CHARLES L. GLENNCharles L. Glenn is director of Equal Educational Opportunity for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This article represents his personal opinions and in no sense reflects the position of the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Christians who work “in the world”—in government or professions such as public-school teaching—are familiar with the awkwardness of applying their faith to their work.

This tension is part of my own life. I have been an Episcopal parish priest for more than 20 years. I have also been a state government official for more than 15 of those years, committed to uphold a Constitution that forbids the use of public position to advance private religious convictions. In a sense, I live the tension of church and state every day, and in a most sensitive area—public education.

But I am not unique. All of us, if we so much as visit a school board meeting or care about the passage of a city ordinance, wonder how we go about applying our faith to public policy. Do we patch together Scripture verses that seem relevant? Do we attach Christian labels to ideas that are fashionable in the conservative or liberal circles in which we move?

No. Christian thinking about any issue can only begin at one place, with “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Only in him can we come to know God, or ourselves. Only in him can we hope for either the power or the wisdom with which we can confront our calling in the world.

Let me, therefore, suggest four scriptural truths that come to life if we know Christ Jesus: our ungovernable propensity to sin; our gracious, unmerited redemption by God through Jesus Christ; the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth; and God’s graciousness to “all flesh,” even those outside of the covenant of grace who may (but of that we are not to judge) have no ultimate share in the kingdom. Here is how I apply these four aspects of revealed truth to the calling of public life.

A Sense Of Sin

A lively sense of our own sinfulness should encourage a certain caution about how we embrace causes and solutions. Utopian visions or instant solutions for difficult problems cannot stand before the understanding of the human heart we gain at the foot of the cross.

By “caution” I do not mean we should be less than wholehearted in working, even struggling, for what seems in accordance with God’s will. But we need to retain some perspective, a certain mental objectivity, even a sense of humor, about our efforts. Sometimes we will make the wrong choice, and we need to remember that only those who repent can be forgiven. Above all, we cannot be so sure of our own righteousness that we fail to perceive the harm we may be doing to others in the name of an ultimate good.

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Also, we need to be careful how we claim God’s authority for our own plans and programs. By all means let us show how we have been led to a particular position by our understanding of Scripture and through prayer. But let us do so in such a way that it is clear that our own human judgment has made the application. Our confession of sinfulness should inhibit us from overconfidence in our own momentary strategies, and should assure that we “do justice and love mercy”—even with our opponents. The stereotype of Christians as grim and humorless fanatics should not apply to anyone who can weep and laugh, and do so over his own shortcomings and those of his fellow believers.

The Significance Of Redemption

The second scriptural truth, that Jesus Christ has won the victory for us through no merit on our part, is of course intimately related to the first. Indeed, only that knowledge allows us to laugh as we weep over our fallenness. A firm grasp on that truth enables us to see that the final victory will be God’s. The Israelites fell before the Philistines, but the idol Dagon was powerless to stand in the presence of the ark of the Lord—and lay at last broken in pieces. So the false ideologies, the “principalities and powers” of our own time, will at last be revealed for the lifeless idols they are.

This is not an invitation to passivity—we are called to cooperate in the mighty work of God. But it should strengthen the fainting heart to know the victory is not in question.

An awareness of how our redemption was won will deepen our appreciation of how important it is to give a faithful witness to God’s love in the midst of human life, in which God himself chose to dwell and to suffer. How often I have steeled myself to another difficult struggle with urban issues by remembering that Jesus came down from the mountain after the Transfiguration.

Sometimes, indeed, I wonder whether I couldn’t be more “spiritual” if I withdrew from the daily turmoil of my work as a public official. Then I remember how Jesus went up to Jerusalem to die, in all the confusion and crowds of Pass-over; how he was shuffled from one official to another in an endless mockery of fair process. No man of the city, he endured that for me, knowing it was in the city—not in Galilee or on the mountain top—that the victory must be won.

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The Sustaining Spirit

Our conviction of the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit gives us the courage not only to be faithful but to expect a deepening understanding of our calling. Jesus promised the Spirit would “lead us into all truth,” and we experience this as an ongoing process of sanctification and growth.

My own years of discipleship in public service have involved a continual evolution in my understanding of what educational justice requires and how it is best pursued. Many of the solutions that seemed to me clear and simple a decade ago now are far less self-evident, requiring qualification.

Some of us may be called to a “prophetic” ministry, but most of us are not. For every Amos to denounce social evil, the church—and the world it serves—needs a hundred Ezras to build up the community of faith, and a thousand Nehemiahs to rebuild the ruined cities. Most of us give our best witness not by what we say but by how we live and serve. That also is a work of the Holy Spirit; remember that God told Moses the craftsman Bezalel was “filled with the Spirit of God” to do his work (Exod. 31:3).

Graciousness To “All Flesh”

My fourth principle is the reality of God’s “common grace,” which causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust and creates the essential condition for our cooperation with nonbelievers in seeking the common good.

This is a delicate matter. Too often I have seen Christians concede their distinctive understanding of issues in order to maintain alliances of convenience with partners who, in fact, despised and used them. The social witness of the “mainstream” churches has too often fallen into this error, out of a sort of apologetic eagerness to please.

In avoiding that, however, we must not run to the opposite extreme. An exaggerated purity reflects a lack of confidence in the power of the gospel. Christians should be prepared to serve as honest partners and allies of non-Christians who share the same convictions about the demands of justice and love. We are not called to impose the distinctives of our faith, though it should be our daily prayer that they will come to be accepted voluntarily by all the world. Christianity is not imperialistic, but evangelistic. We need to help our nonbelieving allies understand the difference.

I have grown bolder, in recent years, about articulating the connection between my position on some aspect of my work and my convictions as a Christian. Several times, for example, when meeting with an urban school committee over some issue of educational justice for minority students, I have mentioned Jesus’ counsel about “coming to terms with your adversary before you are before the judge” in support of a negotiated solution.

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On one occasion a committee member approached me afterwards and said he had changed his position—and thereby swung the vote—because of what I had said. He figured if a “blankety-blank” state official could try to abide by what Jesus said, the school committee could do as much! Now, of course, I was using the gospel saying out of its context, but it was clear to him that I took the gospel seriously, and it opened the door to reconciliation and a peaceful solution to a serious problem.

In such situations, it is important that our certainty in Christ not be confused with the much lesser assurance that we are correct on a particular issue. Christians have no monopoly on ethical sensitivity, and more than once I have been put to shame by a non-Christian who has cut through my own calculations with a blunt insistence on doing what was obviously right.

God’S Cause And Effects

Belief in Christ will cause the Christian concerned with public service and public justice to have a modest view of his own favorite cause and program, knowing that we still bear about us the distorting marks of sin. It will, nevertheless, sustain a deep hopefulness about the final victory, based upon the assurance that it will be God’s alone and will not depend upon our power.

The work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian will be a continual source of growth and of new understanding of the demands of justice and love. Without any apology for or blurring of the radically different perspective that we have in Jesus Christ, the Christian will cooperate wholeheartedly with nonbelievers in doing what love and justice require.

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