No one is alone. The us is inescapable in all of what each person is.

Christians In the Public Eye

The Spirit at Work in Society

Home for the Seeking Spirit > A Public Faith

Public unity is a gift, a task, a duty. The alternative is death.

"We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions but through them. We never get to the bottom of our selves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning. All of our activity goes on in relationships, groups, associations, and communities ordered by institutional structures and interpreted by cultural patterns of meaning."
Robert Bellah and associates, *Habits Of the Heart*, (U Cal Press, 1983), p.84

BEING VIRTUAL (even when *off* the Internet)

When the church (following Plato) spoke of the Seven Virtues, it wasn't really talking about living by a set of rules. The Greek root word for 'virtue' has to do not with obedience, but excellence, being as good as one can be. Nowadays, there are bookshelves and even whole stores dedicated to personal and corporate excellence. Christian believers have good cause to celebrate this turn of events, because they've been working on excellence for thousands of years. It is in fact near the core of the Christian way of living a public life. Virtue is a way to love our neighbor. The first four of these virtues are 'secular' or public, that is, you don't have to believe in Christ to do them and do them well. Prudence means not traipsing off after the latest fad nor getting lost in the feelings of the moment, but instead being consistently thoughtful and selective. Fortitude is about the kind of courage which sees the task through till it is done, or which boldly weathers the storm. Temperance is about doing all things in moderation, instead of binging, splurging, and pigging out. Justice has to do with being fair and equitable, and creating situations which can benefit the whole society rather than only one or a few. Justice means we are to be fair in our own doings, and also (as far as we are able) to see to it that our society, laws, economy, media and culture are also geared for all and not the few. As more people live virtuously, their whole nation starts taking on a virtuous character.


A key passage on the Spirit from the Old Testament is also a key passage for showing the possibilities of acting with the Spirit in the society as a whole. In Ezekiel 37:1-14, the Spirit revives the dry bones, en masse. This episode in Ezekiel comes right after Ezekiel speaks of Israel's 'new heart' given by the Spirit ( Ezekiel 36:22-32). Note that in this passage, the new heart is that of a society, not a person! The Spirit acts within a community, a public, a nation, a people, as well as a person. Take note, ye spiritual navel-gazers !! Public life is not about you!

Zechariah 4:6 is about the rebuilding of the Temple during Persian times. It was a task not just of putting up a building, but of rebuilding the Judean society from the rubble of the Babylonian occupation. A new public realm had to be created for the Jewish people. A huge task, and not many people to do it with. Yet hear the voice of God, through the prophet: "This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel, saying, 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit', says the LORD of hosts." The same spirit of surrender and dependence on God which marks the devotional life is also needed for guiding our actions as we take part in the society around us.

"When humankind languishes in pain, let no one say, 'I shall return to my household, eat, drink, and be at peace'. No! Each one must be willing to suffer along with one's fellow human beings. Those who share the affliction of others will merit to behold the comforting of humanity."
the Talmud, Ta'anith 11a

What Not to Give a Neighbor

Sadly, some of those who exercise gifts in the church, whether those of teaching doctrine and of prophecy, or of official church leaders, have placed themselves at the service of something other than the Holy Spirit. Somehow, I can't think of the Constantinian church leadership or the succession of "bad popes", "owned popes" and "antipopes" in the Middle Ages as being in the Gospel train. They rather openly acted as if serving another god. Or the Crusaders who looted and destroyed so much along their way. Or the long chain of ministers teaching U.S. slaves how to be more fully enslaved, and the Lutheran teachers and preachers who filled the German public air with ethnic Aryan Nazi images. Or the "mainstream" Rwandan church leaders who urged their people into a hate-filled, murderous rampage. Each left their scars on the public. All of these had great skill and sharp knowledge, but used it purposefully against the Spirit. (In Scripture, sin against the Spirit is the one kind of sin which will remain unforgiven.)

In 1980s South Africa, for instance, many strange 'prophetic messages' were coming out of the leaders of certain Pentecostalist congregations. These 'messages' praised the white South African oppressive apartheid government, supported the creation of the fake Bantustans, and announced the furious wrath of God upon the 'heathen communists' of the African National Congress who were the main force working for the people's freedom. These manipulations could be seen through so easily that only a handful of fools believed it. These church leaders were intentionally aiding the continued oppression of the vast majority of the people, including many of their own members. They were keeping their society in chains, and poisoning the politics and culture of their nation. Similarly, several leading Pentecostalist groups in Central America used church events, evangelistic rallies, and campus cells to give out extreme right-wing propaganda. They provided a key "anti-Communist" network for the support of continued torture and suppression by the ruling land-owners.

When church leaders did this sort of thing, they rendered the witness of other Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal Christians un-believable, and gave full-bore support for the crooks, bigots, and murderers who were in power. I'm not telling you 'propaganda'. That's the way it really was, and sometimes still is. This has left many people with the (false) impression that Christianity is an enemy of the people.

This sort of thing is definitely not 'love', at least not as a follower of Christ or a reader of Scripture would understand it. The Devil has such a hard time faking justice because he hates it so much. God stands in solidarity with those who are being oppressed, not with the oppressor. God was with the slaves in Egypt, not with Pharaoh; Jesus was with the fishermen more than the financiers, and with the poor multitudes not the well-off high priests. Jesus' place is as the Crucified not the Crucifier. In the church's most basic ancient creed, Jesus, not Caesar or Fuhrer or Big Brother or you or anyone or anything else, is Lord. Lord not just of you, but of all of existence, including your nation. When Christians create excuses for societal-scale injustice, it's as if they had joined the crowds screaming "Crucify Him!!", or perhaps were among those who left their cloaks with Saul to throw rocks at the first martyr Stephen. The Christian's witness is that we love the world's people with the love of Christ. If you find yourself supporting or taking part in destruction, killing, and mayhem, Jesus bids you to rethink what you're doing.
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"No one is more alone than the selfish."
--- Archbishop Oscar Romero


The Old Testament records of the eras of the Judges and the Kings show something about the Spirit's operation within a society: the Spirit can create renewed unity and resolve.

Judges 3:7-11 provides a great example of this. The Spirit's also busy in Judges 6:33-35, Judges 11 and 1 Samuel 11:6-7. In other examples, the Spirit is not directly mentioned, but there is a pattern which infers how God is in action in the nation. The framework of the story is repeated time and again in the biblical Histories and Prophets:

  1. The Israelites turn toward other gods and start doing wicked things to each other;
  2. An outside enemy takes advantage of Israel's evil-induced weakness;
  3. The people call out to the real God;
  4. The Spirit of the LORD comes upon someone who will lead the people out of their distress;
  5. The people unite behind this Spirit-endowed leader;
  6. The enemy's oppressions are ended;
  7. The people's faith is reborn, and the LORD is worshipped once again -- at least for a while.

The people were scared. They felt powerless. By normal earthly standards, they were hopeless. Though there's no way to tell exactly how the change came about, it probably started as each Israelite household had to face some part of the oppression for itself, and found out just how useless idols and politics were in the face of such evil. As a people, they turned to the One who had rescued them in the past. They may or may not have had any idea that other households in Israelite society were making the same grim discovery and making the same turn. God was moved by this change of heart, and took action to end the suffering. God chose someone to lead them, giving that person the special gifts needed to accomplish the task. The leader's key and unique gift was for galvanizing the people into a people again, once again eager to act together as a unified public with a common identity and purpose.

Not that the leader was such a paragon of courage and devotion. Just because someone has a special gift of the Spirit for leadership doesn't make the person instantly bold, decisive, devout, or wise. The track record of the judges and the kings shows this in great detail. They were very human beings, open to sin and greed and lust and power cravings, fear and confusion and doubt. The miracle of new unity and purpose in a people wasn't the doing of those leaders. It was the work of the Spirit on a people, in part through a leader. In a sense, without the Spirit's work, they cease to be 'a people', they were becoming just persons losing themselves into other 'peoples'.

"We cannot answer the world's problems by adopting toward them an attitude either of surrender or escape. We can answer the world's problems only by changing these problems, by understanding them in a different perspective. What is required is a return on our part to that source of energy, in the deepest sense of the word.... What the Church brought into the world was not certain ideas applicable simply to human needs but first of all the truth, the righteousness, the joy of the Kingdom of God."
-------- Alexander Schmemann, *Liturgy and Eschatology*, Sobornost 7 (1985), p.13

This says something about Christ's followers as a 'society' of sorts, citizens of the Kingdom. But it also says something about the broader picture. When a nation turns to the true God and away from the stew they cooked up for themselves, God responds. I'm not talking about official adoption of a particular religion or cultic practice - that would miss the point. I am talking about something in the people themselves, in what they do and what they are. Look at us today. Instead of seeing ourselves as a people, we see ourselves in all our sub-groups. We even divide our 'individual' time, our thoughts and our loyalties (such as they are) into parts which don't really tie together -- a 'me' for work, a 'me' for church, other 'me's for my school or tennis club or gang or fraternity, and on and on. Each is increasingly its own little world, warring in some way with every other me. The 'me's do not make for a society that holds together. We look for public concepts to tie it together, friend or foe : the Red Menace, the Crown, the Constitution, the Battle For the Bible, the Great Satan, the Official Church, the Illuminati, Hegemonism, Nationalism, Separatism, Human Rights, Capitalism, the Great Society, Democracy, Pluralism, Anarchism, Freedom. As all-encompassing great public causes or as reasons to unite against enemies, these concepts fail more with every passing year. God didn't make a world which has one earthly center of power, affection, or attention, or one binding institution. Instead, God made countless such centers. God made a world where we are free not to be God's, or anyone else's. Those that are God's would have to live in the same world and neighborhood with those who choose not to be God's. Public identity, community, and sense of purpose are works of the Spirit. Yet the Spirit chooses to work through human beings, and in part through particular human beings, through the politics and policies they bring about.

When I look at all the conflicts in this world, open and sub-surface, I think of Christ. Christ had a way of turning the tables on the world -- and I don't just mean at the Temple. Christ stressed love, honesty, justice, diligence, active caring for others, and reconciliation. Christ made it clear that the relationship with one's neighbors was the key sign of the health of one's relationship with God (see especially Matthew 5:21-24). Our societies need Christ's kind of reconciliation more than ever. Paul was even able to speak of believers having a ministry of reconciliation. He set his ministry into the context of what Christ did in bringing us back together with God; thus, reaching people with the gospel message is the key aspect of this ministry of reconciliation. Yet, the other part of a reconciliation ministry is that Christ wants us all to live in solidarity with God and each other. The "each other" part moves reconciliation out of just the private sphere into the public, cultural, and societal arenas. A vision of public reconciliation may be the most important gift Christ's followers can give to the world and the political systems right now.

If that sounds complex, it is. But it is the message which the Judges and the Kings have for us. All social unity that's worthy of being called 'unity', whether for a whole society or within any groups in a society, is a gift from God which, like all gifts, is to be used to build each other up. Pray for it to come to your society.

"A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon."
--- G.K. Chesterton

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The Spirit uses even politics, public policy, and conflict.


"It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor's glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations -- these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit -- immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously -- no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner--no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat -- the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden."
-------- C.S. Lewis, *The Weight of Glory*.

"Nationalism is a form of speech that shouts, not merely so that it will be heard but so that it will believe itself. It is almost as if the quotient of crude historical fiction, violent moral exaggeration, and ludicrous caricature of the enemy is in direct proportion to the degree to which the speaker is himself aware that it is all really a pack of lies."
-------- Michael Ignatieff, as cited in *Context*, 05 Jan 1996

"I will not permit any man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him."
-------- Booker T. Washington

"We believe that salvation and social change cannot be separated from one another. We believe that God loved the world as a whole when he gave his only begotten son, Jesus Christ. We believe that the saving act of God is directed not only at individuals but at the whole creation. If the sin of Adam is responsible for corruption and evil in the world, if this original sin is responsible for the chaos in the world, for the wars and rumours of wars, for injustices and oppressive systems, for economic exploitation, then the saving act of Jesus must deal with this whole spectrum of the consequences of the original sin. It must deal with both the spiritual and the political socio-economic realities of the world in which we live."
-------- from "Evangelical Witness In South Africa" (Eerdmans, 1986), p. 36-37

Two thousand years of failure have not taught some reformers that you can't stop sin by declaring it illegal. Two thousand years have not taught them that you can't save a man's soul by force -- you can only lose your own in the attempt. Drunkenness and gambling and secularism and lechery -- various hopeful churchmen have earnestly tried to outlaw them all; and what is the result? A drunken nation, a gambling nation, a secularist nation, an adulterous nation. And, often, a ruined Church.
Joy Davidman, *Smoke on the Mountain*

"If your altar is merely a refuge, if it enables you to put your fingers in your ears to shut out the cries of the world, if it is a matter of private comfort, then you had better watch out ! It won't last ! The wind of God will come along and blow away that refuge. And the fire of God's love will burn and burn it, until there are not left even the ashes of regret."
-------- Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, cited in *Anglican Digest*, Pentecost 1995

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
-------- Abraham Lincoln

"There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is."
-------- Isaac Bashevis Singer

"The powerful always find it harder and harder to put up with resistance to their power; they become more and more capable of crushing all resistance, and so become more and more powerful.  ...This is true not only of individuals and commercial firms, but also of humanity as a whole, which has for several centuries been committed, because of its technological progress, to an escalation of power, spiralling inexorably upward. Will the whole adventure end in catastrophe?"
-------- Paul Tournier, in *The Violence Within*, transl. Edwin Hudson (Harper, 1978), p.155

You may have heard of these, on TV or in church or in UN or NGO (non-governmental organization) circles. A few of you may already be giving to these groups. But these are active organizations that were born out of the desire to give not just a handout but a hand, and they're out there doing it. Well, they need the same from you -- a hand more than a handout. (Though they need the money too, especially now, in the current recession.) They need you to be part of their network, a community of sorts. Try it.


  • Imagine yourself in a situation where the church or church leaders embraced their society's deep evils? (Some of you in this wide Web may actually be in such places !) What would be the main thing you do, and how would you do it?
  • What do you most have to offer the society, culture or nation you live in? Are you offering it, as a servant? If not, in what ways can you start doing so?
  • What is it like to be keenly aware of those around you as "immortal horrors" and "everlasting splendors"? (in the words of C.S. Lewis)?
    What is it that makes them so?
  • Notice the "collective" words used here: society, solidarity, life together, public. Can you think of other ways to describe what people are (or do) when they act together?
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ver.: 12 January 2012
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