While there is still a little over a year before the formal election day takes place in November 2024 for American voters, we can already feel the approaching political season heating up. For many of us, this may trigger a knot of anxiety in our stomachs and call to mind previous election controversies and political conflicts, tense Thanksgiving Day family conversations, and awkward-to-ugly interactions on social media. Thinking about how to better prepare our students and future citizens now for the political storms coming next year may feel a bit like planting trees in May to give us shade in July. But we have to start somewhere, and there will be many more hot Julys to come. In what follows, I describe four insights that help explain the importance of Christian civic hospitality and why we should practice it such that it becomes an ingrained virtue for us as individuals and groups.
Thinking about how to better prepare our students and future citizens now for the political storms coming next year may feel a bit like planting trees in May to give us shade in July.
First, while it feels like the last few years have been rather rough on the civility front, differences, disagreements, and polarization are not new, nor are they going away. As the smash hit musical Hamilton reminds us, it was only a few years into the American political experiment that a sitting vice president shot and killed the country’s first treasury secretary. For Christians, the political debates and divides go back to the very beginning of our faith. Jesus did teach that we are to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Mark 12:13–17), and Paul and Peter instruct us to honor political authorities (Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2:17). At the same time, we know our citizenship in God’s kingdom far outweighs any claims from merely human authorities. We long for a “better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16), and if human authorities demand that we compromise our faith, like the apostles, we “must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). Christians have been wrestling with how to engage the political for well for over two thousand years, sometimes as a minority amid a dominant non-Christian culture, other times as the majority, and at still other times somewhere in between.
Politics is inevitably about how different people live well together, but given human finitude (our knowledge is limited) and human fallenness (we are selfish by nature), we don’t always agree on what living well together looks like. Even when we do agree, we have a hard time doing it. On this side of eternity, we will always wrestle with how to live together, and we will never completely get it right. In fact, this reality is what makes civic hospitality so necessary. One perennial temptation in the face of stubborn differences is to fence off our common living space from those who are different. Christian hospitality makes possible a different posture by acknowledging genuine (and at times difficult!) differences but equipping us to make space for others, following the God who in his grace has made space for us.
On this side of eternity, we will always wrestle with how to live together, and we will never completely get it right.
Commonality and Difference
Second, Christians should acknowledge the sometimes perplexing dynamic of our fundamental commonality with our neighbors who don’t share our faith and the radical differences between us. Simply, as human beings we have a common nature insofar as God has created all of us in his image. There are many shared goods—think sanitation, education, nutrition, security—that every human being needs in order to flourish and that every political order should provide or make possible. At the same time, as Christians, we are citizens first of a different kingdom (Heb. 11:14–16), a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). Some of our beliefs and practices will, and should, raise eyebrows, though hopefully for good reasons rather than bad (Matt. 5:16). This combination of commonality and difference makes sharing our common spaces both challenging and rewarding. It is challenging because we must work to charitably understand where others are coming from while living out the particular callings we have as Christians. God’s call for us to extend hospitality to others is a specifically Christian duty to love others beyond the more comfortable confines of our Christian community. In this way, hospitality is a sort of bridge between the particular (Christian) and the common (all human beings as image bearers).
It is challenging because we must work to charitably understand where others are coming from while living out the particular callings we have as Christians.
Rational, Emotional, and Relational Human Nature
Third, our human nature matters for how we learn, and there is no non-learning option. As human beings we are rational creatures. But we are not just that. We are also emotional creatures, for whom the heart matters as well as the head.
Micah Watson is Paul Henry Professor of Christianity and Politics at Calvin University where he directs the Henry Institute and teaches political science. He and his wife, Julie, make their home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with their five children.