I’m Bill Haslam, and this is how I’m living deeply.
I was governor of Tennessee for two terms -mayor of Knoxville two terms before that- and then suddenly I was done. And it’s not one of those jobs where you have a gradual handoff. You’re literally governor one second, then they swear in somebody, and the next second you’re gone. It’s been more than four years out of office now. Crissy and I have spent a significant part of that time trying to figure out, ‘What does God have for us in this next stage of life?’ One area where He’s consistently teaching me and where I sense He’s called us is shaping how we as Christians engage in the public square. Here’s what I mean: In the country’s current mood of political discourse, where we’re at each other’s throats, I just firmly believe Christians should be part of – and really be! – THE answer to that instead of part of the problem. And I don’t mean just people who run for office. So we’re trying to be a part of that and say, ‘What’s it look like for Christians to engage in the public square?’ As believers, we should all be engaged in what’s happening locally, on the state level, and nationally. We’re supposed to be the ones serving as salt and light in these conversations! But, in general, the Church (capital C, not Cedar Springs) has done a horrible job of spiritual formation in this area. We’re just as likely as non-believers to be, not only NOT loving those we may consider ‘enemies,’ but to be hating on and writing nasty tweets about our ‘enemies!’ This concern runs so deep it’s prompted me to write a book (titled Faithful Presence, released almost two years ago) and co-host a podcast (called You Might Be Right; it launched last year) with Phil Bredesen, who was governor right before me and doesn’t share my party affiliation. I think we as Christians have to go back and ask, ‘Who has God called us to be?’ and not say, ‘Oh, that’s circumstantial.’ If He’s called us to be salt and light, to be people of truth, of humility, of kindness, of compassion, then that is true period. It’s not like ‘Well, that’s only true if certain circumstances are in place.’
Our literal model is Jesus, who didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped, but humbled Himself and came as a child. Every time we humble ourselves, we become a little more like Jesus. So we have to start with that when we’re engaging in the public square. We have to ask, ‘Is my vehemence and stridence on this issue about me?’ Frequently it is. Now some people will say, ‘No, no, it’s not about that. It’s about this cause that I think really matters.’ There’s nothing wrong with that passion- Jesus went into the temple and flipped over the tables because of His passion for what the temple should be and should not be! So that holy passion is really good. Where I think it goes wrong is when we justify our actions by saying the stakes are so high- like this issue matters so much to my family, my community, my nation- that therefore the folks on the other side really are the enemy and I can treat them as the enemy. I just don’t think the Bible ever gives us the freedom to do that. We never get to say, ‘Those folks are the bad guys.’ As our former pastor at CSPC said, ‘We serve a God who came to let the bad guys kill Him, not to kill the bad guys.’ Now we’re not called to play the role of Jesus and let the ‘bad’ guys ‘kill’ us- Jesus’s death had a different purpose. But there is an overarching point there: That this story is not about us ‘winning,’ about ‘my side’ winning; no matter how righteous my cause is. The story is about trying to get the best answer to help serve this world that God so loved that He sent His only Son. How did I approach all this in my public life? The honest answer: not easily, and not always very well. I’d get engaged in some issue that we thought was important enough to work on, to battle for, et cetera, and then it would become easy to look at the folks on the other side as the bad guys. That’s one reason writing the book was so good for me- it was humbling. You’re kind of like, ‘Oh crud. Now I’ve actually got to act like that.’ So I know it’s not easy, but I also know it is important.
So what does better Christian engagement in public policy look like? First, a humble awareness of our fallen nature- that deep and distorting brokenness all people share. If it’s 10:00 in the morning, I know I’ve already messed up 1,752 times just that day (and that’s if Crissy isn’t helping me count)! So what makes me think I would always be right in my perspective on difficult issues? Humility says, ‘I don’t get anything in my life totally right, so I might not have this exactly right.’ Second is the idea that ‘the enemy’ will never be fellow struggling humans who are fallen just like me. The Enemy is the Evil One who seeks to rob us of life. Third, some people’s reaction is, ‘I’m over it all. This world is a place with no continuing city. Therefore I’m going to check out in terms of making it better.’ I don’t think that’s what God’s called us to, either. We’re not abandoning truth and goodness. The folks on the other side of the issue aren’t the enemy, yet we do still have this responsibility to pursue the truth. BUT for believers, there’s a really big condition: We’re supposed to speak that truth with love and we’re supposed to pursue justice with mercy. And we have the only model in the history of forever who’s shown how to do both at the same time- truth & love, mercy & justice. The beauty of the cross is that we saw truth & justice –something had to be done about the sinfulness of man- and love & mercy in God sending His own Son; we see those together. It’s hard for us to live that out all the time, but we do have a model and a Spirit who actually delights to empower it. In a world that’s chosen the ‘or’- truth OR love, justice OR mercy- we’re ‘and’ people. If I have a future in public life, that’ll continue to be my vision. I do believe deeply in the impact you can have serving in public office, which doesn’t necessarily have to mean elected public office. If I don’t ever get to serve in some public way again, I’ll be a little sad about that. But God could easily be saying, ‘You know, I gave you two really good turns at bat. I have something else in mind now.’ I’ll share more of how He’s at work in me next week.