What makes a civics course “Christian”? While there are an infinite number of ways in which a teacher might approach such a course, it’s fair to assume that any civics course that bears the label “Christian” would have at least some interest in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
I would go further and contend that the first question of a Christ-centered course on civics is not “What work should Christians do in civic and political life?” but “What work has Christ already done?” and “What, where, why, and how is Christ doing this work in our civic and political life?” After all, if a Christian student knows what Christ is up to in the public square, they might have a sense of what it means to follow him when they get there themselves.
if a Christian student knows what Christ is up to in the public square, they might have a sense of what it means to follow him when they get there themselves.
In recent years a wide variety of biblical scholars and theologians have made the case that the life, teachings, and work of Jesus is positively shot through with the concept and command of hospitality. Throughout the Gospels, readers find the virtue of hospitality featured prominently in the discussions of meals and tables, insiders and outsiders, hosts and guests. And the climax of the gospel story is centered most importantly in Christ’s dramatic act of hospitality on the cross.
Hospitality, these scholars argue, is not limited to the second person of the Trinity or the gospel stories. From Genesis to Revelation Scripture reveals—again and again—that the God of Israel is a unique sort of deity, one particularly concerned with acts of hospitality. In the Old Testament, Yahweh is a divine being whose nature and work is marked by a predilection for spacemaking for his people and his creation.
For some readers, the word “hospitality” might conjure the image of a polite Victorian gathering around a spot of tea, cake, and jam. This is far from the tenor of hospitality the God of Israel displays. Yahweh’s hospitality in Scripture is often dramatic, unexpected, terrible, expansive, beautiful, and costly. It is the sort of divine spacemaking that opens the expanses of skies and seas, fills them with thunderous swarms of birds and fish. One that decorates the hills with mighty oaks and sequoias and flings nebulas and galaxies into the night skies. It is the sort of divine hospitality that parts the Red Sea for fleeing slaves and crushes their oppressors under its waves. It is the sort of hospitality that bids the hungry, orphan, foreigner, and widow to come into the camp to find justice, provision, and protection. It’s the sort of hospitality that welcomes prodigal sons and daughters home with joyful tears, a strong embrace, and a large feast. It’s the sort of hospitality that responds to wounded enemies with a healing hand and makes space for rebels through a violent death on a cross.
It is the sort of hospitality that bids the hungry, orphan, foreigner, and widow to come into the camp to find justice, provision, and protection.
It’s my contention that this is the sort of hospitality that should form the orienting center of any Christian approach to civics education. In a political environment that is anything but hospitable, young Christian citizens need to be equipped to create political spaces that protect, liberate, and care in the way of Jesus.
After all, what is political action but a spacemaking endeavor? Citizens and representatives, unions and judges, governors and administrators, political parties and pundits—who are these political actors but creators of political spaces? Each and every one of these agents are engaged in spacemaking questions. Who is in and who is out? Who will receive what, when, and why? Where will things be placed? Who will be invited to the table? How, where, and why will things be distributed to the guests? Politics is the organization of the public space. It is, at its core, a spacemaking enterprise.
If politics is a spacemaking endeavor, it would be wise for Christian students and educators alike to consider God’s posture toward the act of spacemaking. With that in mind, let’s take a brief tour through God’s hospitality in Scripture and consider a few potential implications for a Christian school course around civics and political life.
In the creation narrative, God is revealed first and foremost as a deity who—quite literally—makes space. Yahweh creates the spaces of heaven and earth, skies and seas, mountains and valleys. God creates these spaces not simply for God’s self, but for his creatures—the stars and planets, the fish and the animals, and ultimately for humans. In all of this Yahweh is revealed as a strange sort of deity—one who, out of nothing, generously “makes room” for others. God makes this space not out of a sense of personal need, but out of a sense of personal abundance. God’s very self is filled and animated by a joyful desire to share spaces with his creation and his creatures.
Similarly, citizens who wish to walk in the ways of the Lord have a responsibility to lead with an abundant and generous mindset toward their fellow citizens.
Here a civics class might consider the political ethics of abundance and space sharing. Rather than grasping, hoarding, and controlling creation, God delights in sharing creation with a sense of gratuitous abundance. God takes delight in offering space to others. Similarly, citizens who wish to walk in the ways of the Lord have a responsibility to lead with an abundant and generous mindset toward their fellow citizens. They endeavor to share and offer political space to others for others’ flourishing, not simply their own. All citizens should have access to the beauty and abundance of creation. Creation is not for hoarding and grasping but for sharing, care, community, and delight. When read with care, the Genesis story has important political and civic implications. It does not simply tell us how God creates space; it tells us how we who bear his image should create space as well. The human creation of political space should be an act of generosity, care, and relationship, not division and dominance.
Dr. Matthew Kaemingk teaches Christian ethics and public theology at Fuller Seminary where he serves as the Richard John Mouw Associate Professor of Faith and Public Life.