The following is an excerpt from my in progress book, Through The Wilderness – a collection of essays on subjects at the interface of religion, science, politics, and culture.
POLITICS: WHY AND HOW SHOULD CHRISTIANS PARTICIPATE?
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:1-4
Groups of people make decisions and embark upon courses of action through an inherently political process but politics usually refers to the art and, hopefully, the science of government. When applied to a nation, politics pertains to the administration and control of its internal and external affairs to provide peace, prosperity, and protection of the citizenry. We sometimes disparage politicians, especially when their unethical behavior becomes public knowledge, but we should keep in mind that democratic republics such as the United States particularly depend upon effective, even if not efficient, politics.
Two passages from Holy Scripture present a compelling rational for Judeo-Christians to participate in politics at all levels, from the local to the international:
John 21:15-17 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
Matt. 22:17-21 “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Three times Jesus commanded Peter to feed Jesus’ sheep. A three-fold pronouncement in Holy Scripture signifies a profoundly serious intent from the Deity. The sheep include persons both within and those currently outside the Christian fellowship; the food in Jesus’ imperative symbolizes physical, spiritual, and emotional nourishment. The Community of Believers follows the teaching of Jesus by furnishing the needed food. Appropriate military protection definitely falls within the context of nourishing Jesus’ sheep in our fallen world. Accordingly, I do not exclude the unfortunate necessity for sometimes taking up arms against unjust ruling authorities that do not care for Jesus’ sheep. (1, footnotes at end)
A superficial reading of Jesus’ response about the propriety of paying taxes to the hated Roman Empire suggests Judeo-Christians have separate duties toward God and earthly powers. Thus, Jesus might be interpreted to have endorsed the medieval demarcation between the profane (secular) and holy (religious) spheres of our lives. I think a deeper meaning holds. Jesus thoroughly understood that everything in creation, seen and unseen, belongs to God; hence, the Roman Emperor owned nothing. Jesus does not tell us to withdraw all support from governments. Instead, he instructs us to remind them that their power, treasure, authority, and responsibilities must be applied to God’s purposes.(2) We must be vigilant to eschew the ultimate danger Holy Scriptures teaches concerning governments.(3) That these earthly institutions can become objects of worship and demand our fidelity through misplaced patriotism and lack of clarity about our primary loyalty. Emphatically, neither the United States nor any other government as presently constituted is equivalent to the Kingdom of God. In fact, all governments, including our democratic republic, at times operate in direct contradiction to the Gospel.
Jesus wants his sheep fed so that the relevant question becomes not Should we be involved in the political process? but How can Judeo-Christians wield political power to ensure compliance with Jesus’ mandate? We empower our representatives through elections to aid the Community of Believers in our task. Governments must fulfill this obligation or be changed, hopefully through non-violent means, although the actual form of a ruling authority (e.g., democratic republic, monarchy) and its economic system (e.g., capitalism, socialism) may be less important to God than the commitment to feeding the sheep.
In answer to the how question, God gives us a powerful action plan incorporating four components – objective, strategy, tactics, and evaluation.
An objective should be concise, unambiguous, and achievable as in Philippians 2:9-11: Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to glory of God the Father.
This objective anticipates a worldwide theocracy ordained by God with Jesus Christ as God’s vicar or governor on earth.
Matthew 28:18-20 expresses the strategy that will take us to our objective: And Jesus came and said to them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We recognize this strategic statement as Christ’s Great Commission to his Disciples and, through them, to us.
The nature and application of tactics represent the most controversial element of the action plan. We need pragmatic tactics to implement the strategy that will lead us to our objective. Profession, proclamation, witnessing to, rejoicing in, and serving the risen Christ through ministry to our brothers and sisters constitute the most potent tactics. We should employ these tactics, which change hearts and minds, rather than wasting time and energy on passing secular(4) laws that seek both to designate the United States as a Judeo-Christian country and to require Biblically-derived beliefs and standards of behavior from all citizens. Jesus was very clear that even strict observance of the law absent an inward change (repentance, being born from above) does not lead to the Kingdom of God. Observance of God’s laws and secular laws consistent with Holy Scripture thus comes about through a desire to love, please and respect God, not through fear of punishment prescribed through the legal system.
The Constitution of the United States does not establish Judeo-Christianity as the official religion of this country.(5) Reading anything else into this seminal secular document corresponds to the same transgression often associated with “liberal activist” judges: Ignoring the plain words to make “laws” not explicitly defined in the Constitution. We slide down this slippery slope at the peril of our democratic republic.
The framers of the Constitution included Judeo-Christians, some of whom we today call evangelicals, and the Constitution invokes God, albeit without an overt reference to Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the primary authors of the Constitution were Deists who produced a religiously neutral document as evidenced by a reading of the plain words and the historical record surrounding the Constitutional Convention. We must be extraordinarily wary about altering the Constitution in such a way as to enfranchise or disenfranchise segments of our citizenry based upon religious affiliations.
The Constitutional Amendment that wreaked the havoc of Prohibition serves as a well-known reminder how virtue cannot be imposed through legislation when large numbers of citizens do not accept the presumptive immorality of the proscribed act. Murder is an even better illustration. The majority of believers and non-believers will affirm the evil of taking innocent lives by premeditated or capital murder. Some jurisdictions exact the harshest penalty, execution, for this crime forbidden by the Sixth Commandment. The State of Texas can be cited as the prime example of how legislation and Draconian punishment have not eliminated this heinous act.
Since the 1976 Supreme Court reinstitution of the death penalty, Texas has had the greatest state total of executions for capital one murder in the United States, 438 out of 1165 through June 2009. A discussion of the deterrent effects of execution on the reduction of murder rates can be confused by arguments about the various statistical methodologies behind the assessments. The fact remains: Murder still takes place in Texas and the rate has not appreciably changed, ranging from 5.9 to 6.8 murders/100,000 people during the 1997 to 2007 timeframe. Why? Because laws do not change hearts and minds.
Do we really expect the legal system to enforce Judeo-Christian morality on all citizens and, thereby, to bring the United States to Christ? Let’s turn the question around with a thought-experiment: Congress passes and the President signs bills outlawing Judeo-Christianity. These statues prohibit Judeo-Christians from practicing their religion in public and in private. Existing churches are demolished or converted to secular structures, and new churches cannot be constructed. Violators of the new laws face extremely harsh penalties equivalent to those perpetrated against Judeo-Christians in the Roman Empire. We can now ask, would these unjust circumstances keep resolute Judeo-Christians from their God-decreed tasks? Of course not. Our work would be more difficult but we would have no excuse for refusing to do God’s will. Again, secular laws do not change hearts and minds.
The history of our faith, especially Judeo-Christianity within the Roman Empire, shows why profession, proclamation, witness, rejoicing, and service, but not legislation, are best for the Community of Believers. In the first 3 to 3½ centuries after the death of Christ, Judeo-Christians had no legal protection within the Roman Empire. Roman laws and customs encouraged the torture and killing of Judeo-Christians due to their profession of Jesus Christ, not the Emperor, as Lord and Master. The Judeo-Christian refusal to serve in the Empire’s armed forces further exacerbated the situation. Despite these legal impediments, the number of Judeo-Christians increased from approximately 5000 in 40 C.E. to nearly 34 million (0.001% to 56.5% of the population) by the mid-Fourth Century C.E. This phenomenal growth rate of the Community of Believers has never been replicated, without the benefit of violent subjugation, not even in the supposedly Judeo-Christian United States.(6)
The early success of the Community of Believers contrasted the opposing Roman and Judeo-Christian doctrines for conversion of the world. The Empire assumed first victory, then peace. That is, domination of the world through military and economic supremacy leads to peace. In opposition, Judeo-Christians believed in first peace, then victory. Peace for Judeo-Christians denotes changes in hearts and minds that induce not only the absence of conflict but more significantly a state of reconciliation between God and humans, and among humans. Once this peace or shalom is achieved, victory comes in the form of a one-world government administered by Jesus Christ.
The Judeo-Christian approach convinced the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, to reverse the persecutions of his predecessors and to issue the 313 C.E. Edict of Milan, which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the Empire. Judeo-Christianity subsequently became the “official” religion of the Empire.(7) This quick summary glosses over Constantine’s political motivations and machinations but the concept holds: Judeo-Christianity flourished and became victorious without enabling legislation.
Some well-meaning believers cannot on principle abandon the idea of attempting to pass laws favoring Judeo-Christianity. This tactic involves enshrining Judeo-Christianity as the “official” religion of the United States through Supreme Court interpretations and amendments to the Constitution. Furthermore, the laws of the United States should directly reflect the religious laws contained in Holy Scripture. For instance, if Holy Scripture declares an activity such as adultery to be a sin, United States law should criminalize the activity. Of course, under the Constitution, these individuals have the right to utilize these tactics, ineffective as they will be.(8)
I prefer to concentrate my efforts on assuring a level playing field for all religions. For that reason I consider myself a strict constructivist who adheres to the Constitutional separation between Church and State. When a level playing field exists, history shows that Judeo-Christianity can more easily perform its mission, and will always triumph. The issue, emphatically, is not separation from but separation between. That is, Judeo-Christians best exert their influence on human affairs, including governments, without adopting or succumbing to the allure of earthly power. Indeed, some Judeo-Christians will find their area of service within, but without primary allegiance to, governments.
Under no circumstances should Judeo-Christians abandon the tactics of proclaiming and witnessing to the risen Christ. We must always speak out against evil while offering life-affirming alternatives. If we believe behaviors such as abortion, murder, thievery, allowing persons to go hungry, child and elder abuse, and failing to provide affordable health care to all persons are sins, we should forthrightly state our position and vigorously teach the Gospel. More importantly, we must live our lives in compliance with the Gospel message so that we witness for Christ to the world by walking the walk with him rather than by simply talking the talk about him.
The evaluation component of the action plan is straightforward and can be observed in local congregations every Sunday. Are our tactics bringing more and more people into the Community of Believers? If so, we should continue with what we are doing. If not, we need to change our tactics and/or their application.
(1) Chapter X.
(2) From this perspective, an argument can be made that Judeo-Christians have complementary duties to the Kingdom of God and to earthly governments, but the former must always take precedence over the latter.
(3) Chapter Y.
(4) Secular includes criminal and civil laws.
(5) Gregoary A. Boyd in The Myth of a Christian Nation.
(6) Without violent subjugation precludes the manner in which Islam was spread chiefly by military might during the early history of this religion.
(7) Many theologians, however, lament the Constantinian Barganthat arguably aligned Judeo-Christianity with earthly powers whose actions do not comply with the Gospel. This alliance produces misguided patriotism through a worship of governments or by uncritically assuming these institutions carry out the will of God because they are officially Judeo-Christian or ostensibly founded on Biblical principles.
(8) I have long wondered where individuals who follow this line of conversion find the Biblical justification for imposing their view of morality on other people through legal compulsion. Persuations without coercion, of course, is acceptable.