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What is the ‘public square’?

James Mildred

Shutterstock 1525399031 min

It’s one of those classic phrases that organisations and individuals throw around all the time. ‘Let’s be in the public square’, they’ll say. ‘Let’s make sure we’re speaking into the public square’. It’s unlikely you’ll hear this kind of phrase used in mainstream workplaces. In Christian circles, though, it’s a different matter.

But what exactly does this mean? What even is the public square?

Full disclaimer, I work for a Christian charity that was founded upon a passionate belief that God’s people should speak into the public square. We use it in our promotional material, on our resources and website. So, I’m coming at this question determined to help you see what the public square is and why Christians can and indeed should, be engaged.

Let’s start with a basic definition. When we use the phrase public square, we mean any place that a story can be shared, a newspaper, magazine, book, website, blog, song, broadcast station or channel, street corner, theatre, conference, government body, parliament, assembly to name but a few.

In the public square there are all sorts of debates going on about topics both large and small. From how many trees should we be planting, to whether the best economics involves borrowing? When we discuss justice and how it applies to different groups, or when we debate minorities and whether they’re being treated fairly – these are all public square conversations.

And the basic point I want to make is simple: as followers of Jesus, we want to be involved in those conversations and debates. It’s all part of who Jesus is and who we are.

Firstly, let’s consider who Jesus is. Jesus is Lord. He’s the absolute ruler of all. Ephesians 1:22 says that God placed “all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church”. Notice the sheer extent of Christ’s Lordship. It really is true, what Kuyper said, there’s not a square inch in all the universe over which Christ, who is Lord, cannot say ‘mine!’. This reality, that Jesus is Lord, compels us to engage because we have a right to be involved. A God-given right to represent the values, wisdom, and authority of King Jesus in the public square. We are ambassadors of our King. We represent His views and plans. We offer advice and contributions that reflect the wisdom of our King.

Secondly, we must be involved because of who we are. Jesus said that his disciples are the light and salt of the world. He doesn’t say we might be light and salt. He doesn’t say if we live in a certain way, we will be light and salt. He simply says: this is who you are. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you are on this earth to make a difference, in every sector of society. Wherever God places you, with the gifts He gives you, use them to make a difference. It’s what followers of Jesus have been doing since the beginning!

Thirdly, let’s recognise two great biblical themes. The first is the theme of stewardship. God’s given human beings a command to steward what He’s given us. In Genesis 1:28, we have what theologians have called the ‘cultural mandate’. It’s where God explicitly commands Christians to take the resources, He’s given us and use them to create culture. This responsibility was for Adam, Eve and all who came after them. We know that the fall happened and suddenly the task of stewarding became more complicated. But it’s not removed! In Christ, we’re being re-made and transformed into the image of the second Adam. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the mission is even more our responsibility. So, we want to be involved in the public square because debates there are all about how we steward what God’s given us.

The second great theme is doing good. In both Old and New Testaments, this is what God’s people are to do. We are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. From CARE’s perspective, this must involve caring about politics for a simple reason: politics impacts all our lives. The laws passed by politicians are consequential: they can help, and they can harm. We want to engage with laws and seek to bring a Christian influence to debates about legislation as an expression of obedience to the command we’re given to love others. And the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that there’s no limit to who our neighbour is (Luke 10:25-37).

So, next time you read the words ‘public square’ in the context of a plea for Christian engagement, you’ll know exactly what it means. The public square is any place where a story can be told. It’s the stage where the great drama of life is being played out. It’s where conversations and debates are happening. And because of who Jesus is and who we are, as Christians, we can and must engage.

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