As Larry Lin noted a couple of weeks ago, there are few things more confounding for the Christian than our relationship to the nation-state. It is a uniquely democratic conundrum; our sisters and brothers under different types of regime aren’t faced with this dilemma. But in the United States, we must ask: how do we interact with the American government?
One thing is clear. Christians are called to be subject — or to submit — to secular governing authorities. Jesus, Paul, and Peter all teach that this is the proper inclination of the Christian heart. We recognize the authority of governing officials and treat them with the honor due their office not because they are honorable or because we agree with their positions, but rather because God grants power and authority to kings and rulers.
More than this, we are reminded by Paul not only to “be submissive to rulers and authorities” but also to “show perfect courtesy toward all people.” (Titus 3:1-2) While this admonition has more than governmental authorities in view, Paul’s instruction is within the same sentence as his command to “be submissive.” Surely showing perfect courtesy toward all people would have secular leaders in view.
This is especially convicting to us today. The social-media-fication of public discourse has destroyed the ability of many to be able to speak courteously about those we disagree with. This is particularly true when a leader makes mistakes or maliciously hurts those we identify with, either due to ethnicity, gender, or mere humanity. From radical pro-choice advocacy to white supremacist ideology, Christians are rightly concerned with the positions of many American leaders. However, our strong feelings do not exempt us from the call to show perfect courtesy toward all people. Even in our disagreement, passionate and strong as it may be, we are called to show courtesy.
The American experiment introduces a wrinkle into the Biblical injunction of submission. How should we vote within a democratic system foreign to the biblical context? When given the right to vote — as we are in the United States — and the opportunity to advocate for policies and positions we value for the good of our earthly nation, what is our paradigm?
More to the point (for this article): what principle can guide the policies we embrace and those that we reject? Should we simply choose a party? Should we embrace a liberal or conservative “reading” of the Constitution of the United States?
A Question of Policy
Allow me to offer a suggestion, one that, I’m sure, will invite no shortage of disagreement. It is a principle that I glean from the words of Jesus himself.
During their travels, Jesus and his disciples got hungry. Needing food, they picked some heads of grain. Pharisees took notice and began to interrogate Jesus. Why were the disciples doing what the Sabbath prohibited?
All three synoptic Gospels include the discussion. And, in all three, this initial conflict is followed by Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, stoking his opponents’ zeal to stop him and his ministry. Why would Jesus do what the religious leaders deemed unlawful? Because “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
There is one writer, however, who adds another sentence. Mark 2:27, “Then [Jesus] said to [the Pharisees], ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’”
There’s the principle.
The law of God was instituted for the good of the people. The people were not created to serve a law, but rather the law was created to serve people. The people mattered more. Policies in God’s law did not exist in an arbitrary “law-vacuum”, but was a tool designed for human flourishing.
People over Policy
If this is true of God’s law, wouldn’t we also expect the same for the laws of humankind? Shouldn’t our laws also be instituted and implemented for the sake of human flourishing?
If so, then this becomes a paradigm for all Christians as we analyze the laws of our land. Let’s look specifically at the American context.
Citizens of the United States have the ability to vote for and against laws and lawmakers. If there is a law that we believe is wrong, we can advocate for the removal of that law. This right extends from local municipal codes to the Constitution itself.
And so, though the Constitution established slavery and the sub-human treatment of African slaves, abolitionists sought to change the law. Later, the law was amended and slavery was no more.
There are many more examples of this. Policies that are recognized to inhibit rather than encourage human flourishing can be challenged and ultimately overturned.
People over policy. Or in the form of a question: Does this policy lead to human flourishing?
This may seem like common sense, but I hear many advocate for a position that seems to uphold laws simply because they are laws. This is what I call “law for the law’s sake.” Perhaps it is a resistance to changing those laws so important to Americans generations ago. Perhaps it is a desire to protect rights or stem the tide of social change.
But “law for the law’s sake” is not an appropriate lens for the Christian as we consider the policies of our country. Rather, it is “law for the people’s sake.” *
When a paradigm of people over policy is brought to bear on questions of law and politics, new questions begin to emerge. Does this position or policy help people thrive? Does this position protect the vulnerable? Who benefits from this policy? Is this policy — mutable unlike God’s law — still performing a flourishing function?
Is the policy punitive? Could the policy, when implemented, lead to abuse? Does such a policy protect or does it attack? Who might be hurt by this policy?
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In the same way, American policies ought to be made for the good of man, not for the good of the policies themselves.
Now, Christians will still disagree about which position on a particular issue leads to the most flourishing. There are few laws that are “no-brainers” (although those do exist).
But if Christians approached the issues with different questions, questions born from the principles of Scripture, then position A could not be declared “less American” than position B. We are seeking the good of the nation where we dwell. And we want human flourishing. Disagreement about how to make that happen can be passionate and even loud, but never antagonistic.
Rather, our disagreements can be discussed and common ground can be found — at least within the Church — when human flourishing is our goal. If this goal is spoken and agreed upon, then conversation becomes kinder and less like the conversations of the world.
Perhaps we would even be able to talk about politics (of all things!) while showing perfect courtesy toward all people.
Wouldn’t that be something?
*Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to this reality in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”