Practicing Compassionate Public Policy
Five circles of Christian compassion are the foundation stones of faith-based community service. This article series discusses public policy as the fifth circle of compassion. Part one of the series outlined the biblical foundations of Christian involvement in public policy (here). Part two described the historical basis for Seventh-day Adventist involvement in political issues (here). This article concludes the series by offering concrete ideas for practicing compassionate public policy.
I would like to be very clear what a Christian response to public policy is not. It is not joining the toxic political debates currently dividing our country. It is not having a political affiliation that one rallies around. It is not defined by a label – right or left, conservative or liberal. It is also not an allegiance to a political personality, party, or color code – red or blue or green. It is not the current characterization of evangelicals following lockstep behind a political party (see here). Indeed, data suggest that Seventh-day Adventists are not politically homogeneous (see here) but are as diverse as the general community.
So what does compassion look like in the context of public policy? It is taking action to build hope and helping to establish values of justice, equity, and community. As citizens of this country, we live in a participatory democracy. Our voice matters. Our compassion can help influence public policies through our involvement in the formation of solutions to address community needs. Examples of such direct action include interacting with elected officials, protesting, running for office, and educating our community. Participatory democracy also involves electing representatives who work to create and implement public policies aligned with Christian values. So Christian compassion must stay informed, engage in direct action, and exercise our right to vote.
To help us understand what compassion in public policy looks like in action, I would recommend the following six steps:
1. Reflect on Biblical values: The starting place for thinking about compassion is to take an inventory of the values woven throughout the Bible. To help you get started, remember that God has entrusted us with care for this earth and each other and God’s values are born out of these two areas of stewardship. God values peace and restorative justice rather than retributive justice. God’s values include building strong, healthy and inclusive communities. God’s values include compassion and protecting the vulnerable and oppressed. These values are the basis of our public policy thinking. Biblical values lead to action.
Note: Admittedly, there will be times that public policy and Christian values can be very messy. For example, how does the Biblical value of the sanctity of life inform a Christian position on the legality of abortion? These cases may result in divided opinions, which should be respected. For the record, the Seventh-day Adventist church has long espoused a commitment to the sanctity of life and affirmed support for a women’s access to safe and legal abortions (see here).
2. Stay informed: I believe that it is the responsibility of Christians to stay informed by understanding current events in the world and at the Federal, State, and local level. Staying informed starts with identifying and reading trusted news sources with journalistic standards (see here and here). The press and journalists have been called the fourth estate because they provide a vital nongovernmental check and balance to the government (see here). Journalists are not the same as television or talk radio news commentators working for entertainment companies. Commentators, though they sit behind a “news desk,” often present a single side of the news biased to the audience they serve. Conversely, journalists are unbiased in their investigative work, carefully assembling and being accountable to facts. A second source of tracking public policies is by subscribing directly to elected officials newsletters and government websites. Finally, we have the responsibility to inform each other by discussing current events and helping each other think through how biblical values impact public policy.
3. Focus: It is important to recognize that compassion has boundaries. Few of us have time to become experts in all social issues. I suggest that you focus on two or three areas. For example, working at PACS, I tend to follow the issues of hunger, poverty, and economic empowerment. I more broadly stay informed on other social challenges (like the environment, homelessness, and healthcare). By focusing, I can develop a working knowledge and prevent myself from being consumed by the enormity of the universe of social issues that collide with our Biblical values. However, by listening to and learning from each other we can, together, be engaged citizens who pay attention to the whole rather than the parts.
4. Make sure your voter registration is current: In my opinion, voting is an essential responsibility of Christians in a participatory democracy. If you are not registered to vote, you need to do so today (see here). If you are registered to vote, take a minute to check that your voter registration is current (see here). Then, exercise your right to vote in every election.
5. Know your elected officials and how to contact them: I suggest everyone take the time to develop a contact list for their elected officials. If you are unsure of who your elected officials are, it is easy to find that information (see here). At a minimum, you should know how to contact them and be on their mailing list. If you use social media, then follow your representatives. The more you understand about how your elected leaders are thinking and voting on public policy issues the more informed your actions can be. Your elected officials are the decision makers that you need to influence and knowing where they stand on issues will help you communicate effectively with them.
6. Create and implement an action plan: As a citizen, your voice matters in the political process. Never let anyone convince you otherwise. By creating a simple plan in advance, you can be active in public policy issues as the need arises. For example, your strategy might include calling your elected official or sending a postcard (having a stack with postage and addresses already filled out help save time). If an issue is important enough, you may want to visit the office of your elected official to make your opinion known in person. Your plan may also include getting others involved in a letter writing campaign or organizing or attending a planned protest. Whatever you decide to do, planning prepares you for action. Finally, as noted, every plan must include voting in every election. Every election.
This article is a brief primer of what the practice of compassionate public policy looks like in action. A Google search on the topic of “communicating with elected officials,” or “how to be an effective advocate,” will help you dig deeper into this subject. As a primer, the purpose of this article series is to define the public policy as the fifth circle of Christian compassion.
The concept of politics and public policy among Seventh-day Adventists is always a conversation fraught with potential misunderstanding. Political discussions today are often both divisive and toxic. However, with a correct frame of reference, perhaps we can better balance our responsibility to our citizenship without sacrificing unity. This article series seeks to strike a balance by defining the need for active engagement in public policy as a core responsibility of our faith and hopefully opening a dialogue to help us find common ground built around acting on the Biblical values of God’s Kingdom.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.