A Farewell to Puns: A Response to Randall Fowler’s Response to Me

I wrote a blog yesterday in which I pointed out that maybe, just maybe, a Christian shouldn’t be the president of the United States. My good friend Randall posted a response to that blog called “A Farewell to (Presidential) Arms” (hence the title of this post) in which he critiqued some of my argument. For the 7 of you who care about Randall and I’s theological banter, the following is a brief response to some of his major points. All bold-italics are direct quotes that summarize specific sections or elements of his critique, and what follows them is my response. (You’ll almost certainly have to read his post to follow along with what I’m responding to.) I’m confident in saying that Randall probably has a much higher IQ than I do; his response is extremely thorough and well-written. But even really smart people can be wrong, and in this case, I maintain that he is. This has been a fun back-and-forth, and Randall and I have been texting intermittently during the exchange. All that to say, we respect and love each other as friends and members of the same church body, and enjoy pursuing truth together.

Thus, the president is rendered guilty not by his or her individual actions, but due to his/her role in perpetuating the system… If that’s the case, then why aren’t all civil servants who support the system in a similar (if  lesser) fashion rendered guilty as well? Moreover, wouldn’t this logic imply that those who support any unjust system be held accountable for its results?
We are all constantly at fault, to varying degrees, in our participation in the worldly systems that promote economic injustice, oppression of the weak, and violence. Our responsibility as Christians is to “pull out” of Babylon (Revelation 18) as much as is possible. This of course gets more complex the further down the social, political and economic ladder we go, but there’s an obvious difference in responsibility for violence and injustice between the commander-in-chief of the most expansive military that has ever existed and your neighborhood postal worker.

Of course the president is not directly responsible for all of the nation’s faults, but there is certainly an extensive degree of responsibility for the leader of a system. Just because an individual is not directly responsible for every instance of wrong committed in a system doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to be a part of that system; it especially doesn’t make it a good idea to lead the system. Owning a Vegas casino may not necessarily be sinful, but you can be damn sure that dirty business is happening there, and the owner is certainly responsible for that, even if he’s not the one serving drinks or fitting brass knuckles to his hands. The system itself has been set up in opposition to the true Lord and God of the world by absolutizing itself and its prosperity, safety, comfort and economic security (the resemblance of the American empire to the depiction of the Roman Empire in Revelation is frequently staggering)—the idea of a Christian leading that system in a faithful manner is simply nonsensical.

The texts of the Bible repeatedly show a more complicated relationship…
We cannot transpose political issues of the Hebrew people onto our own setting. We (whoever “we” is…America, Christians, Westerners, etc.) are not the nation of the promise. Thus we may not make any claim to be carrying out God’s justice in the world or to be divinely appointed rulers. (Also, contrary to Randall’s statement, David was not an absolute monarch—the Kings of Israel often functionally became such, but they were ultimately intended to be the figureheads of a theocracy led by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Also, God never desired to give the Israelites a King, and told them it was a terrible idea to want to be like the other nations—it was their lack of faith and rejection of his rule that led to him giving them a king, and telling them very plainly that they would regret it [see 1 Samuel 8].) That Paul refers to Roman rulers as “ministers of God” does not come anywhere close to saying that Christians should or could be in that office—the early church knew this very clearly, as holding political office was strictly forbidden under penalty of excommunication from the community. That Jesus commended a Roman general for his faith likewise does not sanctify his position—he was, after all, commended for his faith, not for his job or political standing. In sum, the texts of the Bible repeatedly show a more complex relationship existing between the people of God and power than Randall seems to be willing to recognize.

Lewis, perhaps unsurprisingly, contends that it is his love for his neighbor which compels him to fight in his nation’s military if called upon.  Just as he possesses a special responsibility for his wife and family over his duty to others, so he concludes that he must love his neighbor (with whom God has placed him in community) over the abstract “other.”
As much as I adore 90% of C.S. Lewis’s work and thought, I have no hesitation in saying straightforwardly that he was wrong here. (As an aside, the other major contention I have with him is his Platonic elevation of the spiritual over the physical. He was, after all, a professor of classics and not a biblical scholar.) Lewis’s essay against pacifism was something I used to affirm, but I can no longer do so. Frankly, I reject both his premises and his conclusions on a biblical basis, as I consider his concept of degrees of responsibility to be based on natural law theology and Aristotelian philosophy. I find nowhere in Scripture that caring for the physical well-being of my family gives me license to override the otherwise clear commands of the New Testament, and further, even if my responsibilities to my wife and family did do so, to claim that there is an analogous relationship between my neighbor and the “abstract ‘other’” is quite the case of hermeneutical gymnastics.

There’s not a clear verdict from either Scripture or Church tradition as to whether pacifism is demanded or whether the use of force is tolerable.
Randall is right here, and I appreciate the point. I agree that there’s not a blatant Scriptural command to outright pacifism. I also admit that there are times when force might be justifiable, though I’m inclined to say that those instances would be predominately in micro-cases of defense of specific innocents, and not the macro level of war. I can’t honestly say what the right thing would be if I had the opportunity to save by violence a loved one who was being killed or harmed. However, I can say that I would not want a loved one to kill in my defense. And I am confident in saying that our default should always and unequivocally be an ethic of peace, if not outright pacifism. That there could potentially be exceptions to this (though I’m inclined to see Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethic of responsible Christian action as the only alternative to a stance of absolute non-violence), certainly does not give license for a Christian to step into the most powerful position in the world, where he or she would daily be forced to make decisions contrary to the commands of Christ.

In closing, I don’t have a lot to say in response to Randall’s tempered defense of American military might and unfettered capitalism. The heart of my argument is not that those things do not “work,” but that a faithful Christian cannot participate in them.* It belongs to the nations of the world to chase after these things (see Luke 12). It belongs to the people of God to bear faithful witness in life and word to the true King and the true Kingdom; to pick up the pieces and offer hope to a self-destructive world; to prophetically point toward the already-but-not-yet reign of God that has already broken into the world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

* I don’t think they do work, ultimately, but that’s another debate entirely.

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The Better Question is, Should a Christian Be President?

Ben Carson said some stuff. Whatever your opinion may be on whether or not a Muslim should be president, it’s beside the point of this post. The utter outrage and wholehearted support of Carson’s statements are surely to be expected in today’s religio-political atmosphere, but what Christians and pseudo-Christians seem to be missing entirely is the better question it raises: Should a Christian be the president of the United States? Better yet, is it possible for a faithful Christian to be the president? The historical opinion of our country has obviously been “yes,” and resoundingly so. But maybe, just maybe, we’ve gotten this one wrong for a while.

Maybe, just maybe, a Christian shouldn’t–and can’t, faithfully–be the president of the United States. Maybe the power of the state and the power of the Cross actually come into direct conflict with one another, and as Christians we have to choose one or the other. Maybe what it means to be president is the exact opposite of what it means to be a Christian. Maybe the God of the powerless and the foolish doesn’t want one of his people to be the figurehead of worldly might.

Why, you ask? Because in order to submit to the commands of Scripture and the words of Jesus, that is the most obvious conclusion. If Christians insist on submitting ourselves to the most plain and evident reading of Scripture available (as we should), maybe that has some radical implications for the way we relate to the world. Maybe if we fully embraced that most essential of evangelical tenets, it would also provide some damn consistency in the ridiculously incongruous political and social involvement of Christians from the far left to the religious right.

Consistency. That would be lovely. Like maybe, when Jesus says very plainly to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that’s exactly what he meant. Like maybe that commandment doesn’t have a limit, since there doesn’t seem to be an exception clause for “matters of national security”. Maybe we should stop making attempts at rationalizing that commandment away as impractical and take Jesus’s direct command at face value, like we insist be done with Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 6 or 1 Timothy 1. Perhaps if we studied the New Testament and the early church, we would be floored by the realization that for the first 300 years of Christianity, until it became socially and politically advantageous to belong to the state-supported church, military service and violence of any kind were unilaterally denounced (see George Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb; Rob Arner, Consistently Pro-Life). Maybe that should give Christians pause when we advocate for electing a Christian to be the commander-in-chief of a country that has been involved in military conflict for 93% of the time that it has existed. Maybe Christians should not want to be the leaders of a country that spends over $700 billion on military expenses, which in 2011 was more than the next 13 highest nations combined.

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2013/01/07/everything-chuck-hagel-needs-to-know-about-the-defense-budget-in-charts/

If we took the Scriptures seriously and at face value like we claim to, maybe Christians would be affected by the absolute dichotomy painted between God and his people and the imperial, economic powers of the world. Perhaps we would be shaken to the core when Jesus informs us that we cannot serve both God and Mammon, the god of the economic and political system. Maybe that would deter us from wanting “one of us” to lead the wealthiest empire that has ever existed. (Maybe it would also stop us from participating in the culture of rabid consumerism and wonder if it might have ill effects on ourselves and others…but that’s another point entirely.) If we took Scripture seriously, maybe we would be compelled to heed the command of the true King in Revelation, when we are graphically told to “come out of” the whore Babylon, a classic prophetic representation of the world’s greedy and exploitative power systems.

Maybe we would even notice the abhorrence of economic inequality that is present from the front to the back of God’s Word. Maybe we’d pay attention when celebrated leaders like Timothy Keller remind us that God evaluates the justness of a society according to how it treats the refugee, the migrant worker, and the homeless (Keller, Generous Justice, 4). And that just might shake us out of rationalizing and making excuses for the fact that the U.S. is the most economically unequal developed nation in the world. Maybe we would not treat ideas like “wealth redistribution” as dirty words from communist Satan if we recognized the centrality of the Jubilee system for Israel’s divinely ordained social-ethical structure. Maybe we would realize that the American maxims of “God helping those who help themselves”, “picking ourselves up by our bootstraps”, and “getting what we earned” are all completely opposed to what it means to belong to the people of God…and that that applies to economic positions as well as “spiritual standing.”

Maybe all of those things should make us stop and find some consistency, and cause us to reflect on what a “Christian president” would actually look like. Maybe it turns out that that’s a contradiction, and the power of God is meant to operate at the bottom and from the margins of society.

And maybe, just maybe, if we took Scripture seriously, and took Jesus at his word, we wouldn’t fearfully and desperately place our hope in a “Christian America” to “rid the world of evil.” Maybe instead, we would place our hope in the slaughtered lamb of Revelation 5, who has already conquered death, sin, and the powers of the world by his sacrificial love and refusal of earthly power.