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“Christians and the Common Good” Book Review

Review of Christians and the Common Good, by Charles Gutenson (Brazos Press, 2011). 192 pages, $19.99.

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imageChristians and non-Christians alike have long debated the question, “What is the proper role of government?” Everyone has their own opinion, and Christians have varying interpretations of Scripture to support their viewpoints. Anarchists on the one hand say that God is the king of all, and so no human king (or state) can claim authority over another human being. Statists on the other hand defend government as specially “ordained” by God in the same way as the church or family, and thus have divine purposes for their existence. Most Christians fall somewhere in between with a nuanced position.

Charles Gutenson’s new book, Christians and the Common Good, seeks to ask perhaps a better question: “How does God intend for us to live together?” The author believes this question is broader than the narrow one about the role of government because it sets the stage for answers regarding our Christian witness, our relationships with others, and our participation in God’s intention for the world. How we answer this question has ramifications for more than just our personal beliefs about politics. It defines who we are as human beings and as a society.

Gutenson aims to clean up the sloppy biblical interpretation habits most Christians have when reading the Bible so that they can see how the Bible has much more to say about our public life than many Christians assume. The key to this understanding is to read what the Bible has to say about the character and nature of God while noticing that throughout the Scriptures God has intended for people to live out the application of God’s character.

Gutenson argues for three steps for us to discern what God intends for society: (1) examine the manner in which we read and understand Scripture, (2) maintain focus on the Scriptures as the foremost about who God is and what God is like, and (3) determine the implications of the divine nature so we can discern how to live together to God’s satisfaction. The rest of the book flows from these three steps, ending with some practical suggestions for public policy for those in the United States (though the suggestions could be similarly applied elsewhere). Preparing readers for what might seem radical, he reminds us that “a major reason for the increasing irrelevance of the church for today’s culture is the inability both to envision and to demand an alternative way of being in the world” (pg 18). Gutenson also warns us of the temptation for political power in both the left and the right. Both sides of the political aisle have grabbed power at the expense of others or have conflated the purpose of the Kingdom with the purpose of political entities.

On Reading Scripture

One of the biggest advantages of this book is Gutenson’s treatment of how we ought to read the Bible. Most Christians are conditioned to ignore the context of passages or trained to “mine Scripture” for little golden nuggets of truth to apply to our lives. What’s important, says Gutenson, is that we be trained to “appropriate the Bible holistically” (pg 27). Instead of focusing on more narrow definitions regarding salvation, Gutenson believes we have been led away from political concerns. When salvation is only about the individual, public concerns get pushed to the margins or are considered optional for followers of Jesus, when Jesus himself advocated strongly for those at the margins of society.

Gutenson uses a few examples of how many people have proof-texted the Bible and used it as evidence for their own political opinions. He explains how Romans 13 needs to be read in light of Romans 12, which explains how God expects humans to live together. While avoiding advocating that governments enforce Romans 12, he does explain that whatever form government takes it must serve God’s agenda. He also examines the oft-cited passage Luke 20:20-25 where Jesus says to “give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give unto God that which is God’s.” Gutenson rightly points out that nothing in this passage indicates that Jesus intended to guide us on how Christians should view public institutions. As a general rule, Gutenson warns us that we must “be cautious about concluding too much by reading more into the story than it will bear” (pg 33).

If we take Scripture seriously while allowing for differences between our culture and culture described in the Scriptures, Gutenson believes we can avoid some common errors. When applying Scripture, we must consider the following questions:

  • What is the underlying problem or opportunity that God is dealing with in giving this command to the people of that particular time?
  • Do similar problems or opportunities face us in our contemporary setting?
  • What role might public policies and institutions play in helping to resolve these problems or taking advantage of these opportunities?

Gutenson starts with the nature of God as indicative of how we ought to live together. The Trinitarian belief that God is three persons in one is probably the most dominant characteristic of God’s nature because it reveals the God who interacts with creation. God’s self-giving love embodies interdependence among the members of the trinity, specifically in God’s sending of the Son to heal the broken relationship between the world and God. The incarnation shows us what God is like, and reveals to us “how humanity, as God intended it, is to be and act” (pg 64). It is through Jesus that we see what God has intended for us as human beings, both personally and socially.

Biblical Vignettes

After spending nearly 80 pages exploring how we should read the Scriptures and laying some guidelines for how we discern implications for our public lives today, Gutenson comes to the biblical passages he feels gives us vignettes into the overarching narrative of Scripture. Gutenson explains God’s vision for humanity by touring the Bible from the beginning.

A few snippets:

  • Exodus 20 is a set of instructions for how our lives are to be lived together in a way that pleases God. Leviticus 19 shows God’s demands that neither rich nor poor get preferential legal treatment; all are to be treated “equally under the law.”
  • In Deuteronomy 15 God promises that there will be nobody in need among Israel when they have obeyed God’s intentions for living together.
  • Isaiah 10 warns us that lawmakers have a strong temptation to use their powers to slant the playing field, robbing the poor of their rights. It is an explicit recognition that institutional evil can be built into the laws governing a particular society.
  • Jeremiah 29 demonstrates the beginnings of God’s initiative for Israel to be a blessing to its former enemies by permitting it to intermarry with foreigners.
  • Ezekiel 16 reminds us that a special revelation from God (like Israel had) is not required for God to hold societies accountable to their obligation to hear the cry of the needy.
  • The entire book of Amos reminds us that “to be quiet in the midst of perverse societal structures is to effectively participate in the exploitation of those on the margins” (pg 102).

In the New Testament, Gutenson tours Matthew 5-7, 25, and 26, explaining to us that Jesus lives out God’s intention for us but also speaks out about what God’s expectations are. A classic text regarding the poor, Matthew 26, is discussed briefly. For those most inclined to believe that Jesus wasn’t interested in relieving the plight of the poor since they will “always be with us” (which is in a sense an everlasting statistical fact), Jesus intended to communicate that his followers are and would be the types of people who would always be among the poor, serving them and advocating for them.

When Gutenson comes to the apostolic letters, he gives special attention to 2 Corinthians 8:12-15, which says in part, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” This passage, Gutenson believes, implies that God intends for economic life to be structured so that wealth disparity does not grow too large. He then uses the book of James to demonstrate the link between faith and works, and more specifically, the tendency of rich people to feel threatened by those who are poor. Gutenson follows up with other passages, but these are sufficient to show where he is going.

His conclusions? Humans must be imitators of God, live in ways that embody self-giving love, and take seriously our obligation to use our resources for the benefit of others. He also concludes that governments are ordained by God, society can be judged by how well it cares for its most marginal members, and God intends for human economies to be structured so that there will be no poor.

With the exception of some of his conclusions, Christians sympathetic to the libertarian viewpoint will have minor quibbles with Gutenson, perhaps disagreeing on some details (Gutenson believes we are a liberal democracy) or on the interpretation of “ordained by God.” What cannot be denied is that the one story of God as revealed in the Scriptures has plenty to say about our public life together, and is not simply a book about individual salvation or eternal destinies.

Gutenson is right that God wants us to live together peacefully, in harmony, and in mutual interdependence. Gutenson does not, however, get into detail about the relationship between governments and society. We have the luxury in 21st century Western culture to assume that governments carry out the will of the people, and thus the question about living together in society is inextricably linked to the state that governs us. But it has not always been so throughout history. God’s intention for humanity may indeed be living together as Gutenson demonstrates. But it is neither explicit nor implied in Scripture that governments must be the mechanism by which people are encouraged to live this way.

Human Governance and Public Policy

Gutenson will have a bit of difficulty convincing libertarian Christians with his suggestions for public policy. He calls them suggestions in order to be careful to not prescribe exact policies as “the right ones” and because his purpose is to foster discussion on what it means to live out God’s desires for human relationships.

What will trouble many readers not automatically sympathetic to his political viewpoints is his belief that our governing structure is a “liberal democracy.” Last I checked, the founders of the United States established (for better or worse) a constitutional republic so that the United States would be a nation of laws governed by a document designed to protect people from tyranny and establish a “general welfare” with specific descriptions on how to do so (whether they were successful or not is another serious question). Remarkably, Gutenson doesn’t discuss at all how the Constitution of the United States relates to how we live together under God’s intentions. Ignoring the most obvious point about how our society is arranged cannot be a mistake. Gutenson, who clearly has spent much energy into the intersection of faith and politics, likely ignored the Constitution intentionally because most progressives would love to disabuse us of the notion of a constitutional republic.

A second troubling aspect of the book is his explicit statements that God’s intentions for government are outcome related. Art Carden has pointed out that “the important question in social science is not really evaluating the moral quality of the outcome, but evaluating the institutions that produce the outcome.” Gutenson does state, thankfully, “that when the powers fail to serve [a kingdom agenda], they become demonic and serve to be destructive of the very things they were created to serve” (pg 128). Yet while Gutenson makes no mention of the United States straying far from its constitution, many are calling it back to that “governing authority” (to cite Romans 13). Even if the Constitution isn’t one’s cup of tea, it doesn’t take too much examination to realize that the Federal Government of the United States has become an institution delivering far more evil than it does good. It should be critiqued and abandoned for social institutions that actually accomplish the agenda God has for the world. Putting faith in government only exacerbates social injustices when the institution itself is corrupt and unredeemable.

Gutenson warms my heart with statements like this about the voice the Church must have in society: “The role of the church is to just be the church, but in so doing the church should both embody and speak critique to the powers that have been corrupted and no longer serve a kingdom agenda” (pg 143). That is why I’m a libertarian! Jesus confronted the empire, showed an alternate way of living together, and demonstrated self-giving love. Implicit in the proclamation “Jesus is Lord” is the claim, “Caesar is NOT!”

Gutenson’s least-convincing chapter is the last. While not completely void of good suggestions, in it he proposes different policies that are supposed to encourage human beings to live together in a way God intends.

While the purpose of this review isn’t to rebut every suggestion made by Gutenson, it is important to realize that the most specific public policy suggestions explored below are ones based merely on good intentions. But policies cannot be backed by mere intentions. Not only must they actually work, they must also achieve their outcomes ethically. Some of Gutenson’s suggestions neither achieve their intended outcome nor demonstrate God’s intention for human beings. In some cases they run contrary to God’s intentions.

The progressive income tax, according to Gutenson, helps to prevent the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few and aims to ensure that taxes don’t prevent access to essential goods and services that the poor among us rely upon. Yet there is no explanation as to how a progressive income tax per se is what ensures such outcomes. The ethics of an income tax on the fruits of one’s labor is questionable, yet even if it were morally permissible, there is no reason to believe that living in mutual interdependent self-giving love requires more confiscation by the state from those who have been successful at producing goods for society. A flat tax can be considered “progressive” because the wealthy pay more because they produce more and make higher profits.

Social Security and Medicare are the sacred cows of the progressive movement. Gutenson cites Social Security’s “remarkable success” in “lifting the elderly out of poverty” (pg 155). Outcomes are dominant in this line of thinking. Little regard is given to the insolvency of both programs while the ethics involved in acquiring the money to redistribute are ignored. Whether we think taxation or redistribution is theft or not, Social Security is a legally authorized Ponzi scheme continued only by pandering to the fears of the people who have become dependent upon it. While the intention is for us to live together in a community of self-giving love, the result has been a society divided by the ones who feel unjustly “taken from” and those who feel entitled to something that is not their own.

Most importantly Social Security is nothing but a veneer of God’s desires for society when at its core it is neither social nor secure. If Christians are serious about ways that we can be mutually interdependent and live in a society that God intends for us, we ought to seek opportunities for such an outcome in ways that bring people closer together rather than allow or cause them to drift apart. The taxes I pay for Social Security do nothing to bring me closer to the elderly folks I’m supposedly helping. If anything it gives me more incentive to not have to care about them!

Minimum wage laws are probably the clearest example of a policy backed by good intentions that does precisely the opposite of that which it intends (even the original intentions of minimum wage laws are suspect). Christian economist Art Carden recently cited a study that shows that minimum wages laws disproportionately burdens young African Americans with unemployment. Carden writes of the minimum wage:

“I oppose minimum wages for a couple of reasons.  First and most obviously, they hurt the poor.  Second, the minimum wage is one of the most visible ways that the anti-economic way of thinking manifests itself in the policy arena.  If we are going to make policy that privileges the wants and needs of the least of these among us, then the minimum wage has to go.”

Carden provides his own sources for his claims here, here, here, and here, and endorses another here. If one is interested in social justice rather than social control, this is a good article.

Access to health care, it is proposed, should be available to all human beings regardless of their ability to pay for the services needed. Gutenson starts this section with “It is hard to imagine that God’s intentions that all should flourish could be satisfied without health care access” (pg 159). Perhaps this is so, and since there is no explicit mention of health care services in the Bible, it isn’t completely out of the picture that God’s intentions are for people to be living healthy lives. We must seriously consider this as part of God’s desire for society.

Yet access to health care, as Gutenson explains (and nobody denies), is expensive. Insurance companies deny claims based on “preexisting conditions.” The uninsured are charged higher rates at the doctor despite being unable to afford insurance. Whatever the injustices of the health care system, Gutenson fails to address the reasons behind why such injustices are prevalent. Regulation after regulation bars competition into just about every field of medicine from nursing to pharmaceuticals. Competition is virtually nonexistent, so prices do not fall. Government grants monopoly privileges to pharmaceutical companies through patents that last for years, while the FDA literally prevents experimental life-saving drugs to enter the market.

The government has distorted the health care industry in so many ways, it is no wonder that prices have soared while in industries like technology where there is virtually nonexistent intervention and regulations prices plummet. If we are to imagine a way to live as God intends, a state solution is the last mechanism that will actually accomplish this.

Estate and inheritance taxes are often justified by Christians as a modern-day application of the Years of Release and Years of Jubilee from the Old Testament. God’s intention is that there not be a permanently dispossessed class of people while the vast accumulation of wealth stays in the hands of a few. Gutenson claims there is nothing inherent about this particular application of those principles in the estate and inheritance taxes, but he misses the point of contention among those who disagree. First, the presumption that without such laws wealth continues to accumulate into the hands of the few is unfounded. Second, most anti-estate tax folks are against it for moral reasons. Third, it is an economically destructive tax that confiscates the fruits of those who have been productive and distributes it to a political class that has no incentive to allocate the capital or resources wisely, efficiently, or in a way God intends.

Another unintended consequence of the inheritance tax is that it unjustly removes capital and sometimes labor from the economy when the stewards of such wealth intend for it to be used for Kingdom purposes. In my corner of the world many entrepreneurs are using their capital to benefit the Kingdom of God around the globe. Not only do these businessmen have to waste energy prior to their death avoiding Uncle Sam from taking God’s money for another kingdom, after their death their wealth cannot be used for the Kingdom purposes God has intended for these entrepreneurs to carry out. The very people who intend to live out their own obligation to use their resources for the benefit of others are robbed from the opportunity to do so by those who have no intention nor incentive to use those resources wisely.

Monopolies are a favorite target of interventionists, and it’s ironic that Gutenson argues for legislation against monopolization of markets when the very reasons monopolies exist is government protection of business interests at the expense of others. What Gutenson claims is “undue market power” must be examined in light of the federal government’s granting of monopoly privileges. Anti-trust and anti-monopoly laws claim to prevent Big Business from harming “the little guy,” but they do nothing of the sort. The source of everlasting monopolies is government protection.

Even more ironic is that Gutenson seems to have no problem with an institution (government) that has a monopoly on the use of force to accomplish the ends by which he claims ought to be God’s intention for us as human beings. I’m anti-monopoly, too; but I apply this to governments as well.

Concluding Thoughts

I have focused plenty on some of the problematic suggestions Gutenson gives near the end of his book. I expected this before reading it, but what I didn’t expect was to nearly wholeheartedly endorse his guidelines for how we enter the biblical text and apply to our personal and public lives. Gutenson gently yet persuasively challenges the reader’s assumptions about Scripture in a writing style superior to most progressive Christian authors I’ve read. Most impressive is his clear and succinct way of exploring how Christians ought to engage culture and think about public life without using rhetoric filled with ideological passion that detracts from what he is saying. Gutenson aligns with God’s intentions for humanity and has done us a favor by exploring the relevant passages in Scripture that deal with God’s intention for humanity.

As I’ve suggested throughout this review, Gutenson fails to address some critical questions about the nature of states and the relationship between society and government. It is not a natural conclusion that “we” are the government, and thus whatever the government does it is acting on behalf of the people. To take seriously what God intends for our public life means we must define and understand what “we” means, whether or not that entails political action, and what (if any) relationship that has with the state. Gutenson doesn’t address these important questions, which may be disappointing for a libertarian reader.

Christians and the Common Good is an outstanding introduction to understanding the intentions of God through the narrative of Scripture. It gloriously dismisses faulty interpretive habits while challenging the assumptions about particular passages or precepts found in the Scriptures. When it comes to the biblical journey, Gutenson has written a wonderful book. But if we are to follow Gutenson’s own standard— “the best policies are ones that are consistent with the life of faith, satisfy God’s intentions, and actually work” (pg 146)—careful economic and historical examination will lead us to reject many of his policy suggestions.

Gutenson writes early in the book that Christians have become irrelevant to the culture because they’ve been unable to envision an alternative way of being in the world. Indeed, this is why the Christian anarchist might suggest that Gutenson reconsider his own theology of the state and society. John Maynard Keynes said, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

Imagining a world wholly different from our own indeed takes a radical vision. But advocating state-based solutions to social problems is neither imaginative nor radical.

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LCI posts articles representing a broad range of views from authors who identify as both Christian and libertarian. Of course, not everyone will agree with every article, and not every article represents an official position from LCI. Please direct any inquiries regarding the specifics of the article to the author. 

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