Exile and Political Engagement: Justice and Advocacy

This post is part of a series (Post 1: Introduction and OutlinePost 2: Four Key Principles for Christian Political EngagementPost 3: Submission and TaxesPost 4: Government Service)

Seeking justice for self and others through advocacy

One of the most important roles of the civil government is in providing basic justice to its citizens, but sometimes that justice is not forthcoming. In those instances, political engagement entails advocating for justice, either for yourself or for others.

This idea (that we should advocate for justice for ourselves and for others) is based primarily on the principles that (1) the civil government is a means of limited justice and (2) that we should engage in the political process in order to show love to our neighbors. There are two main biblical examples of this worth highlighting. One is the life of Paul. Paul was regularly imprisoned and, though he accepted his imprisonment as an opportunity to suffer for the sake of Christ, he also advocated for his own well-being. For instance, he made it publicly known that he was a Roman citizen and was therefore due treatment as such (see Romans 16:37-38).

Esther provides the other example. When Haman had set up a plot to kill the Jews, Esther was persuaded to intervene. Mordecai rightly recognized that she had been placed in her present position before the king “for such a time as this” and so, when she had the opportunity, she advocated for justice on behalf of the Jews, exposing Haman in the process (see Esther 7:3-6). The result was that the foreign government was encouraged to function in a more just manner.

Christians should feel free to use the given judicial system to advocate for their own and others justice. Granted Paul discourages Christians from bring lawsuits against one another in the church (1 Corinthians 6:1-11) but that was more an indictment of the failure of believers to judge amongst themselves than it was of the civil judicial system.

Christians should also feel free, and perhaps even obligated in the same way that Esther was obligated, to advocate for justice on others behalf, either through the judicial or political process. Public advocacy for groups being denied justice, or advocacy against laws that are patently unjust, is valid and Christian behavior. This could take the form of non-violent protests (like those done during the civil rights movement, or the anti-abortion protests of today) or by attempting to formulate policy, establish just laws, and remove unjust laws (like in the case of the efforts of William Wilberforce to abolish slavery), or raising awareness of a particular issue (like recent efforts to raise awareness of world wide slavery).

But there are serious dangers and limitations here. In advocacy it can become easy to demonize opponents, fudge the facts in order to make a case, or set up false dichotomies which polarize an issue instead of finding common ground. Popular public advocates could become drawn to idolize their cause, prioritize their cause over the cause of the gospel, or simply see Christianity as a means towards seeking some human conceptions of justice. We also need to be realistic about just how far common grace can go in a world hostile to the gospel. It is reasonable to expect common grace that allows nonbelievers to see that first degree murder is wrong. But the idea that a human gets personal rights at the time of conception is a harder sell apart from an agreement on special revelation. Finally, we must be realistic about the extent to which the effects of the Fall can be rolled back by advocating for public justice. The brokenness of the world is intractable apart from the work of the gospel and no amount of appealing to basic principles of goodness or virtue will be able to usher in a golden age for Christianity. We must always remember that our hope cannot be in human authorities, but only in the authority of Christ.

Finally, while political advocacy can be a good way of demonstrating love for neighbor, Christians need to be careful to demonstrate practical love to those with whom we have direct contact. There is a certain hypocrisy in advocating against abortion but not being willing to provide material and emotional support for women in need. Likewise, there is a certain hypocrisy in speaking boldly about caring immigrants who live far away, without actually being willing to be a good neighbor to the immigrant living next door. It’s easy to tell someone else to provide justice for another group, and its not wrong to, but the Christian must also be willing to love those who are closest to them and in their direct sphere of influence.