Yesterday was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the United States. Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, ages, genders, and faiths came together to celebrate the life of a man who served as a crucial voice in the civil rights movement, urging his fellow citizens to recognize all races as truly equal in the eyes of the law (and in the eyes of the beholder). He may not have been a popular figure in his own time, but without Rev. Dr. King’s work, I daresay we wouldn’t be nearly as far along our struggle to end racism as we are. But what truly made MLK stand out was his chosen mode of operation: nonviolent resistance.

King detested violence in any form for any purpose, even the purpose of gaining equal protection under the law. He believed violence would never be an appropriate response to anything: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Christians like Dr. King have long debated the uneasy relationship between Christianity and violence. (Already you’re saying, “What? Violence and Christianity have a relationship? Well, yeah.) Most people are quick to denounce overt violence carried out in the name of God; the Salem Witch Trials, the Crusades, and the Inquisition stand out as dark spots in a faith claiming to be founded by the one who said “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12). I know of a few people who will attempt to defend the Crusades, stating they halted the ingress of Islam into Europe (which, according to some scholars, is true) — but no one will condone the murder of other human beings on ideological grounds.

Or will they? There are three approaches to violence, two of which describe the majority of Christians: pacifism/nonviolence, just war theory, and the “no holds barred” ideology of stalwart jingoists and others. The first two, pacifism and just war, are adhered to by a majority of Christians. Certain strains of evangelicalism may stray towards a “violence can be necessary even if it doesn’t fit your criteria” mentality, but I find this view completely indefensible from a proper biblical ethic; as such, I’ll spend most of my time on pacifism and just war theory.

Christian pacifism has a long, storied history beginning within the pages of the New Testament itself. The adage “those who live by the sword, die by the sword” is a paraphrase of the words of Christ to Peter in Matthew 26:52: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Those who practice nonviolence in all things also point to scriptures such as Matthew 5:39 (“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”), Matthew 18:21-22 (“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times'”), and the examples of Stephen, Peter, Paul, and the other apostles in the book of Acts (being arrested and suffering torture and martyrdom instead of defending themselves using violence). The Bible makes it clear believers will suffer due to their faith (see especially 1 Peter), but not a single verse ever exhorts Christians to use violence to defend themselves or others. With this in mind, Christian pacifism was the only real view of violence from the time of Christ until the legalization of the faith by the emperor Constantine in 313.

With Constantine, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and theologians began their work anew in the area of violence. Now that they wouldn’t be defending a pagan government, for example, Christians reconsidered their previous refusal of military service. The Empire promised the ability to spread the religion by force if necessary; should Christians participate in a sort of “swordpoint evangelism”? Should a person of faith be ready to cast down pagan governments and enforce the true religion by any means necessary? And what about matters of human suffering? Are Christians to simply stand idly by while the forces of evil oppress and destroy that which is good?

Perhaps the greatest voice writing on this topic was St. Augustine. Inspired by Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Augustine saw governments as chosen by God to rule, and thus they were defensible by force where necessary. A Christian could thus serve in the military and defend his country as long as the campaign met several very specific criteria. Over time, these criteria were refined and nuanced, and today they constitute what is called just war theory. For violence to be acceptable, a war/act must satisfy the following:

  1. Just Cause/Right Intention — The war must begin only to bring about social justice and protect life; retribution, material gain, or conquest is excluded by default.
  2. Competent Authority — The party declaring war must be a legitimate political power (e.g., a oppressive dictator has no authority to order people to fight and die).
  3. Proportionality — The good to be gained through violence must outweigh or at least be proportional to the destruction it will cause. Collateral damage is to be minimized at all costs.
  4. Probability of Success — If the war is unwinnable, it has no reason to be fought.
  5. Last Resort — War is only an option when diplomacy in all its forms has completely failed. Violence is not a “shoot first, ask questions later” sort of enterprise.

To give an example, World War II would certainly be considered a just war: it was waged to stop a genocidal regime (just cause/right intention), declared by democratic powers (competent authority), ended as soon as the objective had been achieved and followed by a rebuilding of private properties (proportionality), won by those who had sufficient military strength to accomplish the objectives (probability of success), and entered only after diplomacy, including a bit of appeasement, had been completely exhausted (last resort). Deciding to “liberate” an unoppressed people to gain crude oil or combat an ideological opposite would fail to meet at least the first (and probably the last) criterion. In strict interpretations of just war theory, WWII was in fact the last so-called “just war” ever waged.

On the personal level, just war prevents us from shooting our neighbor when his music blares into the wee hours of the morning, and it precludes fighting someone who has impugned our honor or even committed a violent act against a family member (both of which would be retribution). Ethicists still debate the exact parameters around violence for the purpose of self-defense or defending a neighbor; the just war framework can be either flexible enough to allow it or unyielding enough to totally forbid it depending on one’s interpretation.

Most Christians rally around one of these two positions, and there many historical, biblical, and theological reasons for doing so. Ardent patriots and other jingoists who too often confuse Jesus for George Washington, however, will loudly assert we should fight any takers with an assault rifle in one hand and the Bible in the other. While liberating the legitimately oppressed may satisfy the just war criteria, it will only do so under very specific circumstances — and obviously a battle for any reason at all fails the nonviolence test altogether. The neoconservative agenda (think “Team America, World Police) has yet, to my way of thinking, to satisfy just war criteria.

And our commands to love our enemies as ourselves, to bless them and wish them well (Matthew 5:44, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:27, Ephesians 4:32, etc.) forbid us from any acts of vengeance, theft, or military action designed specifically to spread an ideology or claim resources by force. For that reason, I’m always incredibly uncomfortable when my brothers and sisters in Christ get too cozy with the weapons of war or stray down the path of xenophobia — or who advocate abortion or the death penalty, both of which seem to be more accepted forms of violence. (But those are topics for discussion in their own right.)

Ultimately, God will put an end to all violence, and I know it must break His heart as much as it does ours to see people needlessly destroying other people. I long for the day when God “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). Even so, come, Lord Jesus, come.

A God without Borders

Immigration has long been a point of contention in American politics, and it seems to have come to a head recently with President Obama declaring executive action on the matter. I daresay that at the heart of the bitter dispute between the president and Congress is a struggle for political power having nothing to do with immigration policy, but the constant war and arguing has at least brought the issue of immigration to the forefront of the American political consciousness. Republicans say we should reinforce the border with extra personnel and arms and immediately deport any illegal aliens, sending them back from whence they came regardless of the circumstances which drove them to flight from their countries of origin. Democrats think we should grant forms of amnesty to illegal immigrants, subject to a very specific (and somewhat stringent) set of criteria, and the border, while needing to remain secure against potential terrorists, should still be generally open to those who can cross it without posing direct threats to our national security (extra resources optional). Should a Christian side with one party or the other — or neither?

I think it’s important to begin with what Scripture teaches about the sojourner and the stranger. Abraham himself was an immigrant, called by God to leave his homeland for an as-yet-undisclosed country (Genesis 12). While I don’t recommend passing off your wife as your sister like Abraham did (a nasty habit his son inherited, more’s the pity), I do believe this can be a starting point for this discussion. Abra(ha)m left for a land of promise, passing through multiple other countries and city-states along the way, generally abiding by local customs and laws while doing so. His great-grandson, Joseph, though a Hebrew, became an administrator of Egypt second in power only to Pharaoh himself (Gen. 41). As administrator, he used his authority to care for all peoples who came to Egypt seeking assistance in the famine, including the very brothers who had sold him into slavery years before. In Joseph we have a precursor to the Mosaic law’s care for the Other.

The Torah received by Moses gives a great many injunctions about immigrants. Repeatedly throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God instructs Moses, “And you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Immigrants into the land controlled by the Hebrew people are to be treated fairly and justly, regardless of what brought them there. They’re not even required to become part of the community of faith (although, if they do, they are to be held to the same laws and moral code as the worshiping Jews, including mandatory circumcision); they may safely dwell among the children of Abraham as distinct — but equal — peoples. Indeed, the ethic of reciprocity (a.k.a. the Golden Rule) is mentioned expressly in regards to immigrants: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34). At no point is the sojourner/stranger/immigrant to be considered less than a “native” Jew. They are to be loved and provided for, regardless of anything else. And at all points, the people are to remember that they, too, were once strangers in a foreign land.

Certainly the New Testament upholds that ethic. Both the Greatest Commandment and the parable of the Good Samaritan teach us to love others as ourselves and to help them in their need, even if they’re of different nationalities, religions, or other criteria. Paul’s missionary journeys, Peter’s visit to Cornelius, and Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch show us that our God recognizes no borders. The Gospel is a message to all peoples, all countries, all ethnicities (Mt 28:19-20-; Lk 2:10; Acts 1:8). Any border we may draw and then try to protect is an artificial boundary designed to keep people out — thereby making them not “our problem.”

Yes, borders keep us safe to an extent. And yes, they do protect our standard of living since they prevent people from making demands on our tax dollars. But have you ever considered that we have enough wealth to make Solomon blush, that perhaps we should be inviting people in so we can care for them through sacrificial giving? We are to give freely to everyone who asks of us — but not giving just what they ask for, but going above and beyond (Lk 6:29-31,35). If anyone, immigrant or otherwise, comes to us asking for food, shelter, safety, work, education, or anything else, we are to help them in every way we can. This is a duty which takes no heed of human law.

Should immigrants come to our country (or any other) through the established, legal channels? Yes, they should. There should be a respect for the laws of the nation they wish to make their home, and that begins with adhering to the legal immigration process. But which of us would look at a fellow human being, a brother or sister in Christ, who comes from a country ravaged by war, disease, poverty, and famine, and tell him or her to leave a place of safety simply because they didn’t file the proper paperwork? Who among us would be so blatantly jingoist and xenophobic that we would rather watch people suffer and die without doing something to help them just because it might cost us something?

America was a melting pot, a nation of immigrants who founded a new country because they sought freedom: freedom of religious practice, freedom from persecution, freedom from early deaths after a lifetime of suffering. How quickly we seem to forget that fact when other people want to do the same thing our grandparents and great-great-great-great-great-grandparents did. If it weren’t for immigration, I myself wouldn’t exist (being the blend of Welsh, German, and Irish blood that I am). Why do we fear the Other, the very diversity God created and loves so very much? Why do we forget that people of all nations will worship around the throne of God (Revelation 7:9)? Why are we unable to remember the exact thing Moses and his flock were required to keep in mind: we were once strangers in a foreign land?

And so whenever someone asks me my position on immigration, I’ve decided to simply quote Deuteronomy 26:5-9, something which was to be recited by every Israelite during the presentation of the offering of first fruits:

You shall answer and say before the LORD your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Political Theology: Ideologies

One of my major interests in the field of public theology is political theology. It’s exactly as it sounds: the theology of politics. Political theology encompasses everything from whether or not Christians should vote to just war theory and back again: political engagement, running for office, separation of church and state, voting preferences, pacifism, civil disobedience, you name it. I intend for these topics to take up several posts here at the blog, so don’t expect to get all of my thoughts on these today (unless you buy me caffeine and chocolate chip cookies). Today’s post is going to be a general overview of ideologies and the theology behind them.

It’s election day here in the States, so let’s start with democracy. As Winston Churchill once famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” (or something like that). And it’s true: democracy is far from perfect, but at least it’s the least of the evils. People have voices in the government and the power to mold public policy by proxy (in theory). No single individual can drive the government into wanton corruption, and the government has checks on its own power. Individual freedom is promoted, just as God gave us free will. Which all sounds pretty good, right? So what’s the problem with democracy? It can turn the public into nothing more than an amalgamation of disinterested, selfish voters who promote only their own agendas. Instead of cheering for the common good, people start cheering only for themselves. This is particularly true when democracy is utilized together with capitalism (as it is in America). The free market economy may be the most competitive in every way, and it may yield amazing profits for the successful, but it absolutely fails to care for the marginalized. The limited role of the democratic government shifts responsibility solely onto the shoulders of individuals — and individuals rarely accept the added burden of caring for someone else as they should. (“It’s my money; I earned it; he’s not even working; why should I pay for his medical bills?”) That sort of selfishness/defensiveness leaks over into voting practices: I vote for the candidate who will do the most for me and promote my personal agenda, not the one who will ignore my own desires and do what’s best for the nation as a whole. Definitely not a Christian view of loving one’s neighbor, but at least people are free to try, whether they actually do or not.

But let’s look (briefly) at the alternatives. Socialism has always been highly stigmatized in America, but Europe seems to have embraced it in major ways. It generally allows the public to retain voting rights and a voice in government, but the government is far more extensive than a federalist republic’s take on democracy. The free market is scaled back as the government takes on additional responsibilities as a service provider: health care, transportation, media, etc. It’s true that a socialist government eliminates any sort of competition when it assumes control of these areas, and it’s also true that the overall quality of each of these has the potential to suffer greatly because of the lack of competition. On the flip side, however, this means the public has unfettered access to the services they need and receive (largely) unbiased news programs, newspapers, etc. (Or at least they do in the best instances.) The government therefore provides the care we should each be showing our neighbors, giving them medical care, shelter, food, and other life necessities. It’s not holy, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Communism and fascism are two sides of the same coin, two ideologies so far apart on the spectrum of political thought they almost meet each other as they go around the circle. Communism demands the government take full control of every individual’s life, providing for it (as best it can, which is to say, not at all). Fascism does much of the same, but only for its preferred demographic (and tries to systematically remove everyone else from its populace). Even though these do provide, in limited ways, for their people, neither one does so with the measure of human dignity, freedom, and love deserved by those who bear the image of God. Their governmental provisions and care are nominal at best, and they can hardly be described as meeting the Christian ideals, particularly given communism’s historical hatred of religion in general and fascism’s misappropriation of the same.

Each ideology (almost) has good and bad, then. Democracy does well in its promotion of freedom and public involvement, but it lacks any sense of responsibility for taking care of the Other. Socialism scales back those freedoms to a degree while stepping up its care for its citizens. What solutions do we have, then, for establishing a Christian political ideology working in the constraints given us?

Let’s be clear on one thing, first of all: a theocracy is not the answer. You can attempt to legislate morality, but at the end of the day, people will either a) completely ignore your ethos or b) follow them without truly believing in them. If it’s the former, then no one is behaving morally, and your theocracy has failed. If it’s the latter, then people are religious in name only and not true believers, and your theocracy has still failed. And a theocracy gone bad was the beginning of sorrows for many, many people: the Anabaptist martyrs (murdered by Catholics and Protestants alike during the Reformation), Servetus (slowly burned at the stake by order of John Calvin during his reign of Geneva as high theocrat), innocent colonists accused of witchcraft (hanged, burned, and pressed to death by their Puritan brothers and sisters) . . . the list goes on. Earthbound theocracies simply won’t work.

What do we do as Christians, then? We operate under our respective forms of government and live Christian lives promoting Christian values. Political involvement aside, we should bear the burdens of our sisters and brothers and take steps to care for those who cannot care for themselves. In a democracy, we’re free to do so — and we need to, since the government will offer only very limited assistance at best. A socialist government may do more, but I’m not convinced it should. The Church needs to step up to the plate as she has throughout history. Why do so many hospitals have affiliations with religious groups? Because the people of God recognize our duty to care for the sick. We as Christians built the hospitals; why don’t we run them, working to make healthcare affordable to the ones who so desperately need it? Why can’t we provide transportation assistance for those who simply need a way to get to where they need to be? Why don’t we provide food to the hungry and homes for the homeless instead of relying on government aid programs? I believe a government, whether democratic/capitalistic or socialist, has a responsibility to care for its people in material ways, but I don’t believe it should be the primary caregiver. The primary caregivers are the people of God who can care for soul as well as for body. We as Christians have a duty to promote these things in our churches, in our personal lives, and (as needed) in our governments. (We’ll tackle advocacy in a later post.)

Since it’s election day here, I want to leave you with this thought. The words of John Wesley should still be heard even today as we cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.

JW on voting