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.
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.