What I wish Miroslav Volf had answered in A Public Faith

I had been waiting all summer for the release date of Miroslav Volf’s latest book, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Amidst the political debate in our country about the debt ceiling, whether the Bush tax cuts should be extended, whether or not the EPA should even be allowed to exist, etc, I wanted to hear how a prominent Christian theologian understood our responsibility as Christians to the common good. To me, that phrase “common good” has a very specific meaning. It has to do with the material well-being of our neighbors and the world around us considered independently of our efforts to draw people into the body of Christ. Should Christians support the common good for its own sake or should all of our efforts towards helping others in need be incorporated into our mission of building the kingdom of God? To some degree, the difference between mainline Christians and evangelicals hinges on their answer to that question (which I’m not sure how to answer). So I really wanted to hear how Volf would address it.

As I started flipping through each chapter of Volf’s book last week, I figured that he was carefully laying out the groundwork that would eventually build up to him unveiling his view on our relationship as Christians to the common good. And I waited. And waited. I was thinking that surely by the final chapter, he would tell us something that would indicate whether Christians should support our federal government’s programs that help poor people or if we should see these programs as competition for ministry that the church should be doing instead of the state. But Volf never got there. Instead his conclusion to the book dealt with with the abstract question of how Christians should “talk” about our faith in the public sphere, basically saying that we should respect other peoples’ faiths but speak the truth we believe about our own at the same time.

What I really want to know is how followers of Christ should serve the common good (i.e. the subtitle of Volf’s book). The way Volf framed his concerns in this book did not give me a clear answer to this question. I know that we’re supposed to help poor, vulnerable, and marginalized people. The Bible is unequivocal on that question in numerous places, such as Isaiah 58, Matthew 25, etc. The question is how that is supposed to take place. Does helping the poor necessarily translate into defending federal programs that are the legacy of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal? I’m not sure. In his sermon “On Visiting the Sick,” John Wesley called the rich people in his audience to task for wanting to give somebody else money to go and visit sick people on their behalf, explaining that half the point of their visit was to receive sanctification.

If you do not [visit the sick], you lose a means of grace; you lose an excellent means of increasing your thankfulness to God, who saves you from this pain and sickness, and continues your health and strength; as well as of increasing your sympathy with the afflicted, your benevolence, and all social affections. [III.2]

The reason why John Wesley calls visiting the sick a “means of grace” is because God transforms us in powerful ways when we spend time in intimate contact with people who are suffering. This sanctification only happens in the context of a personal encounter. So one could argue (in the ideological abstract) that “welfare-state” approaches to the common good rob Christians of opportunities for sanctification since what could otherwise be personal ministry opportunities are effectively outsourced to the government. Privileged middle-class people like me tend to have a stereotype in our minds about government bureaucracy being inherently impersonal; this is probably because the only government agencies we usually interact with are the DMV and the IRS. Thus we can’t imagine how anybody with any ounce of personality could possibly be part of a government agency that interfaces with poor people.

I found this presumption contradicted in my personal experience. As part of my work within the VA system as a chaplain in the summer of 2009, I met every week with government social workers who were very passionate and dedicated to their jobs and who dealt with far more complex pastoral situations than I have had to deal with in the church since their clientele were drug-addicted and mentally ill homeless veterans. They didn’t “give them handouts” or “enable them” or any of the other things that “government agencies” supposedly do according to the ideological narratives of Tea Party activists and like-minded folks. I saw these social workers engaging in very difficult tough love with people who were extremely hard to help. A few of the clients were successful, but it was such a fierce battle to get them onto the right road and “teach them how to use a fishing pole” instead of “just handing them a fish” (I saw nothing remotely resembling the latter in my work with these social workers).

So when politicians talk about cutting “wasteful government bureaucracy,” are they talking about laying off social workers who help homeless veterans get back on their feet and become productive participants in society? (Of course, some people bracket aside veterans since they’re military and they don’t mind the idea of the federal government paying for anything related to the military.) What about homeless schizophrenics who were never part of the military? They need an immense amount of intervention and structured programming to get the medicine and counseling they need to fight the almost impossibly uphill battle towards having a normal, self-sufficient life if that’s even possible. That costs a lot of money. Should the state help them? Or should churches start hiring social workers (perhaps three social workers for each pastor that we have on staff) to address this need ourselves?

It’s very easy to talk about the question of the common good in the ideological abstract and conclude that the church shouldn’t let the state take over its work. I must admit there’s something attractive about the basic Tea Party ethos (“We can help people ourselves better than the government can”). It’s much more existentially satisfying to live in a world where we can do it ourselves than a world where we call the experts to fix the problem. The question is whether this existential chest-thumping is hopelessly naive or not.

If our society shifts away from the Great Society paradigm for addressing the common good into something more localized and organic, Christians will have no choice but to be radically more committed disciples. Tokenistic semi-annual mission projects will be so much more obviously inadequate in the face of the need that we will have to address. But will we really have to face the needs that arise or will this suffering be safely hidden from our view on the other side of the tracks, the river, the Interstate, or whatever other boundary separates the marginalized from “us”?

I’m not sure that the middle-class Christians in our society who are completely consumed today by the pursuits of their nuclear families are ready to give four times as much money and time to their churches so that their ministries could actually do the work that is currently being done by “government bureaucracy.” It’s so much easier to sit back and throw ideological darts than to actually roll up your sleeves and make the world look different. In any case, I really don’t know what our attitude should be about serving the common good. Is it better that the government continue to do what no other entity in our society is willing or able to do? Or do we trust that if the government stops doing it, Christians will recognize the opportunity of a lifetime and step up despite having repeatedly failed to do so before? I wish Miroslav Volf had given me some insight on how to think about this question.

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