Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Christian Philosophy of Civil Disobedience

Just burn some incense and say "Caesar is lord" and all will be well, after all no one is saying you can't worship your God the way you want, we just want you to go through this formal act of showing allegiance. Does not the Bible say, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities" (Rom 13:1)? Furthermore, what's the big deal about using the word "lord" (GK kurios) in reference to Caesar, that word was always used in reference to rulers.

The early Christians refused to do this act of submission to the state, I don't think because they quibbled over the word "lord" being applied to Caesar, although that may be enough. The issue I believe was more a question of allegiance (as I pointed out in my previous post), the Christians saw their allegiance being to God alone, and the state through its absurd deification of the emperor was usurping where our true allegiance is to be.

Thus, the early church engaged in civil disobedience, and refused to partake in the government mandated ceremony. they counted the cost and paid with their lives. Countless martyrdoms occurred during this time period, the most renown of course was the execution in the form of throwing the Christians to the lions.

Simply put, the early Christians were not willing to give to Caesar what belonged to God alone.

The more I converse with modern Christians on political philosophy, in person and online, the more convinced I am that the Church is sorely in need of a robust view of the relationship between Church and state. I am more and more of the opinion that if American Christians were faced with a situation as was in 1930's Germany (obviously without the advantage of looking back at what occurred) they would act no differently. There would be a minority who would be the heroes we adore and elevate as examples, like Hans and Sophie Scholl, Corrie Ten Boom, or even Deitrich Bonhoeffer, but they would be the minority.

(pictured to the right is a depiction of the martyrdom of a Christian in the ceramic tile art form)

This should be readily apparent due to the prevailing jingoism and support of "enhanced interrogation" in the American church today. Even the "round em all up" talk in reference to Arabs or Mexicans an unsavory kinship to the acts that took place in Germany. I recall during the reign of Bush the lesser, there was all sorts of talk about arresting anti-war people.

In large part I think it is because the church has gotten its political philosophy from either the national socialists on Fox News or the international socialists at CNN and NPR. I do not use those labels as a pejorative for effect, those labels really represent the political philosophies on the right and left.

The question I seek to address here is this, When is it proper for Christians to engage in civil disobedience?

Every Bible believing Christian will say we should engage in civil disobedience when the state attempts to restrict the worship of God and the preaching of the gospel. The problem is that they leave it there, and restrict proper disobedience to when the state interferes with "religious things" like praying, catechizing our children, gospel preaching, and assembly. This is all well and good, but the problem is that such a position isn't a Christian worldview.

The worship of God is to apply to all of life, and as such has something to say about every area of life, from the kind of care we drive, to the venders we purchase goods from, from the type of person we marry, to how we raise our children. The Christian message has something to say about all of this, and so should we. This is because Christianity is the truth.

Now in relation to the state scripture is clear we are called to obey the laws, that is unambiguous. However, we must quickly follow such a command with the questions of to what extant and in what circumstances?

Here is where most modern Christians drop the ball restricting civil disobedience to the state messing around with "religious things" as alluded to earlier. Let us look at the 2 passages that are most invoked to support this position of docility on the Church's behalf:

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
for he is God's servant for your good.
But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience."
(Rom 13:1-5)

The other passage that is cited in reference to obedience is in 1 Peter:

Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme,
or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
(1 Pet 2:13-16)

Now in both passages I have highlighted what I see as a key to understanding why we should even have government and the proper role of government. Government exists to execute justice, that is the only reason it should exist. The question then arises that if God has ordained government to be His servant for good, what then when government itself is the chief instigator of roguery and injustice? Is such a government still the servant of God?

Well yes in a sovereign sense, but no in a moral sense. When government begins to pass laws that are contrary to the law of God, that government has usurped its authority and not only can be disobeyed but should be.

Francis Schaeffer in his indispensable work "A Christian Manifesto" represents one of the best modern Christian theories of Church and state (probably because it is one of the few). Schaeffer argues the very point I have made above as he writes:

"The Christian, the God-fearing person, is not like that. The Bible tells us that God has commanded us to obey the stat. But now a second question follows very quickly. Has God set up an authority in the state that is autonomous from Himself? Are we to obey the state no matter what? Are we? In this one area is man the measure of all things? And I would answer not at all, not at all."

In commenting directly on Romans 13 Schaeffer states,

"God has ordained the state as a delegated authority; it is not autonomous. The state is to be an agent of justice, to restrain evil by punishing the wrongdoer, and to protect the good in society. When it does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is tyranny." (emphasis Schaeffer's)

Schaeffer goes on to give the countless examples throughout church history where there were courageous men and women who stood up to an autonomous state men like William Tyndale, John Knox, John Bunyan, Samuel Rutheford etc. The point should be apparent, God has appointed the state for the purpose of upholding justice, and it is such a state we are called to submit to. When the state has become autonomous and has usurped God we are not at all called to obey such a state.

Schaeffer makes this clear as he describes the point where force is warranted in opposition to a tyrant:

"There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate. The Christian is not to take the law into his own hands and become a law unto himself. But when all avenues to flight and protest have closed, force in the defensive posture is appropriate. This was the situation of the American Revolution...

A true Christian in Hitler's Germany and the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state and hidden his Jewish neighbors from the German SS Troops. The government had abrogated its authority, and it had no right to make any demands."

Bear in mind, that the Nazi government was not forbidding the worship of Christ in "religious things" they actually told the preachers to preach Romans 13 to their congregations. So the disobedience of the Christian to the state is not confined to not being allowed to preach or assemble. Rather, when the state has become a vehicle of injustice as defined by the word of God, disobedience is a must.

The Christian with a robust worldview will understand that the worship of God and obedience to God trumps the state not only in "religious things" but in all of life. The state as a delegated authority can not demand from us what God has not delegated to the state. Namely, to uphold justice.

I want to emphasize the point Schaeffer made that particularly in the use of force our posture is to be defensive and it is as a last resort after the avenues of redress of grievances and flight have been closed. Basically, we are cornered rattlesnakes with our rattle shaking.

One of my "bottom lines" is when the state tries to lay hands on my children. My children will receive a rich classical christian education and will not go into the crummy government schools full of drug deals, promiscuity, and just all around inadequate education as long as I draw breath.

This stance is Biblical, "Fathers bring up your children in the training and admonition of the Lord." (Eph 6)

When the state attempts to strip us of that right it has become illegitimate, and should be disobeyed. If some Christians feel that sending their children to the government school is fine that is up to them, the issue is when the state makes it mandatory which it has no right to do. When the state does this it has become autonomous.

I would like to close by applying this to America today, the country is teeming with talk of revolution, people are really just look for another Tom Paine. So my question has the time come for that?

I don't think so, yet.

Right now there is still a window open for us to effect change in government. Granted, there is a long train of abuses, the constitution is a joke to most politicians, and the main thing Washington seems to ponder is new schemes of legal plunder.

This we can put up with, and I think we are called to do so. However, we are not called to not call it what it is and try to change things, yet in our objections we are called to be submissive in these things.

Another area is the long train of human rights violations that continues to grow in size. America is now a country that tortures, sanctions abortions, invades non-aggressive countries, and imprisons people indefinitely without a trial. This is wrong, and the church has been sorely compromised in not speaking out sufficiently against these atrocities.

That is why I fear the time is rapidly coming where fighting may be inevitable, if the church condones the torture of Arabs who are deemed non-persons by the state, then on what basis can it object to the torture of Americans deemed non-persons by the state? When that time comes, it will be in large part because the church has lost it's prophetic voice in the political arena.

But as I say there is still a window, we can still assemble and protest as well as petition for changes. We have not yet reached the point where the tyranny is on our door step, although I think we are headed in that direction. The problem the church must address is "What is the bottom line when it comes to obedience to the state?"

As it stands right now the answers I hear from most of my brothers is not very encouraging.

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