Book Review Compassion (&) Conviction, by Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler. InterVarsity Press, 2020. 146 pages.
“What are you willing to do for the people you love? If a family member was being mistreated, in addition to your prayers would you also use your time and resources to stop them from being hurt?” (8)
Compassion (&) Conviction is a gospel-shaped, biblically-built framework for “Christian Democrats, Republicans, and Independents to engage in a more faithful, informed, and effective manner.” (4) The authors believe that loving one’s neighbor as oneself entails engaging in the political process. The heart of this book lies in the ampersand of the title. Christians should embrace both love AND biblical conviction. We should work for justice AND moral order. Here’s how the book unfolds.
Chapter One (Christians & Politics) locates politics in the broader plan of God. The Christian’s primary objective in life is to make known the gospel of Jesus Christ. Political activity should not supplant the work of proclaiming and professing the gospel. “If the Great Commission becomes secondary, or if Christianity is understood primarily as a means of accomplishing social or political goals, then we’ve handed to Caesar what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21).” (7-8)
In that context, the book calls for political engagement as a reflection of the Great Commandment (to love God and love our neighbor), and the Great Requirement (to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God).
Chapter Two (Church & State) begins with a review of how our government works. If Christians are to engage, we must know who to engage with, how the political system works and how the church relates to the state. The second half of the chapter discusses the inevitability and importance of bringing our values to the political process.
Chapter Three (Compassion & Conviction) creates the biblical framework for all our political activity. In one sense this is the heart of the book (the title of this chapter is the title of the book). Rather than being forced to choose between compassion or conviction (for example, “do you love the poor or do you believe in personal responsibility?”), we ought to pursue both loving justice AND moral order. Ephesians 4:14-15 is the ground for this framework.
Chapter Four (Partnerships & Partisanship) answers the question, “Who should I cooperate with in the political process?” It includes seven steps to help the reader evaluate cultural or political partnerships.
Chapter Five (Messaging & Rhetoric) is about how we use our words, and how we hear the words of politicians.
Chapter Six (Politics & Race) is again grounded in Scripture (in particular Galatians 2:11-13) and addresses the history of racism in America, color blindness, identity politics, mob dynamics, and the way forward toward reconciliation.
Chapter Seven (Advocacy & Protest) is about seeking what is good through the political process (advocacy) and calling out what is wrong (protest). This chapter looks at biblical examples of both, while addressing how both should be done by a wise and godly Christian.
Chapter Eight (Civility & Political Culture) examines the biblical ground for civility in political discourse, how to cultivate civility, the misuse of it, and the importance of civility to our Christian witness.
The strengths of Compassion (&) Conviction are many. First, it’s self-awareness of its location on the map of God’s concerns. The book aligns well with John Piper’s aphorism: “Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. Christians care about all injustice, especially injustice against God.” The authors make this clear in Chapter One:
“Do not interpret this book’s focus on the political space as a suggestion that professing the gospel should be subordinated to political activity. While God has given us power to bring about change and help those around us in real ways (James 2:15-16), our world will continue to be a place of sin and suffering until Jesus returns (Romans 8:19-21). This truth is important to keep in mind as we discuss our interactions with society. It provides us with perspective, helping us remember the ultimate things rather than being consumed by the temporal matters of this world. Our civic participation will not glorify God if it’s placed above worship, evangelism, or Christian fellowship.” (8)
Second, the authors’ use of Scripture is careful. It’s clear that they have considered the meaning of a text before putting it to work for their point. If this book represents the foundational thoughts of the AND Campaign, then Berean-minded Christians will not be turned off by the incorrect use of Scripture. On the contrary, this is a biblically-built set of propositions.
Third, the tone of the book is calm and reasoned. It is designed to persuade, not bully. In an atmosphere of loud voices and power plays, Compassion (&) Conviction employs the better tools of liberal democracy — persuasion with words and careful thinking, the way we see Paul teaching in the public square (Acts 17).
This tone was, in fact, the biggest surprise of the book for me. At times it reads almost like a textbook. Which is smart, given that the authors are not just writing a book, but defining a movement. They have defined their position and their direction by God’s Word, and that is where the power lies.
Fourth, the consistent integration of biblical behavior with political activity (humility and protest, for example) is something we don’t often see. Here’s a sample:
“Behavior is an outflow of matters of the heart. Spiritual discipline is of the utmost importance for believers who want to engage in protest and advocacy. We have to be dedicated to regular, prayerful self-assessment, asking God to search our hearts and prove our motives. Those engaged in protest and advocacy are particularly susceptible to two temptations: power and offense.” (115)
Fifth, the book is practical. I’m grateful for the list in Chapter Four (Partnerships and Partisanship) on evaluating potential partners. It includes steps like, “Who are you? Be confident in your identity in Christ,” “Get to know your partners and understand their endgame,” and “Don’t take on your partner’s identity.” They also offer guidelines on how to effectively communicate in the public square, and how to listen to a politician (“Christians do not listen to politicians in order to be affirmed or even to hear politicians express beliefs they share. Instead, we listen to politicians because their words provide us with leverage to hold them accountable” (93). Each chapter ends with discussion questions and exercises that can be used in a small group.
As for weaknesses, I wish the book were more explicit about the gospel in two ways. It seems that the power of the ampersand lies in the cross of Christ, where both mercy and moral order meet (Christ was both just and justifier). In a cultural moment like we face, we need the power to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable groups of people. That power is in nothing less than the cross. Related to that, secondly, is our inability to love our neighbor apart from the work of Christ in our hearts. The call to love our neighbor as ourselves can be crushing if not followed quickly by the “but Christ” of the gospel. This truth is there for sure (especially in the “Closing Exhortation”), but I had wished it were more visible. As inclined as we are to believe we can do all things through ourselves, we need to be reminded often of Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Second, I would have appreciated clarity about what the authors expect churches to do, as churches, and what they expect individual Christians to do as individuals. This is an important question for church leaders as they sort out what is related to the mission of the church, and what isn’t.
And third, I would have benefited from a “further reading” list. Who else is thinking this way? Who has influenced the authors most strongly?
A Personal Reflection
For decades I largely remained distant from the political process, except for voting as best as I could. Not only disengaged, but I was wary of “justice.” God’s Word and God’s Spirit have convicted me of both my doctrinal errors and my hard heart.
With these small steps of change has come a desire to understand God’s mind about justice as it relates to politics. In that context, I have benefited from the teaching and writing of Jonathan Leeman, and now this book as well.
What has been most inspiring about Conviction (&) Compassion is the authors’ consistent biblical faithfulness, and then their ability to apply biblical truth to political activity. At a number of points, I found myself smiling at connections rarely made — at least in my mind.
Finally, I’m convinced of the need to ask the question quoted at the beginning of this review: “What are you willing to do for the people you love?” The authors continue:
“If a family member was being mistreated, in addition to your prayers would you also use your time and resources to stop them from being hurt? If they were unjustly imprisoned, would you advocate for them? If a teacher was treating your child unfairly, would you address the issue? Of course you would. We rightly expect that kind of urgent action from the people who say they care about us.
“In the Great Commandment, Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matthew 22:37-39)” (8).
Jesus commands me to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus defines my neighbor as anyone I have contact with. And then most importantly of all, Jesus makes it possible, by his death, resurrection and his power in me, to obey him.
This means that I am called not only to hold firmly to and teach truth, but also to actively pursue justice, in love for my neighbor.
I highly recommend Compassion (&) Conviction.