By: Kwabene Kalumbula
If asked to select a book most appropriate for the politically- and socially-conscious American Christian in 2020, Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler’s Compassion (&) Conviction would easily be my choice. It is premised on the idea that Christians should engage in politics but that our current political climate presses believers (1) to buy into a false dichotomy between moral order and social justice, (2) to inordinately align themselves with ideological tribes, and (3) to justify compromising their orthodox beliefs and values for the sake of political victories. To address this dilemma, the authors approach the topic of civic engagement with an informed perspective on American politics as well as with biblical authority and rootedness. Their message is that faith and politics can mix, and they boldly claim that “[through] successes and failures, study and practice—but mostly by applying Jesus’ teachings and sound biblical doctrine—[they have] developed a gospel-centered framework to help Christians reflect the compassion and conviction of Jesus Christ in the public square” (4).
The authors’ thesis is that “Christians can and should enter the public space and actively engage in politics and civics” (127). The rest of the book explains why this is true and how such engagement should be properly done. The first chapter, entitled “Christians (&) Politics”, discusses how Christians’ primary objective is to fulfill the Great Commission by professing the good news of the gospel through all the world (Matthew 28:16-20). Ultimately, believers must subordinate everything, including politics, to this Commission, for it proclaims that it is only through the power of Christ that the world can truly be redeemed. However, the authors go on to cite Micah 6:8 (the Great Requirement) and Matthew 22:39 (the Great Commandment) as necessary callings of the Christian life. In Micah 6, God’s people are called to “act justly” (some translations even exhort the reader to “do justice”), and in Matthew 22, believers are commanded to love God and love their neighbor (by which Jesus clearly means all people). Giboney, Wear, and Butler tell us that these calls are not meant to be passively held ideals but, rather, require believers to be actively just and loving, and they posit that engagement in politics is an excellent way to advocate for the betterment of society and the just and righteous treatment of one’s neighbor, thus fulfilling these biblical callings.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
Of course, this chapter offers a great why for faith-based civic engagement, but one naturally asks next about the how. The authors emphasize that the believer must put the gospel and Christian witness above political ends and, even further, they insist that politics must be approached with a framework of Christian values and beliefs as the standard rule for all activity. This gets messy when, as they point out, Americans are often forced to choose between two parties that frequently conflict with Christianity in both practice and philosophy. They write:
“[Those] on the right side of the political spectrum say they stand for individual freedom, patriotism, and moral order; the left, on the other hand, claims to stand for justice, equality, and inclusion. Conservatives say progressives are immoral because of their positions on abortion, religious liberty, and the like. Progressives say conservatives are bigoted and lack compassion when it comes to poverty, race, and gender.
“…Many Christians are conflicted because they believe in freedom, moral order, justice, equality, and inclusion. We want to protect the unborn and treat the poor and racial minorities with love and compassion. We also see the merit in the criticisms of each side. Yet because of how the issues are presented, Christians are told to either surrender their biblical convictions or neglect their Christlike compassion.” (39-40)
The solution offered by our authors is to uphold Christian witness, beliefs, and values by politically engaging with both truth (&) love, compassion (&) conviction. They do not urge Christians to avoid political parties, nor do they encourage one over the other. In fact, they explicitly state that believers can apply a Christian framework to political engagement and still come to different conclusions or land in different places. However, they offer warnings on several fronts. First, they warn the reader not to buy into rhetoric about political issues that is deceptive, pandering, and/or lacks nuance. This rhetoric is used by both parties to make Christians a political football as well as to wrongly convince them that they must wholly perceive the platform of one side as all bad and the other as all good. Second, they encourage Christians to be prudent in all partnerships. Whether these be with a party, an advocacy group, or some other entity, the authors discuss how believers should be grounded in their beliefs, educate themselves about the beliefs of their chosen allies for a given cause, and ensure that they do not get swept up with allies in an end contrary to their convictions. A final warning is to make sure that not only one’s ends but also one’s means are righteous. They reiterate that faith and values must be central and that it would be better to lose a political battle while avoiding derision of opponents or dishonest campaign practices than to win while compromising the faith that should be driving one’s actions.
Ultimately, Giboney, Wear, and Butler urge the believer to go out in the power of the gospel and use the tool of politics to bring about social good. With their expertise on the American political system and climate (all three have engaged in politics in their professional lives), they offer practical knowledge on what one can do to bring about change as well as wisdom on how to do so while remaining faithful to Christ. Throughout the entire book, Scripture is consistently employed to punctuate their points on love, justice, truth, and action. Their grounding in biblical truth on every point serves not only to support the relevance of Christian teaching in political issues but is also a living and tangible example of their exhortation to be faith-centered and to seek the glory of God in all one does.
I was personally struck by how principled the book was with its continual return to the Bible as well as by the partisan neutrality of the authors and the salience of their message to the current political climate and moment. We as a country have experienced increasing partisan polarization, three-and-a-half years of a divisive presidency, churches and Christian figures publicly choosing sides, and a summer of injustice, mistrust, and unrest. Many young Christians are feeling politically homeless—at a loss for how to pick sides in America’s duopoly and confused about how their faith and politics can rightly interact. Many others fall more clearly on a particular side but face the danger of compromising some subset of their beliefs and values in the process. I think this book is perfect for someone in either category (and, frankly, for many in-between) as both a framework for faithful engagement and a re-centering on God’s call for us to be the salt and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Reading this book filled me with the confidence to live out my faith in the civic sphere and granted me hope that Christian engagement in public discourse and action could be a model for civility and effectiveness if only marked by the love, truth, and humility of Christ.