I went to middle school in a dilapidated building. We missed several days of school when the boiler burst. Mold was an ongoing problem. And we couldn’t use the trash barrels when it rained because we needed every garbage can in the building to catch leaks from the roof. (We had almost as many trash barrels as we had leaks, but not quite enough.) My school had some great teachers and it was part of a good school system, but the learning environment was far from ideal.
So, when I went back to my home town for Thanksgiving this year, I was glad to see that construction had started on a new middle school building.
“We had to vote to raise taxes so that the city could raise the money to build it,” a friend who is not a devout Christian told me. “I voted ‘no,’ because I don’t have any kids that go there any more.”
We use phrases like “civics,” “the public square,” “the civic arena,” “our political lives” and more. But they are all just basically fancy ways of describing the broad sets of activities and institutions members of a society use to manage their relationship to one another. A society could be a neighborhood, a club, a school, a town, a county, a state or a country. The activities and institutions can include elections for public office, campaign speeches, community forums, town hall meetings, ballot initiatives, debates, neighborhood watch groups, tenants associations, letters to the editor of a local paper, PTA meetings, or even just conversations between neighbors at a corner store.
There is room to disagree within the church about how to best organize our communities and what laws we should be working toward in the civic square, but the attitudes we display as we work toward those laws are important. The love we demonstrate or fail to demonstrate in our public lives matters greatly to the cause of Christ. The motives we embody as Christians get attributed by our neighbors to all Christians and even to Christ himself.
Every time we interact with the public square, we have choices to make about whose interests we are pursuing. We could look out for our own personal interest. This is what my friend mentioned pursuing when he decided that, because he would not benefit from the new school, he would vote against contributing to its construction. We could also look for opportunities to pursue mutual interest with others. The parents of another friend live within walking distance of the new school. Although they also no longer have school-aged children, constructing a new school would probably raise their property values, so voting for the new school would benefit them as well as the students. We also could look out for the interests of others. I’m sure that many of my old schoolmates voted in favor of the new building despite not having children because they remember what it was like to go to school in that building and don’t want other people to have to endure that.
Self-interest is not the only reason someone would vote “no” in a situation like the one described at the top of this article: Someone might have a fundamental objection to the idea of public education. The plans for the new school could seem unsafe. A voter may want to see a new school building tied to hiring a different set of school administrators. Or maybe it seems the bidding process for the construction contract was somehow corrupt.
But as people of faith in Christ, we must be careful to police ourselves and one another against the naked pursuit of self-interest in the public square. We bear the image of a God and the name of a King who divested himself of his own self-interest and died a criminal’s death for the sake of people who didn’t deserve his love. For the sake of following him, we are commanded by his apostles to do nothing out of selfish ambition, but to consider others more valuable than ourselves.
Among people who work in public service, citizens who use their votes to push their own interests have a nickname. They are called NIMBYs—short for “Not in my back yard!” NIMBYs stereotypically want the benefits of living in a well-structured society without taking part in the work required to make it function. A classic example that frustrates and disappoints city council members or congressional staffers throughout the country would be someone who wants their city to build a new water reservoir, but then raises angry objections when the city proposes putting it somewhere that would obstruct their view. They want the water, but they want the reservoir to go in someone else’s back yard.
Even without the gospel as our guidepost, something about the “NIMBY” mentality, about approaching the public square only for the sake of our own private interests, is deeply frustrating. But if we do that while also identifying ourselves as Christians, we risk sullying Christ’s name and making it harder for others to understand who he is.
Social media photo by Lisa Williams used under Creative Commons 2.0.