As society becomes increasingly secular, religion is slowly edged towards the periphery of public life and reduced to a private experience without any social implications. The Christian faith is intrinsically opposed to the privatisation of religion because of its claim that the God it worships and professes is the Creator and Lord of the world. The Gospel that Christianity preaches is public truth, which addresses all of reality and which has profound implications to both the private lives of individuals and the public arenas of society. Christians are called to be light and salt of this darkening world (Matt 5:13-14). And although Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ are not of this world, that is, although they embrace a worldview and a set of values that are truly distinct they are nonetheless in the world (John 15:19). In fact, Christians are sent into the world to be authentic and faithful witnesses of their risen Lord (Matt 28:19). Christians therefore stand in solidarity with this world, but at the same time they have been given a prophetic function as they speak and embody the truth of God’s word. Social engagement is therefore not optional for the Christian. It has to do with the very heart of Christian witness.
As Christians get involved in public discourse they must realise that the public square is at once secular and pluralistic with people holding divergent and even contradictory views on a myriad of issues. Christians engaged in public discourse cannot expect their interlocutors to be sympathetic to their views, not to mention embrace them. In a pluralistic society, people shaped by different ideologies, traditions and rationalities approach the same issue with perspectives that are often inimical or antithetical (and sometimes even hostile) to the Christian perspective. Christians who participate in public debates with unrealistically high expectations of what their robust witness can achieve will only be disappointed. This is especially true for those who expect to see results within a short time frame. It took decades for our late (or post) modern society to slide into relativism, and it will take just as long, if not longer for us to dig ourselves out of it and its consequences. Christian engagement in politics and society therefore requires much patience.
Christians engaged in public discourse must also learn the language of such discourse. The language of the pulpit would not be very effective in the secular and religiously and ideologically plural public square. Theologians writing in the area of public theology have long acknowledged the need for Christians to use ‘natural law’ arguments that are accessible and persuasive to all and that appeal to public reason. This does not mean that Christians should abandon their particularist standpoint that is informed and shaped by the Bible and by the tradition of the Church, and begin with common assumptions shared by the majority. Christian responses to social issues must always be guided by Scripture and tradition. But Christians must present their theological perspectives on these issues in a way that is accessible to the wider and often unbelieving public. Thus, although Scripture must always be our guide, we must craft and present our arguments in a way that would resonate with those who do not recognise the authority of the Bible. As Scott Rae and Paul Cox have put it, ‘In this effort at persuasion it is essential that the position taken be identifiably Christian, but the means of persuasion need not and should not be limited to theological and biblical notions’.
Christians engaged in the public square must always be humble and civil. Christians must be humble in their engagement with society because even the most sincere often bring with them their own biases and prejudices. Richard Mouw issued this timely reminder in his essay, ‘The Spirituality for Public Life’: ‘The challenge, then, is to keep reminding ourselves that, at the heart of the Christian message lies the insistence that we are all sinners who are regularly tempted to the arrogance and self-centredness that lead to pretensions beyond the scope of our true grasp of reality’. The exhortation to be humble alerts us to the fact that we sometimes enter into the conversation with a less than adequate understanding of the complexities of the issues at hand. And it also alerts us to the fact that although we may be certain of the teachings of Scripture, we are sometimes less certain of how these teachings ought to be applied in the concrete world of politics. Christian humility in this regard is based on a clear appreciation of our own finitude and sinfulness.
Christians must also engage in public discourse with civility. Christian civility is best described as convicted civility: it is a civility that is not the result of intellectual wooliness or moral laxity, but one which stems from profound and robust convictions. According to the Christian understanding, therefore, civility should never be reduced to superficial irenics or political correctness. For the Christian, civility can never mean compromising our deepest convictions. But if Christian civility demands that we must always speak the truth, it also insists that we must also do so in love, respecting those whom do not share our convictions. Civility does not come easily; it requires much work on our part. Such civility is itself demanded by the Bible, which exhorts Christians to approach everyone with gentleness and reverence, and to strive to live at peace with everyone (1 Pet 3:15-16), even with those with whom we disagree.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in Word@Work (March 2013).