In the last edition of Together I suggested that Christian engagement with society should be so distinctive that the public is forced to ask ‘why’ we Christians act the way we do. Our behaviour (both what we do and the way we do it) should raise an eyebrow… it should prompt a question!
More than that, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that kingdom people should let our light shine before others, that people may see our good deeds, resulting in praise to the Father. (Matt 5:16)
The biblical concept of citizenship is a helpful metaphor for imagining what it looks like to live this way. When I was digging around in the archives of some statements we Baptists have made on past social issues, I came across some treasures! The extracts below are drawn from a very helpful statement on politics and citizenship. It says:
‘Christians have two allegiances. The first, Paul describes in Philippians 3:20: Our citizenship (politeum) is in heaven. But the second citizenship (poleteusthe) is very much earthly. Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27, NRSV). Nineteenth century preacher Dwight L. Moody put it succinctly: ‘Heaven is my home, but I vote in Cook County, Illinois.’
As I read this, I recalled a talk I heard from John Dickson at the Centre for Public Christianity, where he highlighted this word poleteusthe. In the NRSV it is translated ‘live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’. However, it could more literally be translated with the verb citizenise. ‘Citizenise’ worthy of the gospel. So, Paul’s call to the Philippians is to step into the world and live a life aligned with your kingdom citizenship.
The statement continues:
Politics raises a fundamental question for Christians about our earthly citizenship: How do we make our citizenship worthy of our Christian profession? Paul told the Philippians that their commitment to Christ would make them ‘shine as lights in the world’ (Philippians 2:15). But it is easier to say that we should shine like lights in the world than it is to know what that might mean.
Here Paul has picked up the same metaphor that Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount – our calling is to shine like lights in the world. Light that shines into darkness gets noticed. Again, when we citizenise into the world, our behaviour (both what we do and the way we do it) should raise an eyebrow… it should prompt a question!
An Opportunity to Shine
We are now well into the planning of a public engagement strategy for the Baptist Association. I’m facilitating the work of a Public Engagement Group who are seeking to better resource Baptists in NSW/ACT to engage more fruitfully and faithfully in society and culture. We are seeking to help this movement of churches to ‘citizenise’ more faithfully.
We’re not seeking to get noticed. Rather, we are seeking to faithfully embody our citizenship. However, we recognise that if we don’t get noticed, then perhaps we are doing something wrong. If there is nothing distinctive about our lives as followers of Jesus, then perhaps we are not faithfully living out our story.
One of the many things we have been discussing with this group is religious freedom. This is an area where Baptists have a rich heritage of citizenising.
In the early seventeenth century in the United Kingdom, at a time when church and state were deeply intertwined, and when people who professed a faith other than the state religion were persecuted, a man named Thomas Helwys took a stand for religious freedom.
Helwys was one of the first Baptists. He had fled to Amsterdam with the more well know Pastor John Smyth in 1607 because they feared their lives were in danger for being part of a non-state sanctioned church. While in exile, he wrote what is thought to be the first English book arguing for religious freedom. Helwys returned to England and in 1612 appealed to King James I to allow people freedom of religion. He was thrown into prison for his stance where he died a few years later.
Helwys is an example of what citizenising looks like. He imagined a different possibility, based on his understanding of the scriptures, that challenged the cultural norms of the day. He was willing to count the cost of embodying that different reality. Although he had an ardent Christian faith, he was willing to take a stand on behalf of people of other faiths and defend their rights, while bearing witness to Jesus as the reason for his stance. Today, we enjoy the freedom to choose what we believe because Helwys, and people like him, embodied the change they were seeking in the world.
The public engagement group have started work on a variety of issues. We see opportunities to engage and make a positive difference across a variety of areas including domestic violence, family and worker rights, refugees and asylum seekers, housing affordability, global poverty, indigenous inequality as well as religious freedom.
We’ve considered what is currently happening in churches and through our partner agencies like Baptist World Aid, Baptist care, The Sydney Alliance and Micah Challenge. We think we’re well placed to make a difference for the poor and marginalised on some of the issues.
However, we want – in fact we need – to hear from you. I want to invite you to join us in searching the scriptures, in seeking God in prayer, in wrestling together with what God might be saying to this generation in this culture. What are the things that restrict people from experiencing the fullness of life that God intends for them?
We have set up a survey at togethermagazine.com.au/publicengagementsurvey and would love it if you could visit the page and tell us what you think. Tell us what is important to you and what God has placed on your heart or mind.
More importantly, tell us what issues people in your communities are struggling with as you seek to serve them and show them the love of Christ. As Baptists we are deeply involved in our local communities. That gives us a distinctive voice in public conversations because we can help raise the voices, and profile the stories, of real people struggling with real issues in real communities.
Perhaps, as we imagine a different possibility, then embody that different possibility, we will shine like stars. If we do get noticed, we need to remember it is not about us! We’ll be asking the Spirit of God to open up opportunities for us to bear witness to Jesus, resulting in praise to our Father.
How can you get involved?
- Take 2 minutes to complete our online survey and tell us what social issues are most important to you and the people in your community togethermagazine.com.au/publicengagementsurvey
- Voices for Justice An excellent opportunity to speak up for and with the global poor and receive training in advocacy. Oct 10-13. www.micahchallenge.org.au
- Freedom 4 Faith Conference Learn more about the public discussion concerning religious freedom in Australia. www.freedomforfaith.org.au
If you have any other comments or questions, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org