A Christian in Public and Private
I recently walked past a small stone church downtown, not far from where I work. With its medieval architecture and weathered exterior, the church seemed out of place among the enormous buildings in the business district. I was disappointed to find a tall, padlocked iron gate encircling the church’s courtyard entrance.
It gave the appearance of separation, a distancing from the outside world. No doubt there may have been practical reasons for the church’s fence, but the abrupt division provides a disturbing metaphor for the way many Christians erect barriers between their faith and public life.
Having worked in Washington politics for over a decade, I find many of my Christian colleagues, most of whom would consider themselves progressives, often struggle to embrace or articulate their faith publicly. They are not alone in navigating the tension between fully living their faith while honoring the religious choices of others without judgment.
Religion in Abeyance
Many Christians confront this tension by projecting an agnostic facade, holding their own religious beliefs in abeyance while hoping to enhance their public profile as neutral and objective. They are reluctant to make an outward demonstration of faith for various reasons: They do not want to be accused of imposing their personal beliefs on others, or they fear being labeled judgmental or anti-intellectual. Wishing to ensure the comfort of others, some Christians lean toward extremes by avoiding any discussion of faith in the public square, choosing instead to conceal and compartmentalize their faith life as totally private.
Unfortunately, many progressive Christians selfpolice to such an extent that their values never penetrate the public dialogue about our country. But we cannot remain on the sidelines. Our silence and neutrality make us complicit in the social injustice and spiritual decay we see around us.
Coworkers with God
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King writes: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God and, without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of stagnation.”1
Christians are indeed called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, even in a pluralistic society. We must stir the moral consciousness of the nation while living in a loving manner that exemplifies the Christian faith.
This holds true particularly now in a political season of divisive, angry, hate-filled rhetoric. It is virtually impossible for me to reconcile those who identify as Christian with their support of candidates who promote racism and torture, excite religious and ethnic discord, and incite violence. This blurring of lines – this false witness – allows people to engage in pernicious behavior while still laying claim to Christianity.
Where is the public counternarrative of faith, hope, and love? I agree with the Apostle Paul that a spiritual conversion to Christianity should bring an outward manifestation of an inward change – a transformation that should be evident to all, beyond the church walls.
Proximity to Pain
I have served as a public interest attorney for nearly two decades, and in that time I have come to realize it is impossible to change the world without being proximate to the brokenness we seek to heal. We have to be intentional about walking alongside communities where there is suffering, injustice, poverty, and inequality. Proximity allows us to see, hear, and understand things that cannot be seen, heard, or understood from a distance. This closeness spurs mercy and compassion. We cannot get there when we build gates and fences around our spiritual life that insulate us from the difficult reality of life endured by the most vulnerable among us, people of differing races, ethnicities, cultures, and religions.
I am consciously working to live a life of faith that occupies both public and private spaces, while respecting those who are religious and those who are not. Throughout my career, I have worked with people from multiple faith traditions. As I have discovered, in these spaces we find commonality of purpose. Our moral compass is grounded in common values that inspire us to address the root causes of inequality in urban centers, compelling us to work together to protect those vulnerable citizens within the reach of our projects and influence.
I translate Christian teachings into this pluralistic setting. My faith informs my decisions, my actions, even my choice to pursue public interest work. I believe in an embodied faith – a faith that can no more be separated from my daily identity than the heart from the body.
I currently lead a coalition of advocates dedicated to improving outcomes for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. My faith fuels my passion to fight for kids. It colors my view of humanity, fairness, mercy, justice, and redemption. It leads me to believe that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”2 I am convinced that faith and public life are mutually beneficial and lead to better policy outcomes.
In truth, I see faith in the public square as an imperative. Without it, Christianity becomes distorted by religious fanatics and false witnesses who commandeer the public meaning of the faith. How can progressive Christians remain quiet when all around us we see the consequences of silence manifested in the form of oppression, discrimination, violence, genocide, religious intolerance, and war?
Silence is not an option. We must tear down our walls and tell our truth – one of love, justice, peace, and hope.
LaShawn Warren ’15 M.A.R. is vice president and general counsel for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. She previously served at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union. She also served as oversight counsel for the US House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, where she was lead counsel for the committee’s investigation into the enforcement of federal civil rights laws by US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
1 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from I Have A Dream: Writings & Speeches That Changed The World, edited by James M. Washington (HarperOne, 1992), p. 92.
2 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Speigel & Grau, 2014).