At the time of this writing, Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis is being jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to homosexuals–a practice ruled a constitutional right in a recent Supreme Court decision. The situation has raised quite a bit of outrage from two areas of the political spectrum.
On the one hand, there was the initial reaction from social liberals who practically called for the woman’s head on a platter for letting her personal religious beliefs get in the way of her responsibilities as a public official. Then, there was the backlash from the religious right supporting her decision to uphold “God’s moral law” and turning her into a heroine of the Christian faith.
I don’t often discuss religion here on this blog and I should warn you that this isn’t something I would typically write, but this current event gives me occasion to address an issue that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, so here goes…
I suppose I should start off with a little bit of background on myself in relation to this subject. I have been a self-professing Christian since I was a young child, but I am not a Bible scholar and I have only a cursory understanding of religious history. I have also been an American since birth, but I am not an expert in government and have only as much knowledge of American history as the average citizen. So, take everything I say with a grain of salt. And, as always, don’t take my word for anything–do your own research…
A Different Question
In the 2nd-3rd century AD, early Christian thinker Tertullian posed the question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In context, his point was that Christians shouldn’t have felt the need to incorporate the tenets or methods of Greek philosophy into the sacred writings of scripture. God’s revelation (in whatever documents he considered canonical at the time) was sufficient and did not need philosophy’s help. The question was rhetorical–in Tertullian’s mind, Athens had nothing to do with Jerusalem.
In American society today, political progressives will often scoff at conservative politicians who want to integrate their faith into their public service. And they’ll cry foul when Christians want to have their religious beliefs protected under law. What about “Separation of church and state?” They ask. Religion should have no place in government. And, of course, right wing Christians push back against this idea–claiming that America was a nation founded on Christian principles and conservative politicians have just as much a right to stand for their convictions as liberal ones do.
Yes, the debate about religion’s place in politics is a lively one and it’s loaded with all sorts of assumptions about democracy, the role of government and the responsibilities of elected officials. But that isn’t exactly the issue I want to discuss here. Instead, I want to talk about something that not a lot of patriotic, conservative American Christians like to think about. Rather than comment on religion’s place in politics, I want to make some observations on the inverse–politics’ place in religion. Just like Tertullian wondered rhetorically what philosophy had to do with the Christian faith, I want to ask what politics has to do with the Christian faith. In other words, “What has Washington to do with Jerusalem?”
Is America a Christian Nation?
Demographically, America is primarily a Christian nation. And it has been a Christian nation culturally for much of its history. But, as far as I know, it has never been an officially Christian nation by any sort of government decree–it has simply been primarily populated and influenced by people who self-identify as Christians. Of course, there are a variety of religions represented in America, but Christianity has always been and still is America’s most populous religion.
That being said, I want to look at this question from another angle. For the purposes of this post, I’m less concerned with what kind of nation America is and more concerned with what kind of nation Christianity is. What do I mean by that? Well, when most Americans talk about America being a Christian nation, they go to the birth of America. Rather than doing that, I’m going to go to the birth of Christianity. Here’s the key question, then: what kind of institution was Christianity established to be?
If you are reading this and you’re a Christian, you’ll remember from the Gospels that one of Jesus’s favorite words was “kingdom.” The “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew, and the “Kingdom of God” in the other Synoptics, was a central concept to both his teaching and his mission.
- It was the very reason for calling people to repentance. Matthew 4:17: “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
- It was the theme of many of his parables. Matthew 13:24-50: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…“
- It’s something that he taught his disciples to desire and aspire to. Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.“
I bring all of this up to emphasize that Jesus did come to establish a nation. In fact, I think it can be argued that it is the primary reason he came. So, back to our question–is that nation the United States of America?
Let me answer this question by going to a conversion between Jesus and Pontius Pilate recorded in the John 18:
33 Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”
34 Jesus answered him, “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?”
35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?”
36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.”
Jesus was very explicit in describing the nature of his Kingdom: it was “not of this world.” It was not an earthly Kingdom and, therefore, the Romans had nothing to fear. If Jesus had been trying to establish an earthly kingdom, his disciples would have been fighting for him. As it stood, Jesus specifically told them not to fight for him. (See Matthew 26)
Jesus was not trying to start a political revolution; in fact, he (as far as I can remember) never made a single comment regarding how government ought to be run. He did have something to say on how citizens interact with their government…but we’ll get to that later. Jesus was not politician. He was not concerned with government. The Kingdom he was seeking to establish was spiritual in nature.
In many ways, I think it’s the misunderstanding of the “kingdom” concept that has led Christianity through such a dark history. Many terrible things have been done in the name of the faith I profess. The Crusades were done in the name of defending God’s kingdom. The exploitation, eviction, and sometimes eradication of native peoples during the era of European explanation were done with the idea of expanding God’s dominion. And, today, people on the religious right are attempting to turn America into the Kingdom of God.
Christianity is a spiritual nation, not a political one. And those who try to turn America into a Christian nation aren’t just doing a disservice to democracy, their doing a disservice to religion. Let America be America…and let Christianity be Christianity. Because when you try to turn America into a Christian nation, you are also turning Christianity into an American faith–and Jesus didn’t die for Americans only; he died for human beings.
Is Christianity an Inherently Politically Conservative Faith?
Here’s an interesting thought experiment: if Jesus were to come into the world today, which political party’s views would he share? Of course, this is an impossible question because, as I’ve already mentioned, Jesus was not very interested in politics. But the assumption by those who call themselves Christians (and also those trying to influence the Christian vote) is that Jesus would have been a Republican. He certainly would have been conservative. And so the default political affiliation for a Christian in America today automatically becomes conservative. Conservative = Jesus.
But is that really the correct picture of Jesus? No, I don’t think so. Although–and I can’t stress this enough–Jesus was not involved politically, he was active in his condemnation of others within his religion. The conservative leaders of the day–Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers–didn’t draw the support of Jesus; they drew his contempt. Jesus disagreed with the practices and especially the attitudes held by the religious leaders of his day, and he sought to teach a better way. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty liberal to me. If Jesus had been conservative, he never would have been crucified.
I think the people who try to paint Christianity as a politically conservative movement, though, are thinking in terms of specific issues–for example, the issue that prompted the writing of this article. Jesus didn’t directly condemn homosexuality, but the Pauline epistles (which are believed by most scholars to have been written before the Gospels of Jesus) clearly do. (i.e. Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9)
But that being said, neither Jesus nor Paul nor Peter nor James nor any other person named as a writer of the New Testament documents ever comment on “gay marriage.” You may think I’m splitting hairs, but I think that this is a non-trivial point. While homosexuality was thought by Paul to be sinful, it is nowhere taught by an New Testament writer to be illegal. Christians had no place to judge people outside of the faith–it was explicity condemned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:9-12. And they were also told to submit to governing authorities in Romans 13:1-7.
But, leaving the issue of gay marriage aside, what about other issues that have been adopted into the Christian faith simply because they are conservative? Immigration reform seems to be the hot button issue right now. On what grounds can a Christian possibly say that refusing to share their land with outsiders is the godly thing to do? Does the parable of the Good Samaritan ring a bell? How about that “least of these” passage in Matthew 25:31-46? Could it be that turning away an immigrant would mean turning away Jesus?
I don’t know. My point isn’t that Jesus was pro-amnesty. I’ll say it again–I think Jesus was apolitical. He was interested in changing lives through personal interaction; not through public legislation. I think it stands to reason, then, that his followers should aspire to the same goal. Being a Christian doesn’t mean watching Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh, or helping Donald Trump build his wall. Being a Christian means following Jesus. Jesus’s kingdom wasn’t of this world; as Christians, ours shouldn’t be either.
How Should a Christian Interact with Government?
Christians today live in a different world than they did in the first century, so the extent to which a Christian should be involved in politics is a little complicated. Christianity was born into the middle of the Roman empire, and only an elite portion of Roman citizens had the power to influence law. Today in America, every citizen has the right to vote and influence policy with that vote. So, given our current system of government, I think Christians have just as much a right to affect the law as anyone else.
But, here’s the thing: once a law is a law, Christians should honor it. I don’t think being a sore loser is a Biblical attitude with regards to the government. The Supreme Court ruled that homosexuals have the constitutional right to marry, and I don’t think Christians are authorized to rebel against that law through protest. Through appeal and legislation, sure, but not through outright disobedience. All of the Christians who feel indignant about following laws they disagree with in America should read Romans 13 over and over again to themselves:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
And, remember, this was written during a time in which Christians had no influence over a government that was not only secular but also explicitly approved the worship of other gods. The Twelve Tables of Roman Law is thought to have been a guiding set of principles used through the Roman rule, and these are the laws that Christians were to obey according to Paul. Not all of these laws are exactly ideal from a Christian perspective.
For example, Table 4 has a law which clearly states, “A notably deformed child shall be killed immediately.” Roman law instructed its citizens to abort babies who were deformed. Now, if that doesn’t have relevance to modern times, I don’t know what does. Most conservative Christians in America today believe that abortion is sinful, and don’t think they should have to fund it through government programs. I’m not saying that Paul would have encouraged Christians to have abortions, but he did encourage them to pay taxes to a government that instructed its citizens to abort their deformed infants.
And, let’s not forget, Jesus also said to pay taxes to such a government as well in Mark 12. Some of the religious teachers had approached Jesus to try to trick him into either dishonoring God or dishonoring the ruler of the land. So, after buttering him up, they asked him a simple question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Of course, most people know this story. Jesus had them bring him a coin and then proceeded to ask them whose image was on the coin. They admitted that it was the Roman emperor’s image. Then, Jesus uttered the immortal words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
I think it would be a mistake to say that this only applicable to taxes. Jesus is saying to honor both God and government, in the contexts in which you encounter each of them. To Kim Davis, he may have asked, “Whose seal is on that certificate?” She would have been forced to reply, “The United States Government.” And Jesus might have said, “Render unto the United States government the things that are the United States Government’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Or, as the apostle Paul wrote in the quotation above, “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”
Living in a Democracy, I certainly think it falls with the jurisdiction of American Christians to take an active role in creating legislation that they believe is better for society. However, when things don’t go their way, I think those same Christians are dishonoring God by disobeying the laws of the land. Just because you are standing up for God in your protest against the law you don’t like, that doesn’t mean he is standing up for you. Remember, Christ’s Kingdom is “not of this world.” He probably doesn’t care about your crusades nearly as much as you think he does.
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
I want to conclude this post with a plea for those to call themselves Christians to lay their weapons down. I can’t help but think that Jesus is looking down at millions of people who call themselves Christians and shaking his head. Protesting laws and trying to create a theocracy of their own design, the folks in religious right probably think that Jesus is cheering them on. I happen to think he is instead healing the ears of those we are offending and asking us to put away our swords. We are doing God no favors by taking up his mantle in battles he did not ask for us to wage.
As Christians, our fight is not against other people–it is against sin. It’s against the evil that infiltrates the hearts of men. People, ourselves included, are victims. Too many American Christians today assume the role of the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable when we should be assuming the role of the publican. Too many of us see the specs in the eyes of others but ignore the planks in our own. Perhaps Christianity would not be viewed with such hostility by contemporary secular culture if we spent more time tending to our own sins and less time tending to the sins of others.
At any rate, Christians are not supposed to coerce people into the faith–they are supposed to convince them into the faith. The first converts to Christianity made that decision because they were persuaded by its benefits–not because they were threatened by its preachers. Yes, Jesus did send Christians out to make disciples–but the method was personal persuasion, not legislation.
And what about the people who won’t convert? What about the people who remain outsiders to the Christian faith? Paul writes in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” All men–that means homosexuals, militant atheists, immigrants, environmentalists, pacifists, and anyone else that may insult conservative sensibilities. Christians are called to compassion, patience, and love–not the beligerence, intolerance, and contempt that I see all too often from politically charged Christians on the religious right.
If we really want to be Christians and aren’t just using the name as a rallying cry to gather support for our political ideologies, then we will find a way to get along with everyone else in the world. It’s a big world, and there are other people with other histories, values, and perceptions of the divine. Rather than attempting to oblierate and dominate these people with our own ideals, why don’t we try instead to understand them? Who knows, we might just learn something.
But, regardless, we’ll treat people with dignity and respect if we really want to be part of that Kingdom that Jesus came to establish. No, I’m not talking about America. I’m talking about the Kingdom of God–the community of people who belong to God, God’s childern. And who are these people? Well, for one thing, as Matthew 5:9 reminds us:
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Addendum: Obeying God Rather than Men
Shortly after writing this article, I began to see many well-meaning conservative Christian friends of mine citing Acts 5:29, in which Peter and the other Apostles declare, “We ought to obey God rather than men,” after being instructed by the Jewish High Priest not to teach about Jesus. I would like to point out two things in this regard:
- The Apostles were not resisting the authority of political leaders; they were resisting the authority of religious leaders. The Roman government had nothing to do with this–it was a spiritual dispute. It would be akin to a leader in your denomination/sect/faith forbidding you to teach a certain doctrine, and you instead standing on your convictions that you’re doing what God wants. That’s what’s going on in Acts 5–religious dissension, not political rebellion.
- The teaching that the Apostles are doing is through personal evangelism and not through legislation. The religious leaders aren’t telling the Apostles to stop using the government to coerce people into following their teachings–they’re telling the Apostles simply to stop teaching them. The Apostles aren’t complaining about their lack of representation in the government; they’re complaining about the right (and responsibility) to appeal directly and personally to the people they’re teaching. Personal evangelism is a key tenet of the Christian faith; public coercion is not.
Okay, I’m done now. I promise…