape their time together. They can start with a round of check-ins, read Scripture or another text together, perhaps pray. During the busy phases of public advocacy, the ritual of reflection and evaluation helps make space for discernment and learning, slowing the pull into endless cycles of action and reaction. Rituals such as sharing a common meal can convey hospitality and humanity.

If the practices of relationship, deliberation, action, and persistence seem quite ordinary against a backdrop of mass demonstrations and dramatic political events, that is the point. Sometimes the most important work is the least conspicuous. The Mississippi branch of the Civil Rights movement modeled this quieter, more community-centered way to do politics - one that relied less on prominent preachers and activists and more on relationships and commitments to action by many ordinary citizens.

In 1961, Robert Moses, mentored by Ella J. Baker, embarked on an effort to register voters across the state of Mississippi. He initiated literacy programs to prepare men and women to register to vote. Moses met with everyone: young people, community elders, women and men. Some supported civil and voting rights, others were reluctant to join. Out of personal meetings and small groups grew involvement, leadership, and action. Neighbors taught neighbors to read. People became organizers in their own communities, pressing for the vote, and eventually founded a statewide political party that challenged the whites-only structure of the state Democratic party. It didn’t happen quickly. It was, in the words of historian Charles Payne, “slow and respectful work.” [2]

Space for God to Act

Just as the classic spiritual disciplines form our personal faith, practices like relationship-building, deliberation, action, and persistence can help form communities where Christian citizenship can grow. We develop the skills for citizenship as we would any other craft - by observing, attempting, and repeating. As in the case of the classic spiritual practices, I’ve found it worthwhile to commit to political practices even when I don’t feel particularly inclined to undertake them. This has allowed God to work in ways that I could not foresee. 

The wisdom of Henri Nouwen is a valuable guide. Nouwen referred to spiritual discipline as “the effort to create some space in which God can act… (space in which) something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.” As Christians, we can hold our citizenship up to God, inviting Him to act and to form us together for His intended purpose. We know that this process is not easy, but it is vital. Change does not happen quickly. But, through the Spirit and in community, God can call us from self-interest to stewardship, from self-flattery to wisdom, from passivity to responsibility, from distraction to persistence. There is no immediate gratification, and it may feel as ordinary as setting up a meeting, planning a meal, or assembling a team. Citizenship practiced in community is “slow and respectful work.” But it is how we follow the call to citizenship to pursue God’s good purposes for our political communities.


[1] C. Christopher Smith, John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. InterVarsity Press. 2014.

[2] Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, University of California Press, 1995. 

To respond to the author of this article please email: PJR@cpjustice.org. Public Justice Review (PJR) explores in depth specific questions of public justice, equipping citizens to pursue God's good purpose for our political community. Articles 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.

What Is Public Justice Review?

Public Justice Review (PJR) explores in depth specific questions of public justice, equipping citizens to pursue God's good purpose for our political community.

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Distinctive Christian Citizenship