Shawn H. Williams
Address, Convocation Service
Ransdell Chapel, Campbellsville University
April 14, 2016
First of all, I want to thank you for the invitation to speak at the Chapel Service here at Campbellsville University; although, to be honest, I am not completely sure why I was asked. If it wasn’t bad enough that you asked a professor of politics to speak in the house of God, you have asked a converted Episcopalian to speak in the house of Baptist worship. I really don’t know what you were thinking. For that reason, I have to admit I am actually kind of nervous to be here. I have been talking to several of my colleagues about speaking today and many have asked me how this is that much different than lecturing in a class room. I think that I have gotten use to putting students to sleep with my lectures, but this is probably the first time I have been worried about putting God to sleep. So, I guess we’ll just see how things go.
As a student of politics, and especially as someone who teaches those who wish to work in the field, one of the issues that I and my colleagues should be concerned with is the question of how I, how we, as Christian citizens, should act in the modern democratic political world. Believe it or not, this is not a settled issue. In the annals of history, there have been many Christian denominations who have argued that, at best, it was necessary to separate our religious selves from the secular world. They suggest that to “live in the world” will ultimately corrupt you. It would make you “of the world”, or somehow tarnished by the world. At their worst, there have also been Christians theorists who have suggested that interpretations of Romans 13:1-4 require us to merely be “subject to the governing authorities” (New Revised Standard Version), for all authorities are servants of God.
In a democratic society, I find these positions both problematic and, quite honestly, to be almost heretical. First, I think such positions miss that not all authority is divinely inspired. One could make an argument that the Roman authorities had been divinely authorized to create an orderly world. After all, order was needed so that the Gospel could be spread. But it is difficult for me to believe that genocidal dictators like Adolf Hitler, or Pol Pot, or Josef Stalin were appointed authorities of God, whose murderous will should be obeyed.
Second, the Bible also teaches that God has not called us simply to be ruled, but also to find freedom through his love. As Galatians 5:13 suggests, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free” (New International Version). But it also notes that this freedom was not given to us so that we could “indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in Love (emphasis added). For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love you neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14, NIV).
See, while there may be many Christians who do find themselves in countries where serving as subjects is the best way to maintain order and to love each other, I would argue that in a political system where we, as citizens, help to shape authority, and where we as citizens empower that authority, then we as Christian citizens also have a responsibility to share in the burdens and benefits of authority. So if you will permit me, I would like to spend a few minutes discussing this idea of Christian citizenship, and what it means to be a Christian citizen.
Now at the outset, I don’t want you to think it is my place to try to convince you what the Bible teaches as the proper role of government. Nor whether you should be a political liberal or conservative, or Republican or a Democrat. I am not at all convinced that the Bible teaches us that Jesus cares about such things. Each of these are secular concepts; and while we may have civic responsibilities, it is perfectly reasonable to say that we can just as easily meet our obligations by giving quietly and privately to charities as we could argue through higher taxation for social programs. Government may be a method, but it need not be nor should it be the only method for civic engagement.
I am also not going to suggest to you that citizens of the United States should meet their obligations as Christian citizens more fervently because we are somehow a Christian nation. It may be fair to say that we are a nation of Christians. But I would argue that no nation founded on the bedrock of chattel slavery, as ours is; and that no nation that makes room for slavery in its Founding Constitution as ours did, can rightly lay claim to the title of Christian. I also don’t want you to think I going to any way hold myself up as a model for virtuous citizenship. In fact, I would say that I am guiltier than anyone of failing to live up to the ideals of citizenship. The very fact that my training helps me understand politics more than most means that I am more grave in my failures to live up to the standards of citizenship God has set for me.
Rather, what I am more concerned with today is discussing what I must do, how we must act, if we are to live our faith as citizens. And perhaps, I am also concerned with the standard to which we should hold those who we have elected to govern. After all, when we cast a vote in our democracy, we are literally transferring our power to make decisions to someone else to rule in our place. If we are charged with loving our neighbors, then we should also expect that those we elect will do the same. If we are to take our divine charge of Love seriously, we must also take seriously our civic responsibilities.
So what are these civic responsibilities? I think there are many, but for the sake of time and for the sake of my audience let me focus on arguably the three most important. The three things that I as a Christian citizen should do in a democracy. First of all, as a Christian citizen it is my personal responsibility to educate myself to the plight of my neighbors. How can I love someone who I don’t know? Or help someone if they have problems I do not understand? And I want to warn you, this isn’t always easy nor is it always comfortable. For those of you in the audience with internet capable devices, and with strong stomachs, do a quick Google search for the words “Sarin”, “Footage”, and “Damascus”. If not now, then later. But I warn you some of the images you will see are graphic.
For the past several years, Syria has been at war with itself. As part of its campaign, the Syrian government has been using Sarin gas and other agents against its own people in what the U.S. State Department has called an act of genocide. I think by now we all probably know that this war is going on. You may have even heard stories of how extremists are targeting Christians. But I wonder how many of us have watched any of the news stories on the atrocities of this war? If you are interested there have been several very good ones provided by CBS’ 60 Minutes. How many of us have seen what a child’s body looks like after it has been exposed to Sarin gas? How many have seen the bodies of dead Syrian children that have washed up on Europe’s shores? This past Sunday, one of our readings in church was on Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. I couldn’t help but wonder whether we will be judged for our national response to the refugees from that city.
Now I know that there are many of you who say “well those people aren’t my neighbors”. Fine. Ever seen what small pox did to the Native Americans who lived on reservations in the Southwest? For those interested, here is another Google search: “Water Hose Civil Rights”.
Here is something more recent. Find an image of what water looks like coming out of a faucet in Flint, Michigan. The water looks like that because the city of Flint faced a budgetary crisis, mostly caused by the collapse of auto manufacturing sector as plants were relocated from Michigan to places like Mexico, South Korea, and states in the American South with lower labor costs. To fix this fiscal crisis, rather than using tax dollars from other cities, the state government and its authorities chose to shift the city’s water supply from a safe, municipal system to water drawn from heavily polluted rivers. The water was so corrosive that it ate the lead pipes it passed through. We still aren’t sure how many children, mostly poor, have suffered developmental defects from drinking and bathing in the water.
Here is an interesting fact that I will be using in my civil rights lectures next week. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 the average African-American family had a total net worth of $5,000; that’s less than 5 percent of the average white family. Hispanics are slightly better off, with an average life savings of less than $7,500.
Here is another interesting fact. The rate of incarceration for a black male in America is almost seven times that of a white male.
One more. Back in 2010, when we were at the heights of the recession, we worried about a national unemployment rate that was approaching 10 percent. But it turns out, for whites the rate barely and only briefly touched 9 percent. For whites with a college education, the number was actually closer to 7 percent. For a person like myself, white with an advanced degree, unemployment was barely above 5 percent. But for African-Americans families, unemployment rose from about 8 percent to almost 17 percent in a span of about eighteen months.
Now I know many people who are concerned about growing our economy. But can we, as citizens, really instruct our government on how to fix the economy without first understanding the degree to which our economic problems are reflective of a racial divide? And had we moved more effectively, whether through government action or business behavior, to bridge that divide, would any of those solutions have helped the group is now under the greatest economic threat? Uneducated white males who use to work in factories or perform other trade labor? It is very difficult as a Christian citizen to love your neighbor without first understanding how fundamentally different there world might be than yours.
I think my second responsibility as a Christian citizen is to understand and accept that I will have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden for finding solutions to the problems my neighbors face. In I Corinthians 9:19, Paul states, “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more” (21st Century King James Bible). In political science, one of the greatest problems that we face is something known as the collective action problem. Simply put, it argues that an individual who cares only for their own short term needs will fail to work for the common good, even IF it is in their own best long-term interests. Why? Because it is so easy to convince myself that what I do for others is trivial next to enormity of the problems we face as society.
A great deal of political science is devoted to solving the collective action problem, because civic action of any importance is impossible unless we do. But the thing is, there are those people who do serve others, who take on burdens, and who accept social responsibility even when they receive little benefit. The technical term for these people is zealot. And one of the things we teach our students is that at some point, the success or failure of any civic action will hinge on the ability to find zealots to work for your cause. And if any of you have any experience serving the poor or running a political campaign, you know exactly of the people I speak.
As Christian citizens, we are called to be zealots, and honestly my lack of zealotry is one of my greatest failures. The life example of the Christ, the example of his apostles, all speak to the need to take up the burdens of others. Now am I suggesting that we aren’t good Christian citizens unless we sacrifice our entire lives to the benefit of our fellow citizens? Of course not; though, I have spent enough time at Arlington National Cemetery and on Fort Hood in Texas to know that there are those who have walked among us that have done just that. But what I am saying is that you should be skeptical of those who say that the best solution to a problem is to only think of yourself. Beware of politicians with promises that only benefit people who look and think like you. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or a free college education, any more than there is such a thing as penalty-free tax cuts for the rich if it means reducing our ability as a people to provide health care programs for the old and the indigent.
Social Justice that only provides freedom for me, at the expense of freedom for others, is neither social nor just.
Finally, the third thing that I must do as a Christian citizen is I must Act. When we see injustice, we must identify it. When we are aware of suffering, we must address it. We must seek solutions, even if our best solution is to educate others. Again, we cannot, nor should we be expected to completely sacrifice ourselves for our neighbors. To do so would mean ignoring the needs of our family and failing to use our freedom to further our relationship with God. And besides, I think it is fair to suggest that our neighbors have some responsibilities, too.
But to do nothing in the face of injustice is to condone it. If you believe that we should join together through government to find a solution, fine. If you believe that we should work through charities and keep government out of it, fine. But failure to act out of your own selfishness is an action itself, and I would suggest that it is not in keeping with the call to Christian citizenship.
And just as importantly, I must work to protect the power of my neighbors to act for themselves. One argument for democracy is that it provides us the best means for securing our own freedom. By making the authorities serve us through the vote, we can ensure that they won’t abuse their power. In this sense, voting becomes not only an act of our Christian civic responsibility, but it is also an act by which we help our authorities fulfill their Christian obligations. Through elections, we provide them guidance on how best to serve others. It is for this reason that few things scare me more than actions that would make it harder for citizens to participate in the voting process. In the weeks before the Arizona primary, a decision was made to greatly reduce the number of voting booths. The results included massive lines and waits of hours to vote. This same scene has appeared in numerous states, and is often repeated during Presidential elections, most commonly in minority areas.
Remember what I said earlier about voting being a transference of power? Voting is also a collective action problem; one individual’s vote only rarely impacts the outcome of elections. And so in a democracy such as ours, the temptation not to vote is considerable. Why take the time to get off of work early or show up late, or drive out of my way, just to cast a single vote if 100 million votes are going to be cast when picking the next president? Why should I worry about the voting rights for others if I’m not even sure if I care to exercise it for myself?
The best reason I can give you is this: if you don’t vote, you are abdicating your responsibility to help your neighbor. If you don’t vote, you are saying that your power as a citizen, your civic responsibility as a Christian, isn’t worth the effort. And if you don’t protect the voting rights of others you are saying that they aren’t worth the effort either. So, if nothing else, be a zealot and vote. And when deciding who to vote for, think more about your neighbor than you do yourself.
Shawn H. Williams is associate professor of Political Science, Campbellsville University, Campbellsville, Kentucky. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, Texas. His broad area of interest is collective political decision making in America and Europe.