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The Call to Citizenship and the Freedom to Flourish

Freedom to Flourish: Vocation, Calling, Identity and Faith.
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Posted November 19, 2019

A paper for the Thought Matters Conference, 23-25 August 2019 by Ian Hutson

The Call to Citizenship and the Freedom to Flourish

This paper emphasises the need to see human flourishing as inextricably linked to community. The claim is that to the extent that we have strong resilient communities and nations we will see individuals and families flourish. Accepting an analysis of this nature as true has implications around citizenship and discipleship. As a consequence, a Christian as a disciple must surely see active and involved citizenship, outside and beyond the Church, as an important part of the out working of their calling, vocation, identity and faith.

The paper will emphasise the concept that people cannot find identity or flourish outside of community and will seek to establish why a calling to fulfil the role of an active involved citizen, within and distinct from defined Church mission, is a necessary part of the outworking of our faith and calling.

1. People Cannot Flourish Outside of Community

Often when we in the Western world discuss the idea of people flourishing and concepts related to calling, identity, vocation and faith, we do so through an individualistic lens. When we hear “for I know the plans I have for you, ”declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,”[1] we tend to think about our own individual wellbeing. However, as Richards and O’Brien indicate, this reading relates to Israel’s captivity in Babylon and a promise for a people in exile to return. A nation in exile. It isn’t all about me. Western or “North American Christians tend to read every blessing, as if it necessarily applies to us – to each of us and all individually.”[2]

This individualistic lens through which we gaze tends to locate all the blockages and all the remedies for the maladies that afflict our societies as something that must be solved at an individual level. The will of God is centred on me and my life. This kind of perspective is very much supported and even driven by the neo-liberal economic theory that is now so pervasive that most of us breathe it in and act on it without even knowing we are doing so. The market is “God” and how our whole society organises itself gives reverence to this “reality.” In this paradigm the idea of community or wider society is dismissed – the individual is all that counts. Margaret Thatcher famously expressed this by saying “[T]here is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”[3]

Hyper capitalism has always sought to break down community for its own needs and this is especially obvious when observing how the more communal nature and cultural practices such as those of many indigenous peoples were viewed and dealt with. As just one of many examples of this, around the world, in New Zealand the distinguished 19th century politician, Sir Francis Dillon-Bell once stated that the “first plank of public policy must be to stamp out the beastly communism of the Maori!“[4]

The competitive ideology that drives the dominant economic theories of today is largely based on evolutionary ideas that take an individualist view of how the survival of the fittest works. However what Darwin actually emphasised, at least in his later work, was that it was working as a group that made humans flourish.[5]

The study of the mind has also reinforced the idea that we are shaped hugely by our connections to others and the collective mind of our community. Lieberman observed that “[F]indings repeatedly reinforce the conclusion that our brains are wired to connect with other people…. Understanding how these mental mechanisms drive our behaviour is critical to improving the lives of individuals and organizations.”[6]

Much of modern suffering is increasingly being associated to the lack of the nourishing that community brings. Alexander posits in his book “The Globalisation of Addiction,” that dislocation is the primary cause of addiction. He notes ”that the destruction of psychosocial integration is shockingly obvious in the homeless, the physically violated, and the destitute…”[7] and also that “it affects the protected, safe and wealthy with similar force.”

He goes on further to say that “Along with the dazzling innovation and productivity, globalisation of free market society has produced an unprecedented, worldwide collapse of psychosocial integration.”[8]

Along with the many more collective ideas implicit in Biblical teaching we see that Jesus worked from a different paradigm and was always seen trying to engage with those who were marginalised or excluded from the nourishing power of community. The story of Zacchaeus concludes with “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”[9] This includes an announcement of welcome as a son into a people with all the consequent benefits of inclusion, belonging and identity. Coming to seek and save the lost, as Jesus goes on to claim as His purpose, has as much to do with inclusion, identity and community as it does to the individual morality of a corrupt tax collector. Outside of community people do not flourish and the community pays the price.

Without denying the need for individual autonomy and agency it often seems that our society has not always fully appreciated the benefit to all of a resilient and inclusive community.

2. Community Is the Basis of Citizenship

A community has no base without responsible citizenship. In the context of our western world the emphasis of citizenship often appears to be weighted towards the rights of individuals as against the responsibilities that citizenship might entail. In public discourse the term “tax payer” is the increasingly dominant identity often claimed in contrast to citizenship. The state is viewed as oppressive and interfering rather than carrying out the collective will of all and its involvement unappreciated. The emphasis is on paying less tax, and reducing government involvement in our lives, quite apart from any greater good that might accrue to society or even to “me and mine” in the longer term.

Luther wrestled with the role of Church and State and the Augustinian concept of the duality of the two cities (temporal and eternal). In defining how Christians should live and act in the temporal world Luther indicated that since “a true Christian lives and labours on earth not for themselves alone but for their neighbor, they do by the very nature of their spirit even what they have no need of….” They “pay their taxes, honor those in authority, serve, help, and do all they can to assist the governing authority”[10]

It is clear that Luther sees active involvement as citizens in the public sphere as an essential aspect of the out working of faith and discipleship towards a better temporal world.[11]

Rousseau espoused ideas around citizenship that involved a significant degree of mutuality by writing that “each by giving himself to all, gives himself to no one, and since there is no associate over whom one does not acquire the same right as one grants him over oneself, one gains the equivalent of all one loses, and more force to preserve what one has.”[12]

Without an active and involved citizenship, that has an acknowledgement of some kind of social contract, within a modern democracy there is little possibility for resilient communities. When citizens disengage or lose their voice communities become weakened and marginalised as we are seeing in the western world. Reduced voter turnouts, populist politics and rising inequality are symptoms of a rising apathy and a sense of powerlessness.

Building on the teachings of the Old Testament prophets around justice the expansive definition of our neighbour that Jesus gave us in the parable of the Good Samaritan[13] requires a collective response. In a democracy it is as citizens that we collectively determine how our neighbours should be treated. Punitive criminal justice or welfare policies and poor wages and conditions, among other things, come about in response to the will or apathy of its citizens and can make for a devastating harvest of misery.

Being an active citizen is the basis of community. It relates to a sense of agency and belonging. Individuals flourish, find their identity and calling in proportion to the quality of their community and to the degree of the involvement of the citizenry.

3. Love of Neighbour Requires a Rethinking of How We Are to be Church

Accepting an idea of citizenship that is connected to our love of neighbour makes it necessary to rethink how we are to be church. By the church I mean both the collective organic groups of people that worship and live life together, as well as the more formal denominational institutional structures and hierarchies.

We can be tempted to view the church in contrast to the world and seek a distance between the two due to the evil we perceive to be in the world. However, as Baker indicates “The church exists only as an organic and integral part of the human community. As soon as it tries to view its own life as meaningful in independence from the total human community it betrays the major purpose of its existence.”[14]

Neither should we view what the church brings to our communities as beneficial only to our communities. In contrast to the idea that the involvement in the world will have a degrading influence on the church there is a powerfully redemptive element with engagement in the world. Biggar sees two reasons for involvement in the world from a Christian ethicists perspective. One relates to the reality that to the extent that “society shapes itself for good or ill…it will shape its [the church’s] members.”[15] The other relates to the thought that Christian ethicists “are better equipped than most other members of secular society to analyse ethical issues…” and are able to “articulate a Christian view of them.”[16] The claim here then is that, far from engagement with the world degrading the Church, it can be transformative for both.

There is then a need for the Church to be particularly humble in its engagement with the world, continuously reflecting on its theology and practice. The perspective of de la Torre is confronting, as one example of this need, in the way he calls into question how Christian ethics can be appropriated by dominant cultures to “construct ethical perspectives from within their cultural space of wealth and power.” Among other examples de la Torre writes that the way that the ”institution of slavery was biblically supported, religiously justified, spiritually legitimized, and ethically normalised raises serious questions concerning the objectivity of any particular code of ethics originating from that dominant white culture.”[17]

This is especially relevant to a white Church that exists within colonising nations, such as Australia and New Zealand, as it seeks to bring light and life to indigenous peoples and other minorities such as women, LGBTI people and others. Very often engagement with the world reforms the Church bringing real life to those within the Church community and enabling the Church to bring life to the wider community as well.

4. The Church is Faithful to the Gospel when it is the Church of Community

There is every reason for Christians to be involved as citizens in the community given the gospel we have and the hope it brings. Wright suggests, speaking of Alan Boesak in the South African context, that ‘Christianity offers a language of hope which stirs us into action because our particular vision of politics speaks of justice peace and equity. It is this commitment to the flourishing of the common good that should give us the confidence to speak out….” [18]

Not only do we in the Church carry the words of hope but our very collective nature carries a strength that is needed. In the onslaught of hyper capitalism institutions have been weakened by the associated individualistic consumer culture and a scepticism people have about the perceived self-serving nature of institutions in general. Models for developing citizenship like the broad based community organising approach adopted by organisations such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) recognise this strength. By drawing together diverse groups such as Unions, Churches and community groups the IAF has recognised and utilised the power of institutions as collectives to affect change in the democratic process. This recognition of Churches is not purely as a means to an end. Engagement with scripture has been part of the revitalising work of the IAF.[19] This along with actively seeking the voices of the marginalised and organising to give people a sense of power and providing a bridge to successfully effect change is essentially the purpose of the IAF.

Christian engagement as a citizen might include involvement in collective church action in the community, as with the IAF, or the involvement of individual Christians in secular community or government organisations. It requires actively keeping abreast of the issues impacting on people and, wherever we are located, seeking with others to find solutions or to disrupt unjust or pernicious practices or structures. It involves much listening to, and wrestling with, the realities that people and communities face allied to constructive engagement or activism. It is local and international. It can be involvement in the political process or leadership in community organisations in the broadest sense.

Bonhoeffer wrote that “we are attentive listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the story of Christ on earth. God is with us today only as long as we are there.”[20] In this way we are faithful to the gospel to the extent that we are participants with Christ on earth. Pope Paul VI took this concept further by eloquently describing how the Church is to be faithful to the gospel in our involvement with the world.

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men (people) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of people. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every person. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.[21]


The freedom to flourish can never purely be an individual quest. Our vocation, calling, identity and faith are all wrapped up with our connection to and relationship in community. The overwhelmingly dominant ideology of our time is one that gives primacy to the individual as a consumer. There is a desperate need for us as individuals, our churches and our communities to see our calling and vocation as disciples and citizens in this world. A dislocated, atomized world needs Christians as individuals and churches, as communities or institutions of faith, to bring hope and resiliency to our communities.

Our engagement with the world, when it is attentive and respectful, interacting within the secular sphere, is what makes the gospel real — inside and outside the church.

End Notes:

[1] Jeremiah 29:11 - NIV

[2]  E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, (Downers Grove InterVarsity Press, 2012), 193.

[3] Margaret Thatcher, as quoted by Douglas Keay, Woman's Own, 31 October 1987, 8–10.

[4] The Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare, Puao-te-ata-tu - day break, (Wellington, New Zealand), 58.

[5] When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other. (Charles Darwin The Descent of Man and Natural Selection in Relation to Sex, Volume 1, (New York: Appleton and Company, 1872), 156).

In however complex a manner [the feeling of sympathy] feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring. (Ibid., 82).

[6] Matthew D. Lieberman, Social: why our brains are wired to connect, (Oxford University, 2013), XI Preface.

[7] Bruce K. Alexander, The Globalisation of Addiction – a study in the poverty of the spirit, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2008), 61.

[8] Ibid., 60.

[9] Luke 19:9 (NIV).

[10] Martin Luther. “A Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed” in Luther’s Works. Brandt, Walter & Lehman, Helmet, Eds. (Fortress 1999) p.92

[11] Luther along with figures like Calvin were somewhat wedded to the existent iniquitous heirarchicall societal class structures of the time. They would not have envisaged some of the radically different ideas of an active and involved citizenship associated with representative democracy as we understand it today.

[12] Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Social Contract and Other Related Later Political Writings. Victor Gourevitch, Ed (Cambridge, 1997) p. 50

[13] Luke 10:25-37

[14] David J. Bosch. Transforming Mission – Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005) 388, citing John Baker. “A Summary and Synthesis, in Limouris,”(1986) 159.

[15] Nigel Biggar, “Which Public?” in Behaving in Public: How to do Christian Ethics, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, 47.

[16] Ibid., 48.

[17] Miguel A. de la Torre, “Doing Christian Ethics?” in Doing Christian Ethics From the Margins, (Mayknoll: Orbis Books), 2014, 13.

[18] Jenny Anne Wright, “With Whose Voice and What Language? Public Theology in a Mediated Public.” International Journal of Public Theology 9 (2015), 158

[19] Luke Bretherton. “Local: Augustine, Alinksy, and the Common Good.” In Christianity and Contemporary Politics, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, 99.

[20] Ibid., 98.

[21] Pastoral Constitution On the Church in the Modern World Gaudium Spes Promulgated by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965.


Alexander, Bruce K. The Globalisation of Addiction – a study in the poverty of the spirit, New York, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Biggar, Nigel. “Which Public?” in Behaving in Public: How to do Christian Ethics, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011

Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission – Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005

Bretherton, Luke. “Local: Augustine, Alinksy, and the Common Good.” in Christianity and Contemporary Politics, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Natural Selection in Relation to Sex, Volume 1, New York: Appleton and Company, 1872.

Department of Social Welfare. The Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare, Puao-te-ata-tu – day break, (Wellington, New Zealand).

De la Torre, Miguel A, “Doing Christian Ethics?” in Doing Christian Ethics From the Margins, Mayknoll: Orbis Books, 2014.

Lieberman, Matthew D, Social: why our brains are wired to connect, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Luther, Martin. “A Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed” in Luther’s Works. Brandt, Walter & Lehman, Helmet, Eds. Fortress 1999.

Pope Paul VI. Pastoral Constitution On the Church in the Modern World Gaudium Spes Promulgated by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965.

Richards, E. Randolph and O’Brien, Brandon J, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Downers Grove InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Other Related Later Political Writings. Victor Gourevitch, Ed, Cambridge, 1997.

Thatcher, Margaret. As cited by Douglas Keay, Woman's Own, 31 October 1987.

Wright, Jenny Anne. With Whose Voice and What Language? Public Theology in a Mediated Public. International Journal of Public Theology 9, 2015.