Christian Politics as Neighbor-Love

In this post, I offer a second excerpt from my lecture at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA on “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian Citizen?” You can read the full text and hear the full audio of the lecture at the Davenant Trust’s website. Here, continuing from the excerpt in yesterday’s post, I develop the second half of Luther’s famous dialectic in The Freedom of a Christian: “dutiful servant of all.” 

Does this mean, then, that the Christian is to float heedlessly above the troubles and travails of the world? “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through”—we’ve heard this sort of line from many Christians in many eras. Is this faithful Christianity? No, for while we must not cling to earthly loyalties and attachments out of fear, as we so often do, we can and must cling to them out of love. Let’s look at the flipside of many of the passages we’ve quoted.

Galatians 5:13-14 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Romans 6 and 7 say, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (6:17-18) “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” And of course, 1 John 4:7-8: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

This is the second half of Luther’s paradox: the Christian is the dutiful servant of all. He is worth quoting extensively on this point.

“Although, as I have said, inwardly, and according to the spirit, a man is amply enough justified by faith, having all that life requires to have, except that this very faith and abundance ought to increase from day to day, even till the future life; still he remains in this mortal life upon earth, in which it is necessary that he should rule his own body, and have relations with men.

. . . For man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others and not for himself. For it is to this end that he brings his own body into subjection, that lie may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely; as Paul says: “None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord.” (Rom. xiv. 7, 8.) Thus it is impossible that he should take his ease in this life, and not work for the good of his neighbors; since he must needs speak, act, and converse among men; just is Christ was made in the likeness of men, and found in fashion as a man, and had His conversation among men.”

For this reason, law, which has no power to condemn the one who clings to Christ by faith, retains a relevance and a certain kind of authority in the Christian life. Freed from slavery to sin to become slaves of God, we should each desire to present ourselves as sacrifices of thanksgiving to God, cleansed of sin that defiles us and harms our neighbor. And the second great commandment, to love our neighbor as ourself, flows out of the first, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Accordingly, no sooner must the Christian turn inward and upward, turning his gaze away from the things of earth that entice and intimidate, claiming a loyalty and significance that they do not deserve, than the Christian must turn back to the things of this world, the people around him, and the social and political structures in which he finds himself. The law of God directs the believer in how he can serve his neighbor in love, but civil law and earthly authorities also have a role to play, and this is particularly significant given our topic today, so let’s pause and make sure we understand this role.

 

Clearly, from the standpoint of our heavenly citizenship, our identity hidden in Christ, the laws of princes and parliaments can be laughed at. For law gains its power by fear, fear of the consequences if we should disobey. To be sure, law also has an instructive component, which we shall come back to in a moment, but the thing that makes it law specifically, rather than mere instruction, is its capacity to impose penalties for disobedience. Since the Christian knows that none of these penalties can separate her from the love of Christ, such laws in themselves have no power over her. And even as mere instruction, human laws can claim authority only inasmuch as they correspond to Christ’s authority, only inasmuch as they instruct us to value the things that he tells us to value. It would seem, then, that the conscience bound to Christ has no need of human laws; the Christian can ignore them and focus simply on serving Christ and doing his will.

But we know that it is not so. Paul himself, not long after proclaiming the Christian’s freedom from earthly powers, admonishes us, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Rom. 13:1) Why would he do this?

Well, let’s begin with the call to love one another, the principle that governs the Christian’s earthly citizenship. We are called to love one another as human beings, not as disembodied souls. Human beings have flesh and blood and inhabit history. As such, they need to be fed and clothed and sheltered. They need to be treated when sick, comforted when suffering, cared for when dying. They need homes, not merely for shelter, but for a sense of belonging, and sources of sustenance to nourish themselves. As those called to exercise dominion over the world, they need a parcel of the world to call their own and improve and beautify. They need ways of getting from place to place. And they need money to buy all these things. They need jobs to earn this money and fair opportunities in those jobs.

And they need more than all this, for although we are animals with bodily needs, we are more than mere animals, needing more than to eat and sleep and reproduce. We have a life of the mind and soul that needs cultivating. For this reason, loving one another as human beings means seeking to ensure that we each have education, as much as our short time and scant resources permit, and are blessed with arts and culture. And it means of course drawing each of us to the highest blessings offered by religion, and specifically the true religion of Jesus Christ.

So while our citizenship is heaven, our vocation is lived out on earth, and our vocation means trying to achieve all these things for our neightbors. It might possibly be that each of us is meant to pursue these goods alone, but we know that is not the case, for God said from the beginning, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We were made to live with one another, we were made to live in community. And that quickly gets complicated. Really complicated, really fast.

Try to ensure, while working alongside others, that your neighbors are fed and clothed and sheltered and employed and educated, and you’ll find pretty soon that good intentions aren’t enough (even if they’re important). You’ll find pretty soon that a heart inflamed by love of Christ and neighbor isn’t enough (even if it’s important). You’ll find pretty soon that the Ten Commandments and all the admonitions of Scripture aren’t enough (even if they’re important). For the only time the Bible does give us a detailed blueprint for social and political life, it is after all a blueprint only for a particular society at a particular point in history that is far far different from our own. Indeed, that’s the thing about political societies in history—each one will pose unique challenges that make it impossible to simply borrow a set of laws and standards from an earlier era. If we’re going to pursue love of neighbor, then, in these circumstances—these ever-changing circumstances—we’re going to need to come up with laws to govern our lives together, and constantly tweak them as circumstances change and we learn from our mistakes.

And of course, we will make mistakes. Even assuming the best political process, we will have fallible leaders framing our laws and these laws will not always be best for the purpose at hand. Sometimes the mistakes will be glaring. Sometimes we’ll be convinced we know better. But here’s the thing. We will still be obliged, more often than not, to obey. Not, mind you, because of what human authority is in itself—as we’ve already noted, it is nothing in itself, but only as a channel of God’s authority, and to the extent that it directs us badly, it cannot be channeling God’s authority. Nor, mind you, because of the power it has to compel us with penalties if we disobey, for we’ve seen already that for the Christian, such penalties ought not to be able to instill any fear. Rather, because of humility and love of neighbor. Humility should lead us to constantly question our own judgment; when we dissent from the laws established and think we know how to do better, we should think twice, and even thrice. There are few arts in human life that demand more skill. Love of neighbor should lead us to ask, “Even if I am convinced that this law is making my neighbor’s life worse, do I think that my unilaterally disobeying it would actually make his life better?” Indeed, if everyone is allowed to unilaterally disobey whenever they think they have a better plan, our laws will crumble altogether and our common life be reduced to chaos. Thus it is that the Christian, while a bondservant of Christ alone, is obliged to be in his earthly citizenship a dutiful servant of all, and especially of those to whom God has granted political authority.

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