03 July 2008

Hold the Fireworks

by Frank Turk

I was chatting with Dan about Phil's posts on the subject of church and politics. What he said made me think hard about the exchanges going on here on this topic: he, frankly, isn't sure that he exactly grasps the shape and implications of my position. Let me say that if there is anybody on earth who is bright enough to follow even the most ponderous argument, it's Dan -- so if he can't follow the ball here, maybe I better step back and start over.

Dan's starting point in reasoning here is utterly practical: let's imagine that he and I are standing on a street corner, arguing about whether it's tenable to call God's work over time "dispensational", and across the street a woman shrieks because two thugs are attacking her.

Dan's view (and I think he's right) is that he and I would bound across the street and ... do what? Break out the book of Ephesians and start preaching the Gospel to these misguided, lost souls? No: we would make them stop by any means necessary. And in doing so, we would be doing something inherently Christian.

I am sure there are some who would take a sacrificial, passivist view in this situation and not employ violence -- they might throw themselves on a knife or a gun, or simply find a way to obstruct at all personal costs, but they would intervene. They would do something.

In that, I think all of us agree on something: we know who our neighbor is. That is, when we read the parable of the Good Samaritan, we aren't trying to justify our stupid question to Jesus about what the greatest commandment is by asking a further-stupid question like, "yes, but...?" We are reading what is a ridiculously-obvious story about the fact that anyone walking down the street knows when someone has been wronged, and anyone walking down the street can do something of immediate necessity which will offer right-minded aid.

We know who our neighbor is. We know -- by virtue of both the revelation in creation and the revelation in God's word -- how to offer aid to those who need it.

Now, from there, Dan would reason, "so what do we do about the government when it is handing out knives with which to slaughter the unborn?" A simple technique of arguing from the lesser to the greater, right? And who wouldn't follow him at least to the place where he would answer that question?

Personally, I'm not ready to leave the neighborhood where the woman got attacked yet.

I want you to imagine for a moment that it is your neighborhood in which this woman got attacked, and where the Pyros intervened and, at least, got her purse back -- because the example is not the right scope yet to reason from lesser to greater. The example is one of practical immediacy, and it is seeking to reason up to an example of systematic injustice -- and the two are not necessarily analogous. While Dan would argue that he and I should offer first aid to the woman if she is injured, for example, I am not sure he would argue that the government should then provide universal health care -- the analogy breaks down quickly when we try to change a matter of personal moral action into a model of systematic political philosophy, and I would argue that it breaks down in the previous example in the same way it breaks down in this example: the government is not tasked to do everything the individual is tasked to do. In fact, it's tasked to do some things that the individual is not tasked to do -- like holding trials and conducting court to settle grievances.

The example of personal responsibility does not translate into the example of governmental responsibility -- especially in the experiment of the American republic. Our system of government separates branches in order to restrain human power because, among other things, we recognize that government is really just men, and men are (at best) fallible and weak.

The Constitution begins like this:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
And I post that not to make a theological point, but to circle-back my rabbit trail here and say that while this intention is broadly phrased, it is also narrowly conceived and bounded by the bill of rights which places certain political categories out of the reach of the federal entity. That is: the Constitution recognizes that there are some things which the Government ought not to do.

Now listen: I bring that up because I'm trying to clarify, for Dan's sake if not for the rest of you, what I am talking about when I speak to the matter of church and politics. There are some things the Government ought not to do -- I think all of us would agree with that in premise, even if the particulars would vary depending on where we would fall out on the political spectrum.

For example, I think we would all agree that the police should not be able to come into our backyard and start searching for stolen money or dead bodies unless they have some kind of justifiable reason, right? And your neighbor probably would do well to mind that rule as well, right?

But your neighbor has the right to look out his back window, and perhaps see you burying that big black sack in your back yard. So unlike the police who cannot be everywhere, your neighbor -- the one you would cross the street to help if he was in trouble -- has a right which you wouldn't give to the police. You wouldn't give the police carte blanche to check your back yard at any hour of the day, but your neighbor has that right insofar as he has a view from his window into your yard.

So it is that citizens of a country, particularly in our constitutional republic, have the ability to do things which are not rightly called the work of the government which leads them by consent. The government is not merely the sum of the parts: in fact, in some ways it has (ought to have) fewer rights to take some actions to temper the greater rights is has to actually conduct the business of governing.

And, in reasoning from the lesser to the greater, if this is so for a human-established government, can it be true of the Church, which is established by God? That is, is the church supposed to be everything that all humans inside it can and will do, or is the church constituted (you Baptists might prefer the word "commissioned"; the Presbyterians among you will prefer "covenanted") to do something specific which God has ordained, and which does not include all the things which individual believers might rightly do?

The example I gave when this came up in the meta under Dan's post previously was the same neighborhood we were talking about above -- and after the one robbery was thwarted, the question was considered whether the local church ought to then take up a mission of volunteer service to interdict crime in the community -- and I believe Dan's answer was "yes". If the community is crime-ridden, the church ought to step in and do something -- including patrolling the streets and petitioning the local government for better policing.

And the real irony is that I think it would be absolutely brilliant for those who live a community to own their community, and do what it takes to improve (which is an interesting word here) their community. Even if it included wielding meat chubs.

The problem is when they take to the streets to do this as the church of Jesus Christ rather than the citizens of a crime-ridden city. And the problem is that the church is not commissioned to govern the world.

The church has the spiritual authority to declare to men that their sin separates them from God; that God's wrath is waiting for them; that God has sent his son Jesus to receive the wrath due to sin for those who repent and believe. It declares to men a higher law than human government, and declares to them a greater good than mere civil peace. And it does this through the preaching of the word, the administration of the ordinances (you might say "sacraments" if you are a presbyterian in good standing), and the discipline of the body by rightly-qualified elders. And in this way, it is the manifestation of the kingdom of God, which is frankly not of this world.

And I have two examples of this which, I think, those who have a different opinion about this subject than I do have overlooked pretty significantly. I also have to finish the riff on why the distinction between church and state is (especially for us baptisses) not only good but necessary, and what it means to have personal Christian responsibility as well as an active and healthy church life. But I have already bored most of you to tears.

Take a break and come back tomorrow. Comments are closed until I finish this little exposition on whatever it is I'm talking about here.