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Christians: Tell Me How I'm Wrong

If the Christian ethic doesn't teach non-aggression, then what does it teach?

by James Leroy Wilson
August 31, 2010

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Christians: Tell Me How I'm Wrong

Almost 20 months ago, on February 5, 2009, I published Christians and the State here at The Partial Observer. I'm pasting the entirety of the column below.

But before I do, this time I plead that those who disagree with my position to comment and show me how or where you think I'm wrong. If you know me personally and want to dismantle my argument without hurting my feelings, comment anonymously. I will not even try to refute you, let alone resort to name-calling. I just want to know, from (hopefully) a variety of Christian perspectives, how I'm wrong and why a Christian ethic that endorses politics, war, and other forms of violence is superior to the ethic of just leaving other people alone.

War and coercion are not just phenomena of the Christian Right. I've known Christians who, in all good conscience, think that Christian pacificism is entirely consistent with the police enforcing restricitons on political speech and forcing individuals to purchase a narrow range of healthcare options from privately-held corporations. I've been aware of public Christian spokespersons who thought themselves to be the inheritors of Martin Luther King's legacy, while publicly or tacitly endorsing the bombing of innocent Serbian civilians and the enforcement of economic embargoes on other nations, leading to the starvation of the world's poorest people.

When I was younger, I was naive enough to believe that the religion I inherited was based upon love, but that making our way through this world meant we had to be pragmatic, seeking peace and liberty through the institutions we were given.

Today, it still seems to me that the teachings of the Gospel and Epsitles are the antithesis of coercion. But it also seems to tell me that if we are to be politically active at all, it should be to tell the government (whether local, state, or federal) to get rid of its coercive policies - as much as it can, as often as it can.

Most significantly, it seems to me that public, politically-oriented spokespersons of BOTH the Left and the Right preach hatred, even when they both deny that they do. If you want to "pre-emptively" bomb another country to avert war, or "pre-emptively" take private property on the suspicion that it might have been used in a drug deal, then you stand for hatred. And if you "pre-emptively" demand private business to "prove" they are innocent of Greed and Racism, then you are preaching hatred of people who are trying to earn an honest living.

Hatred cuts all ways. And I just don't get how this hatred squares with the Gospels and Epistles that Christians, both Left and Right, claim to be The Word of God.

Here is my original column. Again, I encourage rebuttals in the Comments section:

Last week, I wondered how people who don't believe in God could possibly believe in Democracy. After all, reason tells us that the Deity's existence is unprovable either way, whereas reason also tells us that Democracy's premises are self-refuting.

This week, I question why people who do believe in God, specifically Christians, attach so much importance to the State. I don't question why they would obey the State, but I do question why they are so emotionally committed to it.

Consider that neither Jesus nor the Epistle authors call on Christians to take or assume any sort of earthly political power, which is the control of land and domination of its people through a monopoly of force. Jesus says his kingdom is "not of this world."

It is true that, writing during the reign of the mad Emperor Nero, the Apostle Paul urges Timothy "that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity."  But this does not suggest anything more than a prayer that those in authority will leave us alone.

During the same reign, in Romans 13, Paul urges humility and peace before the civil rulers, not violence and strife. Don't buck the system. But Jesus, several apostles including Paul, and many other Christians were executed by these very same rulers! The message, then, is not one of "patriotism" defined as unconditional love for the government and support for all its works, but rather of choosing a path of non-resistance. For if the ruler is more-or-less "Godly," then Christians won't have a problem; if the ruler is evil, then "turn the other cheek," because Jesus's kingdom is not of this world.

But what of morality? What of sin?

This might be the core of the controversy regarding Christianity and politics. The problem is two-fold:

First, some Christians feel the faith as a force of the unconditional love of God which they express to others; other Christians view life as a war against their own flesh, and as a defense mechanism they become more doctrinaire and insistent that everyone else be at least as miserable as they are.

Second, even some Christians belonging to the first camp (or who think they do) will make an abstraction of their love for others as "compassion" for people they don't even know. Indoctrination about Democracy from schools and the media will make them feel they have the right to express this "compassion" through State action. They are either ignorant of the economic consequences, or believe they are justified in preemptively punishing suspected "greed" and "prejudice."

Instead of heeding the Gospel's call of non-resistence, Christians of either camp will claim they are applying Biblical "principles" to our "culture" and political system. They will also hearken back to the Old Testament, and selectively point out when God seemed more coercive, moralistic, and/or warlike to illustrate that their urge to dominate others is justified.

But even in the Old Testament, God gave a Law, not a State. God left it up to the people to obey it and enforce it. Throughout the Book of Judges, when the people obeyed the Law, they fared pretty well even though there was no formal government in Israel. When the people demanded a King in 1 Samuel 8: 10-22, God predicts oppression and doom. The desire to form a State was just another form of idolatry.

Furthermore:

  • Where the Law does authorize punishments, they are to be meted out by the people, not by hired hands paid for by taxation. And even so, Jesus says "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

  • God's Law commands the prosperous to give the poor the freedom and opportunity to work for their own food; it does not call for forced unemployment and dependence on bureaucratic systems.

  • The Bible nowhere criminalizes or condemns abortion. At most, the Law says inadvertently causing a miscarriage would warrant a fine upon demand of the husband with agreement by judges (Exodus 21:22-25). Nothing is said of destruction of the fetus with the mother's consent.

  • The Bible often condemns drunkenness, but nowhere criminalizes it.

  • Likewise, the Bible says nothing about criminalizing drug use.

  • The Bible says nothing directly against gambling, and it certainly does not call for criminalizing it.

  • The Bible doesn't suggest polygamy is ideal, but it is certainly tolerated.

And most significantly, the Bible doesn't tell us we have the authority, through direct actions or votes, to restrict freedom because we fear the consequences of other people's behavior. The Gospel does not call for force, coercion, regulation, or redistribution. We may be called to be responsible stewards of creation, but we are not called to control what can not be controlled.  And the Bible nowhere teaches that any person has the authority, ability, or obligation to control the will or actions of another. The very attempt to do so is to declare war on human nature, which is a war on nature itself - the very opposite of responsible stewardship.
 

Finally, there is the problem that "all have fallen short of the glory of God." James Madison famously wrote that if men were angels, no government would be necessary. The problem is that it is men, not angels, who govern men. But I would ask if government is even necessary. Man may need law, but does he need the ravenous branches of a power-hungry State? The power, fame, and wealth the State provides will in general attract the most wicked, ambitious, and arrogant of men, who will try to make it even more powerful.

And what of the Christians who do get involved, and advocate prohibitions and punishments unheard of in the Bible? They, too, have fallen short of the glory of God; what credibility do they have in running other people's lives?

Christians would be wise to walk in love and humility, using quiet persuasion, and to let God take care of the "social consequences" of other people's sins. Their kingdom is not of this world, so Christians should quit pretending that it is.

Comments (8)


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Roderick T. Long from Auburn, Alabama writes:
August 31, 2010
Of course I agree with you that Christianity logically entails libertarianism. As the New Testament says: "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them; but it shall not be so among you."

But my question is about your passing remark that "reason tells us that the Deity's existence is unprovable either way." How does reason tell us that? What's the argument? Is there some shortcut that bypasses the need to examine each argument for or against the existence of God on its own merits?

James Leroy Wilson from Independent Country writes:
August 31, 2010
Thanks to Dr. Long for reading and writing in.

I would say that reason (and science) explains the relationships of objects to each other. From there, theories about origins and ends can be postulated, but can never be proven. When you're talking about God, you're talking about a "subject," not an "object." The subject is called consciousness. Consciousness and things derived from consciousness, such as will, self-awareness, and love are concepts so vague and mysterious that it is the task of poets and philosophers - not scientists - to even get any sort of grasp on them for the rest of us to understand. It is possible that they are the products of evolutionary/survival imperatives of the human species (and possibly other species). But it is also possible that they are part of an invisible Reality that science and reason, for all its instruments, can not possibly detect, ever.

I would say that God, if God exists, is the invisible Reality. If consciousness is a real thing, it was either given to us by God or IS God, yet no scientific instrument or course in reason and logic will ever find it.

Roderick T. Long from Auburn, Alabama writes:
August 31, 2010
You say that concepts of consciousness are "so vague and mysterious that it is the task of poets and philosophers - not scientists - to even get any sort of grasp on them." That's fine, but it's not as though philosophers use NON-rational means to grasp such things; so their being beyond the reach of science doesn't put them beyond the reach of reason. I don't quite see how we could even so much as talk about something if it were really beyond the reach of reason.

Maybe my worry is this: you seem to treat talk of "proving" the existence or nonexistence of God as equivalent to "detecting" God's presence or absence. But the word "detecting" has the flavour of an empirical inquiry, with a question being settled by some sort of sensory feedback. I don't think that's quite the right analogue for what philosophers do. A philosophical argument for theism will try to show that the atheist worldview doesn't make *sense*; likewise, a philosophical argument for atheism will try to show that the theist worldview doesn't make sense. I don't see how we can be justified in assuming a priori, without looking at the details of particular arguments, that no such argument can succeed.

As for saying that "no scientific instrument or course in reason and logic will ever find" the mind, I'm inclined to agree with you about the scientific instrument -- but to agree with Frege that logic *is* the true study of Mind as such.

Brian M. Lamb from San Diego CA writes:
September 1, 2010
I read your book "Ron Paul is a Nut" early this summer. I was wondering if you were a Christian. I agree with so much of what you write about, and I think you have much more Christian wisdom than many of my 'born again' Christian brothers. God bless you, and keep up the good work.

Brian Lamb San Diego, California

Kevin Carson from Northwest Arkansas writes:
September 1, 2010
The point about Romans 13 is an excellent one. The primitive church took an attitude of quietism toward the state, much like the Quakers adopted after the Stuart Restoration: don't challenge the civil power, so you may be allowed to live in peace.

They most certainly did not have God-n-Caesar celebrations every year on the anniversary of the Founding of the City at the First Baptist Corinth megachurch, with legionaires back from the provinces marching down the aisles in formation with fasces and SPQR banners.

Contemporary fundamentalism owes at least as much to the religion of 100% Americanism and its sacred relic Old Glory, as it does to the "original autographs" of the Bible.

How else can you explain the historical illiteracy of the fundamentalists who jumped all over Rev. Jeremiah Wright? The Old Testament is full of prophets standing before wicked monarchs like Manasseh, or Ahab and Jezebel, and saying "God damn Israel/Judah!" But for modern American Christians, however "not of this world" they claim to be, the First Commandment contains a loophole for patriotism.

Roderick T. Long from http://aaeblog.com writes:
September 2, 2010
(blockquote)The Old Testament is full of prophets standing before wicked monarchs like Manasseh, or Ahab and Jezebel, and saying "God damn Israel/Judah!" (/blockquote)

And one can find similar remarks in Martin Luther King:
aaeblog.com/2008/05/05/find-the-unpatriot

Roy Matthewson from Colorado Springs writes:
September 2, 2010
Correct me if I'm wrong (I often am), but wasn't the way in which judgments were made upon the arguments of individuals in the modern era based on their overall logic and coherence? By contrast, in the postmodern era aren't the rightness of a person's thoughts judged by whether they help someone make sense of the world and live within it? In other words, "As long as it works for you, that's fine. This is what works for me."

If my understanding is correct, James, you are using a language that is devalued these days because you decry the incoherence of the way people think in the postmodern era. The metaphysical universe in which we live and move permeates even the thought processes of the war mongers who claim God is love and would at least claim to be holding to the old, traditional ways. As a result, they are not confused or mistaken because what they believe "works" for them. And because fear tends to override logic even at the best of times, looking for coherence is akin to a wild goose chase, don't you think?

I am curious on what grounds you categorically ignore just war theory. It is kind of a big deal theory. Just interesting is all.

James Leroy Wilson from Independent Country writes:
September 2, 2010
@Roderick: Thanks for explaining my own position better than I did. The distinction seems to be between "brain" and "mind" and yet there's another distinction of "detection" and "making sense." By conflating reason with science, I confused the two issues. I don't think the debate of whether Brain and Mind are the same can be proved with scientific instruments, but I do recognize that philosophers do employ reason. Of course they do; otherwise they wouldn't be philosophers!

@Brian: Thanks!

@Kevin: You never fail to post insightful comments in any forum or blog comment that I've seen. "The First Commandment contains a loophole for patriotism" summarized almost all I wanted to say on this subject!

@Roy: The reason I ignored Just War theory is that it wasn't particularly relevant. Honest and conscientious Just War theorists aren't the problem 95% of the time; actually, they haven't been the problem for the past century. But this is about more than "just wars." It's about the just use of a policeman or other armed agents of the State swinging a baton, kicking with a jackboot, pointing guns, or otherwise committing violence against their countrymen who themselves did not commit any violence. This essay condemns punishing victimless crime and mandating the forced redistribution of wealth, as much as it condemns unjust war. In indicts the statist Christian Left as much as it indicts the statist Christian Right.

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