Public Faith in Action:
How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity
Miroslav Volf and
The rancor surrounding this year’s presidential election is enough to make even the most long-suffering Christian cry, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” At the same time, we are here now and need to know how to live faithfully. Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity offers thoughtful possibilities.
The book by Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz “explores what kind of virtues and commitments should inform the public engagement of the followers of Christ” (x). That a Christian should engage in public life is taken for granted by the authors:
Christian faith has an inalienable public dimension. Christians aren’t Christ’s followers just in their private and communal lives; they are Christ’s followers in their public and political lives as well. (3)
Public Faith in Action has three parts. Part 1, “Commitments,” centers on theological convictions like Jesus as ruler over all domains of life, the importance of human flourishing, and the need for wise contextualization across time, cultures, and political systems.
But the authors also recognize:
Faithful public engagement, however, requires more than just a set of virtues, a Christlike character. Whenever we act in public we are engaged with something: a question, an issue, a crisis, a cultural trend. Followers of Christ must reflect on what their faith entails with respect to these particular issues. (26)
In Part 2 (“Convictions”), then, they address 17 areas of political concern for disciples of Jesus: wealth, the environment, education, work and rest, poverty, borrowing and lending, marriage and family, new life, health and sickness, aging life, ending life, migration, policing, punishment, war, torture, and freedom of religion (“and irreligion,” they say).
The authors do a good job of clearly defining concepts. Wealth, for example, is not just money or stuff. “Wealth is rather all the goods of creation, tangible and intangible, possessed individually or in common” (33). (Bonus points: they list U2’s Joshua Tree as an example of available wealth.) But if we can create wealth, we can distort it, too. So Volf and McAnnAlly-Linz ask probing questions like, “Are we creating wealth without relying on exploitation or oppression?” (35) And they recognize the room for debate around questions like, “What level of material wealth is sufficient for a flourishing human life?” (36)
This ability to frame issues while acknowledging room for debate among committed Christians is a strength of the book. About poverty (chapter 8), they note, “From a Christian perspective, there is no room for debate about whether our societies should care for the poor” (73). What this should look like, however, is another matter: “What are the proper roles of governments, civic organizations, religious communities, and individuals in addressing poverty and caring well for the poor?” (73) Individuals and small groups working through this book will be well poised to have informed and fruitful discussions.
Part 3, “Character,” speaks to the virtues Christians ought to exhibit when engaged in political life (xii). Five are especially in view: courage, humility, justice, respect, and compassion. The authors beautifully cast courage as inextricably tied to love: “Love isn’t just the goal of courage; it is also its source” (179).
In an election with unprecedented utterances (sins of commission and omission) coming from certain candidates, especially relevant is this insight: “We need courage when our communities are hardly even considering important convictions that ought to be guiding them” (180). As with much of what’s here, likely no reader will disagree with wanting to cultivate the virtue of courage; how exactly and in what circumstances to enact it are open for discussion.
Each chapter ends with “Resources for Further Reflection,” a short, annotated bibliography that helpfully includes suggestions for both “Introductory Reading” and “Advanced Study.”
Through concise but substantive exploration of commitments, convictions (i.e., ‘the issues’), and character, Volf and McAnnally-Linz offer Christians biblical grounding, thoughtful framing, and practical postures to carry into the public sphere. As I’ve co-taught an adult Sunday school course this fall around similar themes, I’ve found Public Faith in Action to be a constant and valuable resource to better help me understand my role as a disciple of Jesus in political life.