Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Christian, Democracy and a Conflict of Interest

It seems that the Church, like a drunkard on a horse (to steal an analogy from Lewis), has a tendency towards extremes, falling off one side or the other. It doesn’t really matter which way we sway because either way we’re hitting the ground. And lately I’ve been thinking about the way Democracy places us in an even more precarious position. As Christians, we are called to follow the path of mercy. The path of forgiveness, grace and acceptance. The path of charity. When wronged we are to turn the other cheek. We are not to seek after our own justice, but rather do good to those who persecute us. We are not called to shout down the evil in the world, but to bless it and transform it through the love of Christ. But we are not just Christians. We are citizens as well, citizens of a country that calls upon us to exercise our conscious in setting the policies and laws of our culture. And here in lies the rub, for the God-ordained function of government (of which we are a part) is to serve as “an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:4). In fact Paul’s comment “vengeance is mine” finds its context within this passage. So where as the Christian life is to be characterized by mercy and grace, Cesar is to be characterized by justice and wrath against the evil doer.

This dialect places the American Christian in a difficult position, for when we go to the polls as citizens we are to ask our government to dispense justice against the evil doer, but when we go to our neighbor as Christians, we must bring only mercy and grace. The tension of these legitimate and competing agendas has a tendency to drive a wedge between each. We wrongly carry the Christian mandate of charity and tolerance into our political/social agendas, or conversely we carry the government’s orientation toward justice into our churches. This wedge is seen perhaps most clearly in the issue of homosexuality. Christians on the left do a fantastic job of demonstrating Christ’s love and compassion to this community, but often tend to expect the government to establish policies in kind. And Christians on the right correctly ask the government to give no legitimacy to this community, but too often forget the Church’s mandate of love and tolerance. As servants of Cesar, we must, as it is within our power, establish policies of justice and truth without regard to mercy. We cannot allow the Christian mandate of tolerance and charity to stand in the way of our government’s mandate of justice. But conversely, as ministers of Christ we must not allow the governmental mandate of wrath to seep into churches. Though we may rightly ask the government to condemn the wrong doer, our churches must be the safest places that homosexuals can find.

Is this possible? Most Christian citizens throughout Christian history have never been placed in such a position. Paul and Peter were not asked to set the policies of the Roman Empire. Not bearing responsibility to wield Cesar’s sword, they wielded only the message of the cross. But in this democracy, this America in which we live, Christian citizens are called to wield both. Let us do our best to render unto Cesar that which is Cesar’s, to the Church what is the Church’s, and all things unto God. And let us have a spirit of community between the left and the right, knowing that each is only falling off of one side of the horse.


David Nebraska said...

maybe separation of church and state isn't such a bad idea?

J Daniel said...

At one level, I don't like the idea that we have to somehow ignore the message of Christ while we are in the voter's booth and then shape our lives by it as we walk out.

I took a class that focused on the writings of Jacques Ellul, who says (in my limited understanding) that the role of the Christian is to be the prophet who stands outside of politics--that entering the system of democracy only serves to subvert the message of Jesus by holding us to this double standard of which you speak. That Christian politics is a contradiction in terms, and there's nothing we can do but verbally challenge the system and work for justice and peace at a grassroots level. That seperation of church and state is not only okay, but a necessary view for the Christian. Have you read any of his stuff?

Hm. But somehow your way of living wisely in dialectic within the system we find ourselves in seems to be the way of it for us as American followers of Jesus, eh? I am far from conclusion here it seems. Thanks for the thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Just a comment on the drunkard on a horse reference that you attribute to Lewis - Martin Luther is, I believe, the original source of this analogy.


Gerald said...

A belated response to Jacob...

The point is not that we abdicate our Christian calling when we enter political discourse. It's just that the magistrate has one mandate from God and the individual Christian has another. The difficulty for us is that we are both individual Christians and magistrates all at once.