Tuesday, November 16, 2004

How would He govern (for the betterment)

At this point I remind myself that I am not designing a system of governance from scratch. Almost everyone--if not everyone--in this room is an American. We have a Constitution that presents us with a law with which I must begin if I am a Christian ruler in America.

Here God models a first insight for us--He starts with people where they are and works to bring them of their own "free will" to where He wants them to be. The very nature of biblical revelation thrusts this conclusion on us time and time again. Each book reflects the language and paradigms of its own time and place, from the stars in between the waters in Genesis 1 to the three heavens of Paul.

Thankfully, there is a great deal of overlap between America's laws and Christian values. Our Constitution is a social contract meant to protect the rights of all within its boundaries. It thus in theory is wired against the harm of anyone.

In my opinion, when we can show that certain actions harm others, we can work within the system to outlaw them. At times our culture has a blind spot to such harm. Slavery would be one instance. The refusal to give voice to women was another. We might look to abortion and racial discrimination as two instances that we are currently working on today. These are areas in which the law still allows individuals to do harm to others.

I believe a Christian ruler would work as wise as a serpent within our society to make it as harmless as a dove toward the unborn and toward those many others disempowered in it. By this comment I mean that some paths to these ends are more effective than others. For example, shooting abortion doctors hardly reduces the number of abortions or brings its legal end any closer.

I believe a Christian rulers would work within the American system for the benefit of all. While the Constitution really works more against the detriment of all than for the benefit of all, this is a small step our system allows.

A Christian ruler would thus make a priority the empowerment of the oppressed or downtrodden. I cannot believe that a Christian ruler would not make it a priority to educate and transform those who are in a perpetual cycle of disempowerment in society. While it is true that such cycles are often a product of choices, they are not empowered choices. How could it not be Christian to help others from the slavery of their environment?

God does not insist that people choose Him. But He seeks to influence others for Him. A ruler who would write off or simply abandon some segment of society, without seeking to woo it to the better, is not worthy to have Christ's name in front of him or her.

How would He govern? (Free Will)

The issue of free will is one of debate among Christians. But I think we can all agree that whether or not we ultimately have free will, we act like we do.

And God lets us. Even if God is ultimately pulling the strings, He lets some murderers think that they are enacting their own free will in choosing to kill others. In short, God does not make the world conform to His will--not yet, at least.

Even our risen Lord does "not yet have everything under his feet" (Heb. 2:8). He is in one sense still waiting until his enemies are put under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25).

For some mysterious reason, God allows people to disobey His will down here. Indeed, He often allows them to do so far beyond anything we would stomach as a Christian ruler. He allows people to murder and steal from each other. He allows Holocausts, genocide, and millions of abortions. These are some of the most pressing questions of Christian faith, why God allows evil to happen to His people.

Surely our first rule of Christian governance must come into play here--a Christian will govern with a view to the benefit of those both within and without the nation. Surely we will not allow murder. Surely we will pass laws that protect our citizens from one another.

But doesn't God show us by the way He governs the world that He much prefers to woo people to Him than to force them to Him? Does He model an approach that seeks to influence and change people so that they come to Him willingly rather than one that focuses on outward action regardless of any heart change?

How do we decide where to force conformity to His will (e.g., murder) and where we allow people to sin to their own detriment?

It is clear that God's model implies that a Christian ruler would not force everyone to believe in God or to go to church. A Christian ruler would seek to influence others to believe in God and go to church, but it would allow the nation the other choice as well, to its detriment.

Would a Christian ruler make sure all businesses were closed on Sunday, to faciliate going to church? I think he or she might--in the 1940's. But I don't think a Christian ruler today would. Why? Because such a law would not draw non-Christians to Christ today. It would push them away.

So we are left with the same question again. Clearly God would have a Christian ruler work for the benefit of all. But God would allow individuals to disobey His will at some points also, to their detriment. What rule of thumb should a Christian ruler use to decide which principle to invoke at what point?

How would He govern? (God vis-a-vis world)

The reason that Jesus' ethics in the Sermon on the Mount only seem to give us a partial sense of how a Christian would govern is because his words, like those of so much of the New Testament, were aimed at the governed rather than the governing. Jesus, Paul, Peter and others presume that the situation in which the Christian will find him or herself is one in which the governing force is either completely independent of or more likely hostile toward him/her.

Jesus' words on turning the other cheek picture a person in the role of the slapped. Paul draws a sharp dichotomy between church and state in his comment that we make judgments in the church but that God will judge the world--leave it to Him (1 Cor. 5). Hebrews and 1 Peter both picture the Christian as the stranger and alien on the earth, not as the emperor or senator.

On the one hand, the love ethic--love God and love others--is the greatest absolute of the Christian ethic. God gives no exceptions to this rule, so we can set down the first rule of Christian governance. A Christian will govern with a view to the benefit of those within as well as without.

As a side note, it does seem likely to me that for God, His justice ultimately does triumph over His mercy if there is a hell without the possibility of repentance. God is not bound by some abstract "rule" that says He doesn't really want to send people to hell, but He has no choice. If God is God, He has a choice. If God consigns individuals irrevocably to hell, then He must ultimately consider love of Him a priority over love of others.

But I believe the opposite priority is in force on earth. On earth, mercy should triumph over justice. The cross is the ultimate demonstration of this principle.

Of course it is true also that God occasionally does seem to enact justice before mercy on earth as well. While He most of the time gives us a chance to repent up until our deaths, Ananias and Sapphira were immediately taken from the earth. Similarly, if there is such a thing as the unpardonable sin, it is an irrevocable instance of God's justice set in stone on earth. In general, we might suppose that there are people who we observe to be unwaveringly unrepentant. Has God withdrawn the grace that leads to repentance from such individuals? In other words, is this the triumph of justice over mercy even on the earth and before the final judgment?

To return to our subject, the teachings of Jesus while on earth and those of the other New Testament authors do not address as directly the question of governance as they do the question of those governed. A nation will not turn the other cheek long before it makes the transition from the governing to the governed. "If someone shoots an ICBM at the east coast, give the coordinates to the west coast as well"? If this is the Christian way to govern, then Christians will not govern for long. Some take this position--Christians simply should not get involved in governance.

But I would suggest that the most appropriate model God gives us for how a Christian would govern is not Jesus' ethical teaching aimed at the disempowered.

Similarly, I would suggest that it is not God's relationship with Israel that provides the model either. On the one hand, I have already suggested several clear differences between our situation and that of God's relationship with ancient Israel. We have no Moses. We have no biblical basis for thinking ourselves a chosen nation over other nations. And the New Testament modifies several Old Testament laws beyond continuance.

Further, the relationship between God and Israel is more analogous to that of Christ and the church than to that of God and the world. Although Israel often did not keep the covenant, Israel represented those who were "in," as the church (also full of sinners) represents those who are putatively "in."

But a nation like America is not a gathering of those who are "in." It is a mixture of the ins and outs.

In the end, it is the relationship between God and the world or that of the risen Lord and the world that is a closer model. In other words, the biblical model that comes closest to that of a Christian governing a society is that of God governing the world, a world both with people who serve Him and a preponderance of those who don't.

How would He govern? (Preliminaries 2)

We have established biblically that America is not Israel. We have also hinted that even if we could find a modern "Israel" that had the same relationship as ancient Israel did, God would not deal with them in exactly the same way He did ancient Israel. We have the New Testament to reckon with and the Lordship of Jesus Christ administrated through the Holy Spirit in this domain.

By the way, nor is the current Israel yet the Israel of promise. Most prophecies of return related to the return of Israel from Babylon in 538BC. Paul does predict that all Israel will be saved. But this has not happened--indeed, it is illegal to try to convert people to Christ in modern Israel. Most Israelis are not even religious. The last statistics I heard were that modern day Israel was 85% secular. Perhaps they will become the Israel of promise one day, but it has not happened yet. For all we know, they will be destroyed and restored again before these things happen--if indeed this is the way to interpret these biblical passages.

We now come to another important preliminary: we have no certain Moses among us. If we are to be a theocracy, we must have a Moses to show us the way. Who of us is ready to give a particular denomination the authority to set the law and decide what God's precise will is in law?

Indeed, the history of church and state relations seems often checkered with excesses and ungodliness. I doubt many of us would enjoy Geneva if we were transported to the days when Calvin influenced its laws. Which of us desires to be a pilgrim making his or her way to America to escape the persecution of the Puritans in England or that of the Lutherans and Catholics in Europe? I would not want to be a Catholic bishop under Henry VIII or a Protestant one under Bloody Mary. And while Susanna Wesley was fond of Oliver Cromwell, I personally would not aspire to live under his thumb.

I heard once that Charles Spurgeon, a famous Baptist of England, was once asked why the Baptists never burned anyone at the stake. His answer was immensely insightful: "We were never in power."

We should read the first amendment boundary between church and state against the backdrop of these situations. A healthy distance between church and state saves us from ourselves and from the times we frequently mistake our interpretations and thoughts from those of God.

And the claim that we will base our laws on the Bible is misleading and potentially very dangerous. Whose interpretation of the Bible will you use? Most of those who say this only know to read the Bible as it appears to them and have little awareness of the original meaning of these words--and how different it was from their own thoughts. Both Jesus and Paul model a spiritual interpretation of the Bible's words that cannot be quantified or pinned down. It is only as valid as the Spirit behind the prophecy, and it is always subject to the spirits of other prophets in our midst.

In short, Adam's Fall has impaired our moral and natural image. Entailed in these impairments is a need for checks and balances in our thoughts and understandings, because we are all stuck in our heads. No one person or denomination or nation has a corner on God's thoughts.

How would He govern? (Preliminaries 1)

Tomorrow is the religion colloquium at IWU, and I'm supposed to present on this topic. By the way, all are invited and you can get chapel credit (10-1 in the banquet rooms). There will also be a discussion time. I won't present everything I write today here, but I'm priming my pump.

Now that "we" are in power--if indeed moral issues of evangelical flavor pushed Bush over the top--how are we to rule?

My topic is how would God rule?

On the one hand, this is a question that we must filter--because none of us is God. To some degree, we know how God governed ancient Israel. But we are not ancient Israel. For example, the circumstances that led to food laws no longer exist. While there are legitimate grounds for disagreement on this topic, I personally think the food laws had more to do with distinguishing Israel from their neighboring peoples than because of health. After all, did they really cook pork better in Paul's day than they did in the day of Moses?

Similarly, God no longer deals with the earth through a specific ethnic group. The scope of misunderstanding involved in taking Ezra to prohibit interracial dating is staggering. This line of attack is such thinly veiled prejudice that I have no problem dismissing the spiritual advice of any group that would dare twist Scripture and God's will so blatantly.

This latter matter brings us to an important point. Ancient Israel repeatedly demonstrated that they were not worthy or holy enough to be called God's people. Such a designation was truly a matter of God's grace. It was God who called them to be His people, despite their unfaithfulness and unworthiness.

There has been no biblical revelation pronouncing any other nation to be God's people, God's unique mirror to the world. Indeed, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, American nor Russian, Iraqi nor Canadian, but you are all one in Christ Jesus.

I would say that I aspire for America to be conformed to God's will. If by calling ourselves a "Christian nation" we mean that we as individual Americans surrender our lives to God and will try as best we can to work as Americans to bring this nation in conformity to His will--if these things are what we mean, then no problem.

But we are not pure enough and the American flag is not untainted enough to presume itself the new Israel. There is no new Israel. God does not love us Laodicean and Pharisaic American Christians any more than He loves the Christian Iraqis who are currently fleeing for their life. If there were gradations in God's love, I think He would love them more because their Christianity comes with a price.

I believe God is very practical. If I were pastoring, I would not make a big stink about there being an American flag on the pulpit. But I would register what I believe to be God's thoughts on the matter. Thus saith the LORD: "No nation's flag is pure enough to be on a level with Me or My word. Put the flag by the piano if you want, to remind you to use democracy to make America as godly as you can. But don't even dare to think America has arrived spiritually or that your sinful nation is worthy of My favor. It will be by My grace if you are saved; America cannot earn my favor any more than anyone else can."

I believe many of us will have to repent in heaven for our spiritual pride on some of these matters. I believe God will honor the Christians from many, many other nations for a spirituality so much deeper than ours that we will fall on our faces in shame before our Lord at the thought that we were so blind to think ourselves somehow special for where we were born.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Theology 4: God as Good and Just

Christians also believe that God is love (1 John 4:8). Let's take a moment to ponder what this claim might mean in relation to His role as creator.

Plato/Socrates pondered the question "Is good good because the gods love it or do the gods love it because it is good." The implicit answer I perceive most Christians to take--and the answer most popular among Christian philosophers and ethicists seems to fall into the category of "God loves good because it is good." Those who take this position would probably not word it this way, but it is how I would categorize their position.

What I mean is that Christians tend to predicate goodness of God's "nature," as something He could not be anything but. The opposing idea is known as "Divine Command Theory." This is the idea that anything God commands is good, even if he were to command someone to offer his only son as a sacrifice (:-)

I have problems with the idea that God loves the good because it is good or because it is His essential nature. For one thing, I'm not sure what this means. Good is a ultimately an adjective when it comes to concrete reality. Only as an abstract concept is it a noun. Are we then saying that God only does "good" things?

But what are good things? A child would say they are things that bring pleasure, while something is bad if it brings pain. Adults come to speak of the "greater good." One person might say these are goods that ultimately bring greater happiness in the philosophical sense (eudaimonia). However, pain may be involved on the way to that greater good.

Talk of a "moral structure" to the universe seems equally ambiguous to me. Even C. S. Lewis reduced such a structure to the fact that people everywhere have a sense of right and wrong, not to a specific list. Indeed, it is very difficult to find a core list of morals accepted by all cultures everywhere. Perhaps all healthy cultures have a sense that it is wrong to kill certain "innocents," although such innocents are variously designated.

Finally, something inside of me wants to say that God could create a universe where the things we think of as bad are good and the things we think of as good are bad. This is not that universe, but there is a part of me that hesitates to venture anything about God's "nature" in anything but a sense relative to this universe. This approach places God beyond our universe in mystery, as it would seem a true God should be--not something our minds can tame and grasp in neat systems of philosophical-theological thought.

Also, I want to allow God to do things that would be evil for me to do even within this universe. The most famous example is God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Somehow it seems a cop-out to me to suggest that God was just testing Abraham, that God could never have let Abraham go through with it. I want to say that God sets the rules, He commands and thus defines what is "good."

Nevertheless, I believe that He has defined "good" as love in this universe, where love is both the attitude and the act of benefiting others. He has done this particularly through Christian revelation but also partially through creation. Good thus does involve on a basic level working toward the greatest possible happiness and pleasure of others.

By faith I believe God chooses to operate by His own rules in this universe--that He operates toward the greater happiness and ultimately pleasure of all. But God alone is allowed to violate His own rules--by definition any such action will be good if He does it. Also, His "nature" as love must be balanced with another representation of His "nature" in this universe, namely, His justice...

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Theology 3: God as Creator

After laying down some ground rules, I'd like to begin now with God.

I start with the faith claim that God created the world out of nothing. This claim seems rational to me in the sense that it is reasonable to believe that the universe had a cause and that its cause was a masterful designer. I do not know enough about astrophysics to speak authoritatively on the physics of such a beginning. But it would seem reasonable that there has only been one beginning and that some cause from beyond this universe is a reasonable trigger.

If God created the world out of nothing, He must be all world powerful. He must at least be able to do anything that is possible to do in this world. We must suspect He can do much more than is possible, but we cannot infer anything beyond this creation using reason alone. We have no point of reference to do so.

If God designed this world out of nothing, He must have knowledge of all possible worlds in conjunction with this universe. He must know all the potentialities of the world. He knows suffering; He knows evil; He gains no knowledge by becoming human. Everything that is to be known in this world is known by Him.

Whether God knows not just all the potentialities but the actualities of the universe is an issue of faith it would seem rather than reason.

But in short, we cannot by reason infer much beyond these inferences relative to our universe. We have no frame of reference by which even to understand what it might mean to be beyond this universe. Reason consigns us to resort to mystery.

Further, we suspect that the revealed truths that Scripture and Christian tradition present us about God's nature are also relative to our understanding. They are the face of God in relation to our universe. Who are we to limit or presume on what a divine "nature" might be in essence beyond this world?

I stand on mystery then. I assume that God has all power and knowledge of all potentialities. By faith I presume He has knowledge of all actualities beyond potentialities. I do not limit God's natures to that which is logically possible in this universe but allow for paradox.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Hopes for the Future

It looks like Bush has won, although it may take a day or two for Kerry to admit it.

In some respects this is a relief. I approve of many of the President's faith based initiatives. My Dad does prison ministry in a prison specifically set aside for people of faith. I don't have to worry about Kerry outlawing such things (if he would have). Bush will hopefully appoint Supreme Court judges who do not legislate morality (one way or the other). Perhaps Kerry would have appointed pro-active judges with agendas.

My hopes? I hope that since Bush is in his second term he will come clean with us. I hope he will not worry about politics and will get down to business. I hope he will work on the deficit instead of throwing money at us at least in part so we will like him (I believe he was also trying to help the economy). I hope he's learned his lesson in Iraq and won't go charging any more windmills. I hope he'll show some intelligence in the pursuit of real threats to our security. I hope he'll be a whole lot humbler in his bold initiatives and take the untested advice of conservative think tanks with several grains of salt.

Frankly, I suspect he's learned some lessons. I consider so much of his first term as incompetence and ignorance. I hope he somewhere deep down recognizes that too, even if he doesn't admit it. If he has learned from his mistakes, then he might redeem his first term in the second.

My fears? Well, there is my fear that he hasn't really learned anything, that he isn't just playing politics when he denies that he's made any mistakes. I personally prefer for a different party to control Congress than controls the White House--this provides checks and balances. I fear with an even more conservative Senate Bush will have free reign to experiment on us some more.

I'm also a little scared that we conservative Christians have so much power in America. I'm scared because I don't think we have as much figured out as we think we do. I would never give a Calvin the keys to Geneva, a Bloody Mary or a Cromwell the keys to England. I fear that we might do evil in God's name.

I knew I would feel this way no matter who won--that I would have some hopes overshadowed by even more fears. And so it is, a restless night before more restless days.

I pray the Lord humble us all. The temptation to sin is usually stronger in victory than in defeat.

Monday, November 01, 2004

The Other Side: Can a Republican be a Christian?

Dear Ken,

I’m really struggling with how a Christian could ever vote Republican. I mean Jesus made it the cornerstone of his earthly ministry to help the poor and downtrodden. Republicans are always favoring the wealthy and the powerful. They oppose welfare and programs to help women in trouble. How could a Christian be Republican when Jesus had such strong things to say against the rich?

How could anyone think that the party that opposed civil rights for African-Americans and equal rights for women represented God? If you find a person who belongs to the KKK or is really racist, they’re almost always a Republican. It’s always the Republicans who work against women having equal pay.

And what’s up with the Christians who support this war? How could anyone think Jesus would favor war or capital punishment? How does that fit with turning the other cheek? How could anyone think that the party of guns was the party of Christ? Jesus would be just as concerned with the innocent Iraqis dying as with our troops. How in the world could the party of war be the party of Christ? God told us to love our enemies. I have to consider the hate coming out of the Republican Party a sign that it isn’t of God.

And what’s up with the environment, man? God made this world! How could anyone think it was Christian to spoil God’s land? How can anyone be a Christian and not be absolutely in favor of protecting this world and the environment?

Now I don’t like abortion any more than anyone else, but we Democrats became pro-choice to save the teens that were dying while having back alley abortions in secret. We aren’t pro-abortion; we’re pro-choice. Is it better, a child to grow up in circumstances that make it a child of hell?

And I don’t see the Republicans adopting or going down to the crisis pregnancy center to help anyone. It’s always the Democrats who help these girls. The Republicans are always happy to tell someone else what they can and cannot do. But they don’t really care about the people. Jesus was just the opposite. He didn’t tell people what to do; he tried to help them. What would Jesus vote? He'd be a liberal Democrat, and Jerry Falwell would preach that he was going to hell!

I’m at a complete loss to imagine how anyone could be a Christian and vote Republican. Can you help me out with this one?



You can’t just say that all Republicans think or feel in all these ways any more than you can say all Democrats agree with you. There are a lot of Republicans like me who don’t agree with everything in the Republican platform. I would consider myself fairly pro-environment and relatively anti-war, although I’m not a pacifist.

I also believe we should help the poor and downtrodden, that it is appropriate for the system to work for the empowerment of the little man. To me that isn’t always the same as a “free hand-out.” I do feel that my party has been on the wrong side of most of the social issues these last years, from the civil rights movement to women’s rights.

Abortion is a tougher issue. If abortion is murder—especially late term abortions—then it would seem that the child has a moral claim. But I agree that it doesn’t do for us simply to oppose the abortion while ignoring the problems of these girls.

I don’t think either party has the right to call itself the party of God. The best thing we can all do is to get past such nonsense. God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I suspect we reveal blind spots in our own spirituality if we think one or the other party has a corner on the truth.