public policy compassion

Christian Compassion and Public Policy

This article continues the discussion of the five circles of Christian compassion and explores the outermost circle of Christian compassion and public policy. Solutions for complex societal problems require the coordinated efforts of individuals, churches, organizations, and the government. This coordinated work includes developing and implementing public policies to address the root causes of social problems. As citizens in a participatory democracy, we have a responsibility to help shape policy initiatives. Even more so, Christian compassion demands that we think about, understand, and influence the way in which our government policies support the biblical principles of equity, justice and the opportunity for all of humanity.                           

The compassion of public policy is a fundamentally important concept for all Christians to understand. As a result, this discussion will span a three-part series of articles. In this article, we discuss the Biblical foundation of public policy. In the second article (here), we will seek to understand the selective engagement of the Seventh-day Adventist faith community in public policy and in the third article (here), we will outline principles for Christian engagement in the public policy arena.  

Public Policy in the Bible

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming destruction of Israel in the sixth century BC. Isaiah attributed the coming collapse of the empire to the fact that the kings and religious leaders of the day betrayed the vulnerable in the community. In chapter ten of Isaiah, we read about God’s utter dismay at how the religious and political leaders enacted unjust laws and oppressive decrees that deprived the poor of oppressed of opportunity and justice. Exploiting the most vulnerable in the kingdom was the moral failure that toppled Israel (see Isaiah 10). Isaiah’s voice was amplified by the contemporary prophets of Amos, Micah, and Hosea who all echoed the theme that unjust public policies, which exploited the poor and vulnerable, combined with the spiritual failure of idolatry, set Israel on a self-destructive path.  As a consequence, Israel endured seventy years of captivity and the prophetic voice in the Book of Isaiah continued to warn the re-emerging nation of the consequences of ignoring the suffering of the oppressed (see Isaiah 58). Yet with this warning came a promise in Isaiah 61 that the Lord would send the Spirit to empower His people to create a just and equitable society (also see Zechariah 8). 

However, the promises of Isaiah 61 came to be understood as a future prophecy rather than a present reality. It was Christ who corrected this fallacy. Christ unequivocally applied the words of Isaiah 61 to the present tense.  At the opening of his ministry, as represented by Luke 4:16-21 (ESV), we read:

“He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The kingdom principle of freeing the oppressed had arrived, however, we  must be clear about the context in which Christ was speaking. At the time of Christ, Israel had limited autonomy and was subjected to the dictatorship of Rome. The Jewish nation had two options to preserve their faith and culture. Israel could either align themselves with a morally corrupt government in order to preserve their stature or Israel could openly oppose the government through violent insurrection. Public policy was not in the hands of the people. Christ’s words in Luke 4 presented a third option. In essence, Christ declared the present tense kingdom values of equity and justice, not as acquiescence to Rome nor as a violent insurrection, but as the seed of democracy to be lived out in the lives of the nascent Christian believers (and the movement that they were creating). Further on in the New Testament, the theologian Paul reiterates in Romans 13:1-7 that Christians are subject to both the Kingdom of God and to the governing authorities (verse 1). In short, the New Testament creates the concept of dual citizenship. Christians are called to live the kingdom values of justice and equity in the context of the political system in which they live.  

Democracy and Public Policy Engagement

Here we are, 2000 years later. We no longer live under a brutal dictatorship but we live in a democracy. In wisdom, our democracy draws clear boundaries and space between the institutional church and the government but this church-state distinction must be properly understood.  In a somewhat over-simplistic view, the framers of our constitution sought to prevent the establishment of a government imposed church structure (establishment clause) and sought to protect the right of individuals to pursue religious practices that do not conflict with a larger “compelling interest.” (free exercise).  Further, in 1954, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson offered an amendment to the Internal Revenue Service code governing churches and nonprofit organizations that prevents these organizations from engaging in political activities designed to advance a political ideology. So, wired to our democracy is a distance between institutional religion and the government. I believe in the Johnson Amendment and fully support the distance that the Seventh-day Adventist Church maintains from politics.  

At the same time, our democracy is participatory and requires citizens to be engaged in our political system to ensure that our democracy is representative of all people. As a Christian, our dual citizenship requires us to engage in the participatory democracy with an eye towards Biblical justice and equity. Referencing back to Paul’s words in Romans, whether you interpret the words literally or as a principle, we are subject to democracy as much as the early Christians were subject to the dictates of Rome. For the early Christians, subjection meant passive survival under Rome’s iron rule, however, as Christians in 2018, passivity is not an option.  As Christians, our subjection to the governing authority is built upon our citizen engagement in the political and policy-making process.

The Old Informs Today

So the Biblical foundation for Christian involvement in public policy is drawn from both the Old and New Testament. The moral failure of the leaders of Israel was that they enacted unjust laws that exploited the most vulnerable in the community. Seven-hundred plus years later the gospel commission demands the opposite.  The gospel is to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty, to help the blind to see and work on behalf of those who are oppressed. In this way, we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Therefore, as individual Christians, we are called to support and advocate for public policies that align with principles of justice, equity, and lifting up those who are oppressed. Equally, we are called to oppose those public policies that run counter to biblical principles.  

Many Christians with a Seventh-day Adventist background will say “amen,” to the assertion that Christians must be politically engaged with public policy.  Others will argue to the contrary, pointing to statements in our church history that were made by authoritative figures.  The counter assertion is that public policy interferes with proclaiming the gospel and hence we are to be passive participants in public policy debates.  In the next article of this series, we must wrestle with this tension and explore the historical development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to fully understand how the institutional church shapes individual perspectives on our involvement in public policy.

Until then, your thoughts are welcome.

~ Mark


Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash

About the author: Mark Fulop
Mark Fulop, MA, MPH is the Executive Director of PACS and has spent his career working for social, health, and economic justice.

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