Thursday, January 07, 2016

Burns, Baltimore, and the Christian Response to the Oregon Protest

Yesterday morning, I sat in front of my television screen as a CNN reporter interviewed a member of an armed group of Protesters in Burns Oregon.  As these protesters continue their occupation of a federally-owned building, they claim that their armed resistance is their only present recourse at "fighting back" against government intrusion into their lives, and government oppression of their freedoms.

On the surface, this situation seems quite simple.  These men have broken the law and government should hold them accountable.  And rest assured, American mainstream media does love the "surface level" coverage of issues like this.  "Anti-government protesters" frequents the crawl on most media outlets already, and the tone and expression of reporters betrays the underlying assumption of most: they should leave.  They should be prosecuted.  And if they don't surrender, then these hicks deserve what's coming to them.

As I watched this story unfold yesterday morning, I couldn't help but remember another very different place--the city of Baltimore.  I've lived within the shadow of that great city for more than 11 years now.  And last year, that area too was subject to great unrest and the threat of an all-out street war between local police and the African American community.  The media rightfully struck a very different tone when reporting on the riots, but I couldn't help but notice others employing language similar to that being used to describe the men in Oregon.  "These protesters are out of line.  They should be quiet.  They should just obey the law.  And if they don't comply, then those thugs deserve what's coming to them."

Between Burns Oregon and Baltimore Maryland, there is little in common on the surface.  These are very different people living in very different environments.  Yet I can't help but think there is a link between the oppression of the former and the systemic injustice that affects the latter.  And that link is  the government itself.  In one environment, judicial fiat appears to have taken away land and grazing rights that many American western cultures depend on for their continued survival and growth.  In the other environment, decades old judicial tyranny enabled by executive enforcement of "Jim Crow" era systems has taken away opportunity and replaced it with poverty, violence, and a drug culture that continues to corrupt the city, the surrounding suburbs which purchase it, and the authorities who use it as a billy stick. (I've written more extensively about the issues in Baltimore here.)

But the "urban-rural" divide in our country--largely exacerbated by "red" and "blue" political gamesmanship that encourages the one to see the other as the enemy--may be the very thing that keeps us from seeing the real source of what ails us.  Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."  What Churchill was conveying in that quote was two-fold:  There is no better system of government in the modern world than the democratic form.  But even democracies can be compromised, and even corrupted.

What does this have to do with the Christian Gospel?  Followers of Jesus believe His Lordship doesn't stop at the church house door, but extends to the very ends of the earth, and inserts itself into every dominion (Colossians 1:15-16).  To use the language of urbanology, what Paul calls "dominions" the modern world refers to as "domains."  Domains are, quite simply, the various sectors of society that need to function well within themselves, and in cooperation with others, for the advancement of civilization and the promotion of human flourishing.  Arts, Agriculture, Science and Technology, Education, Health Care, Economics, and Human Government are all necessary for these ends, which means that Christians should have an interest in seeing each of these promoted and designed in such a way that they promote the advance of those created in God's very image.

Where Government is concerned, we have no ambitions toward theocracy, as our own nation's Founders understood.  Contrary to the claims of pseudo-historians like David Barton, America has never been a "Christian nation."  Though many of our nations founders were devout Christians who no doubt wielded the influence of their faith on the body politick, they too understood that government need not be distinctly Christian in order to serve God's purposes.  Freedom of religion--any religion--principled pluralism, the concept of a free church in a free state, and liberty of conscience all emanate from the Christian worldview, and are simultaneously compatible with the original principles of liberty laid down by the Founders of this nation who were equally intent that government give no specific endorsement or favoritism to any particular expression of religion.

And they understood this because Paul understood it.  When Paul writes in Romans 13 that government "is God's servant for your good," he was speaking, not of an Israelite theocracy, but the Roman republic; the same Roman republic that occupied Palestine as Paul pens this letter, and the same government that imprisoned Paul as he writes at least three other letters (Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians)  In that context, Paul called government a force for good, ordained by God Himself.  As a result, Christians owe earthly government their allegiance, their obedience in all things not contrary to the Gospel, and their taxes.

So just obey the law.  Enough said, right?  But before my liberal readers forward this post to their friends in Oregon, or before my conservative readers link to this post to share with their friends in Baltimore, let's look a little deeper.  Because before the end of the first century, another Apostle writing from political exile would speak of Rome in a quite different way:

"The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.  and on her forehead was written a name of mystery, 'Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of the earth's abominations.'"  -Revelation 17:4-5

With very few exceptions on the theological fringe, the overwhelming consensus of evangelical scholarship contends that John was here speaking of Rome.  The same government entity described by Paul as a force for good is now, less than 30 years later, described by John as the whore of Babylon.  Apparently, some very significant changes had taken place.

The point?  Government, when it reflects the image of God, can be a force for good--justice, mercy, righteousness, peace, stability, and prosperity.  But government, when it reflects the fall, is like a prostitute that spreads STDs.  So how do we relate these principles to situations we have witnessed around our own country in the past year?

First, no Christian who genuinely follows Jesus and takes Scripture seriously is "anti-government."  What Christians want is "good government."  And in the context of democracy, the responsibility for the perpetuity of good government falls ultimately on the people themselves.  It also means that when government "of, for and by" the people expresses itself in a way that is "above, against, and opposite" the people, its time to speak out.

That means when we witness injustice in any form, we speak to it and advocate for those suffering from it.  Doing so in no way justifies all the actions of those who are oppressed.  This means addressing systemic racism in Baltimore is not equivalent to "hating cops" or putting your stamp of approval on looters and arsonists.  Additionally, addressing government over-reach in the American west is not equivalent to advocating all-out war between western ranchers and the US government, or condoning the armed takeover of a government facility.  It simply means contending for corrections in a human and thus imperfect system so that the system contributes to the advance of civilization.  And sometimes, advancing civilization means dismantling dysfunctional aspects of civil government.

Second, Christians never recognize human government as an ultimate authority.  That role belongs only to God.  That means the Christian response to Baltimore must be deeper than "those people just need to obey the law," and the Christian response to Burns must be deeper than "they just need to surrender."  This is a time when deeper questions need to be asked, because if they aren't, government will step into both scenarios with "solutions" that may actually make things worse.  Churchill was right, our form of government is the worst, except for all the others.  That means that overall, we have a great system of law and justice.  But it also means that its not perfect.  To employ the apostolic metaphor, sometimes the US government is like a whore.  Statism is a real threat, and through statism, our government is prostituting herself to her own harm and the harm of those in her path.  When she acts in such ways, Christians have a responsibility to point to the root of the problem, challenge the people to stop blaming each other, and encourage Americans from both parties to stop leaving money on the nightstand.

Third, Christians must seek unity and make peace.  "Choosing sides" is a politician's game.  Followers of Christ are called to something far greater than merely sitting in front of a TV using words like "thugs" and "hicks."  The roots of each are found in a creeping statism that is eager to be the "solution" to a problem that statism caused in the first place.  Through our spheres of influence, we should be pointing out the commonalities between Burns and Baltimore.  and rooting those commonalities in the Christian narrative, which explains these sorts of injustices by pointing to human sin, and offers the ultimate solution by pointing to Jesus.

One day, the Kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and His Christ. (Revelation 11:15).  On that day, America will not be the exception, and the stars and stripes will become a heap of ash along with every other Kingdom and nation-state.  But until that day, followers of Jesus must play their role in helping our nation be what Paul envisioned as the ideal for every human government--a force for good administering God's own authority on earth.

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