Our two-party, either-or framework has a tendency to infect the way we think about government and civic life, but it doesn't have to. There's room to be different.
In the latest episode of the Christian Civics Podcast, we spoke with Steve Park, founder of Little Lights Urban Ministries in Washington, DC. There was too much in the interview to unpack all in the podcast episode, so this is the first of a couple quick blog posts calling out some other ideas that Steve brought up that I think are worth mulling over.First, I want to pick up on something he said at the end of the interview that’s pretty important for Christian civic engagement pretty generally: Steve ended the interview by saying that Little Lights doesn’t want to become “just another social services organization.” They want to maintain their identity as a ministry. They want their faith to make them distinct.Each service that Little Lights offers is also offered by other organizations in DC. That’s a good thing—there’s more good work to be done in even the smallest of communities than any one person or group of people can reasonably do. But Little Lights, because of their Christian faith, want to offer those services in a distinct manner. Neighbors or city officials or possible donors shouldn’t look at Little Lights and be able to confuse it with any other organization that’s offering similar services.That’s also an important priority for Christians when it comes to politics, especially in a country like ours. Because we have a two-party political system, and because that system has so entangled itself into the way government works in so many parts of our country, it can also infect the way we think about government and politics and civic life. But it doesn’t have to. There’s room to be different. There’s room to not conform to the patterns of the world—even the patterns of the people or parties of the world who you might agree with.A Christian organization can offer the same kinds of job-training programs that a non-Christian organization is offering. But the Christian organization needs to let the light of Christ shine through them. Maybe that means being explicit about praying for their clients. Maybe it means that they treat their clients less like charity cases and more like they’re helping out their friends or family members—their clients are made in the image of God, so they deserve that respect. Maybe it means they are less willing to rush clients into jobs that aren’t a good fit. They’re not as desperate to goose their numbers.Similarly, you can be a Christian who thinks your town should outsource trash collection to a private company. And you can have a non-Christian neighbor who thinks the same thing. But people who have a conversation about trash collection with you and then a conversation about trash collection with your neighbor need to be able to see and hear and feel a difference.Your conversation needs to be more patient, more gracious, more hopeful, more loving and merciful. It’s what’s going to set you apart in a polarized age. It’s how we make sure we don’t conform to the patterns of the world. Right now, the pattern of the world is HATING the people who disagree with you, DESTROYING people who have a different idea. Letting the love of God dwell richly in you, living out the beatitudes, that’s going to set you apart right now.
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Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.