Monday, August 15, 2011

It’s A Free Country!

How many times have I heard, in a high school classroom, or in the halls between classes, the words, “It’s a free country!”? The implication is, “I can do as I please, it is nobody’s business but mine.” And we are blessed to live in a country where that statement is almost, in every case, true. Almost! But not in every case. When we sense that certain behaviors, even those that, under some circumstances might be harmless, do indeed impinge upon the rights or safety or well-being of others, we restrict or forbid those behaviors. Most of us live out our lives without being seriously constrained by such laws because most of us try to be considerate of the needs and rights of others. The United States is a “free country” but it is also a country governed by law.

The previous blog argued against the attempt by one segment of the Evangelical Christian community, to use law, and their ability to influence the making of law, to grant advantages to their beliefs and practices and to restrict others from following their beliefs and practices. The argument made in that blog begs the question of the appropriate role of a Christian believer in the political system. Does a Christian office holder, for example have an obligation before God to work for the enactment of laws that mandate practices he or she believes are God’s will for all mankind?

In ancient Israel the laws of Moses did just that; laid down a moral code of conduct and prescribed harsh penalties for breaking that code. It appears that Israel, besides not being able to live up to the code, was also reluctant to enforce the penalties prescribed. A few examples of stoning or burning of sinners appear in the record but by time of Jesus, ways had been found around both the proscriptions and the penalties. Jesus himself refused to sanction the stoning of an adulterous woman unless a sinless man could be found to serve as executioner. Without condoning the woman’s sin, he pardoned her and sent her on her way with an admonition to forsake her life of sin.

Where would modern conservative Christian Evangelicals stand on that issue? They advocate for a Constitutional Amendment to ban abortion, and to forbid same sex unions. In the former case they call abortion murder. Do they advocate that teen age girls – or pre-teen in some cases – who seek and obtain an abortion be treated the same as a woman who hires a hit man to kill her husband? Is one murder less heinous than another or is murder, murder? Or would they, when the “murderer” was their daughter or granddaughter, devise some way to evade the penalty as Ancient Israel did? I’m guessing the latter; I’ve heard the question deflected by suggesting that the doctor performing the abortion is more culpable that the girl who hired him to “kill” her baby. That wouldn’t “fly” in a case involving a woman who hired a gunman to kill her husband.

The epidemic of abortion in this country (and around the world) is tragic and sinful. But it will not be solved by passing laws that either have no teeth in them or are voided by loopholes and exceptions to accommodate our squeamishness in enforcing them. The question of homosexual marriage and participation by homosexuals in the military, while not involving issues of life and death, is similar in that the solutions offered must mean something – must be enforceable – if they are to contribute to an orderly functioning society.

The early Christian church, portrayed in the pages of the New Testament, did not have to trouble itself with these things. They were powerless to suggest ways to “outlaw” sin, let alone sit in the counsels that enacted laws. So they concentrated their efforts on bringing sinners (murderers, adulterers, thieves, liars, homosexuals) to faith in Christ, believing that the love of Christ, abiding in their hearts, would turn them from their sins.

But modern western democracy lays a special burden on Christians, requiring them to use their political power, whether that be simply the right to vote, or the opportunity to hold office, in a way that honors God and promotes the morality that He put us here to demonstrate and advocate in favor of. Christians will not agree, either about the things to be proscribed nor the penalties to be imposed upon those who violate the proscriptions. But perhaps their common commitment to righteousness (right acting – right living) can provide a few things we can agree upon.

Can we agree that no law should be passed that cannot or will not be enforced? Such laws obviously do not affect a solution to the problem and they serve to create a cynicism toward law in general that undermines all morality to some degree.

Can we agree that laws passed to regulate morality must deal with moral failures that inflict serious harm on the person committing the immoral act, or others affected by it? Since no amount of adherence to a law can bring a person into a right relationship with God (which is the primary purpose of the Church in the world) we should not assume that any particular law will improve the underlying morality of our world. Only genuine faith in, and faithfulness to, Christ will bring that about. Civil laws should serve the purpose of making our society fair and equitable for all.

Can we agree to avoid advocating laws that undermine the rights of citizens to believe and practice according to the dictates of their own conscience? Rights taken from those with whom we disagree or whose freedoms we wish to restrict are taken from us as well. All political worms eventually turn, and when the laws enacted to harm others are turned on those who enacted them it may be too late to put the Humpty Dumpty together again.

Can we agree that all our citizens are souls for whom Christ died? Laws passed solely for the purpose of restricting the religious rights of others, or to impose our beliefs upon others, serve only to alienate the very people God has put us in the world to witness to. Bad laws enacted by Christians are a “witness”, but not to the love and grace of God in Christ.

Can we agree that Christians should be the champions of the “least among us.”? Jesus was. The apostle James, in his epistle tells us that we should be. He particularly tells us that we should not be seeking advantages for the wealthy who defraud and oppress the poor. Christians should be advocating laws that meet the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, not demeaning them by word or action.

Can we agree that the language of Christian political discourse should be markedly different than that of non-Christians?  That should be true during political campaigns, on the floors of legislatures, and speaking to constituents. Sadly, Christians are often the most bellicose.
In an attempt to sound the most righteous – which they interpret to mean, the most vehemently opposed to sin – they also sound the most heartless.

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