OPINION By Olen Watson III
Being Christian and a member of the Libertarian Party
I grew up in a church tradition that drew its ethical and social structure from the example of Christianity from the first century. As a kid, even still as an adult, I found it a fantastic goal. I don’t think it’s possible, but it is a great goal. The problem is that the first century had nothing comparable to citizen influence, much less democratic control of their government. As such, living in America is a far different experience. We the people are the power.
In that first century, in Rome and the whole ancient world, regular folks were far freer to live their lives as they chose. They could do about anything as long as they paid their taxes and didn’t diss the governor or the emperor. Well they were often subject to deep religious persecution, particularly crucifixion and other tortures. That was sort of related to the whole don’t diss the emperor thing. But everything else, you were pretty much good to go. Now, let’s not be silly and talk about murder and theft. Christianity wasn’t required to show that those things just caused the whole society to break down. Still, the majority of controls were social instead of legal. You just had to deal with angry neighbors.
The odd thing is that the church grew in pagan Rome at an unheard of, incredible pace. The law allowed them to do everything they chose to do. They were PREVENTED from worshiping Christ. How could anyone look at that context and expect dozens of Christian nations to emerge out of that infancy? But they did. Don’t you find it very interesting that in this Christian nation the church has seen nothing but declines. The contrast is striking. In a place where you could do every unchristian thing, the church grew. Here, it does nothing but shrink.
I want to take you on a tour of my life for a moment. Earning my degree in Biblical Studies at Campbell University near Raleigh, I came across a very faithful young man. He grew up in an extremely conservative and committed Christian home. He was kind and faithful to what he believed, and during his Sophomore year he was about to leave because of what in his mind was a weak version of Christianity being taught there. It was directly and unrepentantly academic at Campbell. They were faithful professors, but they discussed all the hard truths about the Bible. I understand why he wanted to leave. I encouraged him to stay.
I encouraged him to confront every heresy he heard, to test his faith, to use what was in his mind a luke-warm Christian experience as a refiner’s fire. He stayed. I don’t know if it was because of what I said but I’m glad he did. Today he has been in Ukraine for nearing 10 years, spreading the gospel the best way he knows how. Nobody ever did God’s will be fleeing from the place he put you. I love Jonah for that little lesson.
Thanks for tolerating my little detour. I don’t know all the lessons to be learned from that story but what I take away is that that young “church boy” as I called him, had the courage to confront an authority that didn’t support his world view. He embraced where he was without trying to force it to change. He accepted it and continued to do what he believed God had for him there.
And this brings us back to where you and I are today. Christians today are living in a country our grandparents would barely recognize. Strikingly, even though Christians still have the ability to control the legal direction of the country, the overwhelming weight of ethical and social momentum ceaselessly drives even our own children to turn their backs on faith, at least the way it’s existed for the last couple hundred years. Notice that little word “legal”. I believe that this is the problem. Legal in America is something far different than it was in the first century.
In Rome an external authority determined the rules. Even after the place became Christian under Constantine, it was the authoritarians who controlled the law, made things illegal. That’s where the whole idea of controlling morality crept into the Christian faith and began to corrupt it. “Christian” governments began to use force to ensure that everyone acted well, and avoided the pitfalls of sin. I’m sure it’s obvious by now that I hold no truck with the idea of Christians seeking to shore up the morality of others. Regardless of the damage folks do to themselves, there is not a stitch of authority in the scripture that leads one to accept that it’s the job of Christians to enforce Christian morality.
If you support vice laws such as those against drug use, prostitution, gambling, drinking, or sexual activity because it’s “not what God wants", you are part of the problem of America today. This is not your world to enforce the Kingdom of Heaven upon. Walter Rauschenbusch was incredibly and dangerously wrong in his idea about forming government to give us a cleaner and neater society. He couldn't see his own judgmental authoritarian tendency. Even couching vice law in the civic maxims of “What’s best for people”, is a mortal and in fact moral failure. By enforcing the will of God on people, you’ve done something that God would never seek, to remove free will from his people.
You see faith, grace, every last fruit of the spirit comes from the will of God, not as a socialized norming process. People are in fact innately free and rebel at the simplest notion of any sort of control. In Rome the church grew because the world had become completely debased. They reached for a lifeline and it was offered freely. If you are the Constantinian Christian, one who would use the force of government to enforce behaviors and faith on folks, you’ve missed the message. You weren’t called to join the force of government. You were called to allow the people to err, to totally mess their lives up, and just BE there.
In Rome the lost could see that commitment to Christ was a true earthly salvation. Christians buried the dead, provided free medical care, rescued children from trash barges when their parents didn’t want them. In America, Christianity is seen as something which has stolen freedom. That’s not supposed to be the inheritance of Christ. It's the freedom to be and be forgiven that God wants for us. It’s why I support the prostitutes right to sell their service. This is why I support the drug addict’s right to destroy their life, and the terminally ill to take their own. I even support the right for people to murder their unborn children and it kills my heart that it has to be that way, but it does. You see I know that God is the judge. God, in my heart of hearts, I know hates to see people harm themselves. I also know God said that we are to release the prisoners. He never commanded you make them suffer all the more. It's supposed to be a free choice.
Isaiah 61:1 - “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord hath anointed Me to preach good tidings unto the meek. He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, "
Not a single word about putting folks in jail.