Friday, February 11, 2011

Political activism in a secular society

It's time for some controversy and I'm not (yet) inspired on the subject of teen pregnancy which I promised to blog about last year. So my subject tonight is this: to what extent should Christians be politically active in today's secular society?

The reason I ask this is because I've noticed a lot of ultra-conservatives decrying the increase in the number of Muslims in Australia. As a good conservative I believe that their religion is a false one, and as a wide reader I know that it advocates some practices Western society doesn't approve of. But is it right for Christians to insist that the door be shut to Muslim immigrants?

Similarly with protests against moves to legalise gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia and certain drugs. Do we as Christians have a right to force our beliefs on the rest of the country? (Incidentally, it's interesting to note that none of those are expressly forbidden or even mentioned in the Bible... however we can be fairly certain God disapproves of them.)

Many Christians, in an attempt to justify that sort of activism, point to various parts of the law of Moses where God tells Israel that idolatry is a capital crime, breaking the Sabbath is punishable by banishment, etc. However, and this is probably fairly obvious, we aren't living in Old Testament Israel. We are a minority religion in a basically pagan society.

A better parallel is Israel in John the Baptist's and Jesus' time - with the majority of the nation basically apostate and an overruling power with its own religion. We have an account of John's moves towards political activism in Luke 3:11-14:
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Some points are significant here. Firstly, the people he was speaking to were those who had repented of their sins, been baptised by him and were eager to know how to live as God's people in their own situation. In other words, Christians (or the nearest equivalent at the time). So John's comments are not a mandate for us to become political lobbyists.

Secondly, even when talking to Christians John didn't tell them to give up their way of life (particularly those who were employed by Rome, and hence obliged to stay that way for years or face the death penalty) - even though they would in all likelihood be required to do things that as Christians they wouldn't want to do. Paul develops this theme in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 and the Pastoral letters - the thrust is that everyone, no matter what their circumstances, can live a Godly life and shouldn't seek to change their position because they have become a Christian. If God doesn't require His own people to change their way of life but to serve Him regardless, how can we imagine we have a mandate to tell non-Christians to change their lives?

Now I'd like to go through a few of the specific things Christian lobbyists tend to agitate for.

Fewer rights for homosexuals
The clear teaching of the Bible is that God detests homosexual acts, and therefore Christians oppose the legalisation of gay marriages.

However I have to ask, what's the point? Homosexual acts are not illegal, and will go on with the same regularity whether gay marriage is legalised or not. We already have full recognition of gay defacto relationships as a legal equivalent to a marriage. If Christians are going to insist on the Bible as the standard for our national laws, these things have to go as well. (Of course I realise it's a case of stopping the tide from coming in before pushing it back out - but the message coming from Christian lobbyists today is sadly lacking in consistency in these matters.)

So, as a church, we have to decide - do we want to work for the complete outlawing of homosexuality? If so, we need to be consistent and impose the Biblical laws on every aspect of marriage and family life. If not, we have no right to object to the legalisation of gay marriage.

Dialling back the maximum age for abortion
The Biblical teaching is that a human life may not be ended by another person, except as a judicial punishment for certain serious crimes. Debate rages about whether a foetus is in fact a human life, but hints in the Bible indicate that cells become a living soul at the point of conception.

That being so, a true Christian will condemn any form of abortion - starting with "morning after" pills and right up to full term.

So once again - should Christian political lobbyists "settle" for a lower maximum age for abortions? It's inconsistent. It's a compromise. Again we have to decide between applying Biblical laws to the nation or "anything goes".

Incidentally, in case anyone's thinking of wheeling out the tired old line that "men can't bear babies, so they shouldn't have any say in an abortion debate", let me say that I'll accept that when women can conceive without any, uh, input from men.

It's the same as the abortion debate - no human being has the right to take the life of another, except for capital punishment. As Christians do we seek to have that Biblical concept enshrined in law, or do we allow secular society to put its humanist ideas forward instead?

Legalised marijuana
Unlike the matters above there's no direct Biblical guidance on the matter of drugs. There are hints, eg "Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit" and we should maintain a temple well out of respect, but an argument like that is very easy to knock down.

It's probably more or less true that pot is not significantly more harmful than alcohol or tobacco - so once again Christians need to be consistent and either fight the lot or not fight at all.

Sunday trading
A lot of Christians think Sabbath observance is the least important of the Ten Commandments, but a quick flip through the books of the prophets will reveal that it's fairly consistently in the top three requirements on God's priority list.

But what about today? Fatigue Management laws and union regulations mandate a fairly strict set of rules about what hours people can work (including not only a day off each week but a maximum number of hours per day, minimum time between shifts, number of meal breaks, etc). Does this make the restriction on Sunday trading redundant?

It all comes down to our interpretation of God's intentions in making the Sabbath law. Resting is important, but so is regular church attendance - for the Christian at least. Once again we have to ask whether we have the right to require non-Christians to follow Christian laws. But more significantly, we have to ask whether we can look at God's laws and say to Him "OK God, I know why you said that and I've got a better idea so I'll ignore you".

Restrictions to Muslim immigration
Terrorist activity done in the name of Islam has opened the eyes of some commentators, who point out that there are groups of Muslims in Australia who hold to an interpretation of the Koran which advocates rebellion against a non-Muslim government and violence against people who refuse to convert to Islam. Any attempts to raise public awareness on this fact, of course, brings howls of abuse from the left-wing media and an ever-escalating war of words. This threatens to polarise society into liberals and ultra-conservatives.

What's a good solution for this problem? Obviously if there was a group that incited rebellion and violence without the complication of religion, it would be the duty of the police to put it out of action. Should religion be an excuse to break the law? Obviously not, the BOFH has already proven that the religion card can be used to get out of work, if that could be extended we'd have anarchy before we know it. So we're forced to accept a position where the civil government has to decide which religions are allowed to operate and which aren't - in other words, there is no freedom of religion.

Religion in politics?
In all these cases we come down to the original question - is it right for Christians to impose Christian law on a secular society? Many Christians say yes. However, if we really are a non-religious society and treat all religions equally, Muslims have the same right to impose Sharia law on us. Is that something we as Christians want to allow?

Actually, something similar has already happened. The religion of humanism has imposed its ideals on us - ideals like homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia and even equality of religions. In practice, of course, equality of religions (or tolerance, if you will) means that all religions become subservient to humanism. That's why people aren't tolerant of Christians' intolerance to sin when that sin is popularised by humanism.

So now we have a new slant on our original question. In a society run by a religion which is diametrically opposed to Biblical Christianity, do we have the right to impose Christian standards of morality? Put the question the other way around - did the Baal worshippers have the right to impose their standards of morality on Israel? Of course not! If they tried they could be executed. The only way they succeeded was by converting the nation to paganism.

What then am I saying? Should we stop all attempts to reform our society? By no means! (Sorry, I love the book of Romans and it's starting to rub off on me. Don't anyone say "no condemnation" unless you want a recital!)

Where was I? By no means should we stop trying to reform our society. Righteousness exalts a nation (Prov 14:34) so anything we do can only be good for everyone. We also have the good examples of Daniel and Paul, who lived in pagan nations but still spoke God's word to the rulers without holding back. Note that I didn't include the rest of the Old Testament prophets in that list - people like Samuel, Micaiah and Jeremiah were fighting apostasy, not paganism. Their situation isn't quite the same as ours.

So let's take the examples of Daniel and Paul as a model for our Biblical political activism, and examine them closely.

Daniel was probably the most powerful man in the world - particularly while Nebuchadnezzar was being disciplined by God and unable to rule his kingdom. He was therefore perfectly placed to legislate against idolatry or any practice he (as a good Jew) might find abhorrent. Did he do so? We're not told he did - which means that if he did anything like it the Holy Spirit didn't consider it important enough to include in the Bible for the benefit of future generations. And he was "highly esteemed" (Dan 10:11) by God - not reproached for failing to do what (probably) no believer in God before or since has had the opportunity to do. He made no secret of his beliefs, but he didn't expect anyone else to live by them. Of course he urged Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 4:27) and Belshazzar (Dan 5:22-24) to repent of their sins - but only after they had asked him for advice after receiving a sign from God.

But Daniel was noted (by God, king, officials and people) for his utmost integrity in everything he did.

Paul's efforts in political activism are outlined in the last few chapters of Acts. He morphed his defence before the Roman officials against the accusations of the Jews into a testimony of his salvation, and thus to an effort to evangelize King Agrippa (Acts 26:27-29).

Note that he never tried to reform the shocking morals of the Roman upper classes, or outlaw idolatry, even though he was literally sickened by it (Acts 17:16) - he worked on bringing individual people to salvation, just as all Christians are called to do.

So what is the role of religion in politics today?
According to the examples of Daniel and Paul, not much! God puts His people wherever He wants to, and if God has called you to a career in politics you're responsible to respond to the call like any other Christian. However, your role once there is not to reform the nation but to prove to the world that Christianity makes a difference in people's lives. Take a stand on integrity, and evangelise. That's the extent of the responsibility of a Christian in politics in a humanistic nation.

Similarly Christians shouldn't seek to lobby politicians or officials - we can evangelise them and hope they'll do the right thing off their own bat, but that's all.

But what's more important?
Pray! Pray for our society to be reformed, to return to its Christian roots. Don't laugh, it has happened! Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah all implemented reforms, with the support of Godly prophets and priests, and the nation followed. Surely you don't believe the arm of the Lord is too short (Isa 59:1) to turn back the tide of humanism?

Of course, implied in the challenge to pray is the requirement to understand the problem. Given that Christianity today exists as subserviently to the prevailing religion of humanism, we have two choices: accept it and knuckle under, or fight it and get back on top. Most of the church today is simply acting like we're still a Christian nation and telling people how to live in one, and thus (apart from a miraculous show of God's mercy) will gain very little traction.

So, to accept or to fight? God calls us to be persecuted, but never to be defeated. The battle, however, isn't won in the corridors of power - it's won in the hearts of the people. When the church is a truly God-honouring church, and the people abandon humanism and accept Christianity as the national religion (whether they subscribe to it personally or not), then we will have a truly Christian nation and will be able to roll back the tide of immorality.

It all starts with prayer, not press releases.


Lachlan said...

Firstly - hi Michael! And thank you for posting such an interesting article. I didn't realize it was you writing until I'd finished reading. Ha. Although I really need to go and practice, I'm going to take a few mins to give you my thoughts, since - well - you asked. But I'm going to keep it as brief as possible.

Let me start by saying that I think it's perfectly appropriate for politicians of any religious persuasion to lobby for what they believe to be the country's (or state's, or region's) best interests. Notice that I didn't say "the best interests of the people they represent" - the politician's duty is not to act as a political puppet for those who voted for him/her, but to stand for the good of all those on whom his/her (presumably successful) lobbying will take effect.

One can attempt to convince others to adopt his/her beliefs by way of educated, informed discussion or other respectful means; but in the end, we are all free-willed beings who, irregardless of this or that religion's core beliefs and/or concerns, have the right to pursue our own convictions. Although a certain politician may have strong convictions of his/her own, the diversity of those over whom they have some kind of influence must be acknowledged and respected. With this in mind, it is my opinion that it should be the politician's agenda (as it relates to socio-religious issues) to promote those ideals that, while upholding universal social standards (i.e. it is universally understood that no man can unjustly take another's life), allow each and every member of society to practice their beliefs without hindrance.

Finally, see the following two passages from Matthew:

Matthew 5:28 says, "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

And Matthew 15:18-20 says, "But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’."

If, in accordance with conservative Christian belief, it is understood that the thought of sin is equivalent to the action itself (and, therefore, just as potentially harmful to society), what good does it do to outlaw certain actions that many in our society honestly condone, and even encourage (such as homosexuality)? The only thing gained is more tension, increased stereotyping and political/social division.

With the various religious wars around the world and silent conflict among ourselves, this is the last thing we need.

Michael Angelico said...

Hi to you too! Brain bending will probably help your practice go better anyway. ;)

Re politicians' beliefs and convincing them to do one thing or another - I agree, as long as it's all out in the open. I wouldn't want anyone to hide their views until after the poll and then come out and say "Hey everyone, now that I'm in power this is what I'm going to do!"

I have to challenge your point about universal social standards though - they seem to be less and less universal! The devil's in the detail as usual, what's the definition of just/unjust homicide?

Re those two passages from Matthew, that's my point exactly - if society condones an action, lobbying for it to be outlawed only marginalises the church. God's laws should be enforced through preaching and teaching, and not through the civil government.