The Essential and the Important
There are I think two aspects to our faith that we should keep in mind as we consider how to apply our faith to matters of public policy. They are the essential and the important.
The essential thing about Christianity is our belief in our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This IS the Gospel (which literally means Good News). Our belief in this good news is the faith that saves us. Our Risen Lord obliterates all that stands between us and an eternal relationship with the Father. On this essential matter than can be no disagreement among Christians. If you don’t believe this you simply aren’t a Christian. When we go into Sanctuary to worship and praise our Risen Lord and Savior there is not an inch of daylight separating us as Christians.
This is true even though the form of worship may differ by various traditions. It is true if you are worshipping in a free form Evangelical service or a more traditional liturgy, as found in the Catholic, Lutheran or Anglican denominations. This shared belief is true even though there may be differences in denominational practice or dogma. Regardless of whether you believe there are 2 Sacraments or 7; whether you believe the Eucharist embodies the real presence of Christ or is merely symbolic; whether your tradition practices infant or adult baptism, we are all unified by our belief that Christ died and is risen. It is THE central belief that unifies all Christians everywhere. It is this which is essential and upon which we do not disagree.
This is in contrast with the “merely” important. Important issues arise when we attempt to translate how we are to live out our belief in our Risen Lord. This is the realm of applied theology. This is the realm of politics and policy, social and cultural issues. Of course, these are important issues. They are the institutional means by which we treat one another and God has everything to say about that.
It is in this realm, however, that we will always face differences and disagreements. People of various backgrounds and experiences will bring vastly different perspectives to these issues and will reach vastly different conclusions about what policy is most compatible with the Gospel. The thing we must remember is that differing conclusions do not mean that the person holding those policy prescriptions are evil or unchristian. People of good faith and conscience can and will disagree.
The real threat to the Christian faith is not that people differ on matters of importance; the threat arises when people conflate the important with the essential. When people assume that important differences are essential they risk shattering the faith. Indeed, much of the often sad, violent history of the church is driven by just this impulse. It is a path we must not tread.
We must strive to continually separate the essential from the important. This does not mean we abandon those policy positions that we feel strongly about. We should be passionate in our beliefs and argue strenuously for those beliefs. We must, however, do so with love, patience and civility. We must presuppose the good faith and intentions of those with whom we disagree. There are, I think, three key reasons why this must be so.
First, to assume the good faith and intentions of our fellow Christians is itself Christ-like. Jesus warns us against assuming ill motives (MK 9:38-41). Jesus is willing to engage all sorts of people with all sorts of different perspectives and day to day beliefs. All He asks is an unyielding commitment to love God and your neighbor. To fail to heed this warning is to try to defeat people and not reach them and Jesus never attempts this. If this is the path we go down then we end the conversation before it ever begins and this helps no one.
Secondly, to assume another’s good faith and intentions is to open a dialogue in which you just might learn something. Life’s greatest learning opportunities can be found by engaging with people of differing positions. Even if you don’t change your position on an issue, just having to defend your current position and think about why you hold that view will educate you and make your thoughts clearer. If you end up changing your position then you have learned as well. There is no downside to engaging in this kind of dialogue, but it can only be done with civility and the assumption of good intentions.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly we should embrace a more generous attitude toward our political opponents because others are watching. There should be no doubt that the rest of the world watches how Christians conduct themselves in political and policy discussions. Just as surely as your neighbor notices whether you leave the house on Sunday to go to church. If others see Christians as unable to have an adult conversation of these types of issues why would they be attracted to find out more about the faith. On the other hand, if they see civility and generosity reign in these discussions they just might take a step or two closer to the Cross. A civil, adult conversation becomes a powerful tool for evangelization.
How awful would it be if someone seeking greater understanding of the faith was shut down because a current Christian did not think they had the “correct” position on some issue or other. Yet this happens all too often, sadly it even occurs among the clergy. It is beyond sad that we would risk turning someone away from Jesus because of a petty political difference rather than opening our arms to all who seek the Lord as Jesus Himself did.
In the end, we should keep in mind the advice of St. Augustine: “In fide, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas” (In faith unity, in doubtful matters liberty and in all things charity).
Praise Be to God