Christians and self-sacrifice: do “we” have to?


Talking about ethical controversies in terms of “we” easily leads to confusion and misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this is all too common when drawing ethical guidance from the Bible. There’s a tendency to assume that a passage can be read as one-size-fits-all, such that it supplies an absolute guiding principle for all times, places, and situations. But not all prescriptions are absolute, and accordingly “we” should not blindly follow them. Rather, look at a passage’s context. Who is the message intended for, and in what circumstance? And if there is a principle to be had, take it for a “test drive” to see if any absurdities arise.
A couple of recent social controversies exemplify the problem of taking biblical prescriptions absolutely. In both cases, people are concerned about what Christians should not be doing. But in the end I don’t think these proscriptions are absolutely authoritative for anyone.
1. Christians and guns. Earlier this month, John Piper offered a charitable and scriptural corrective to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s admonition that Liberty University students should train to carry concealed weapons. In his post, Piper acknowledges that God ordains the state to wield the sword for the purpose of justice. However, he hesitates to affirm that ordinary Christians should be so armed. Drawing from Paul and especially from 1 Peter, Piper relates correctly that God “intends to reveal the supreme worth of his Son and his salvation in the special grace of a Christian people who have the miraculous power to entrust themselves to his care while suffering unjustly.” Further, the New Testament produces a heart that “trusts in the help of God in every situation.” Finally, Piper asks:
What is the moment of life-threatening danger for? Is it for showing how powerful and preemptive we have been? Is it to show our shrewdness — that we have a gun in our back pocket and we can show you something? That is a response learned from Jason Bourne, not Jesus and the Bible. That response appeals to everything earthly in us, and requires no miracle of the new birth.

I agree that God intends to use Christian suffering to testify about Christ. But does this imply that Christians should never prepare for life-threatening events and instances of suffering? I’m not sure Piper means to say this, yet this absolute interpretation gets defended in daily conversations. Before we take this view for a test drive, let’s gain some insight from a second recent controversy.

2. “You Don’t Get to Make that Move.” This Fall, Christians voiced strong reservations about taking Syrian refugees into the United States. Not at all unlike John Piper’s response to Jerry Falwell, Jr., one Christian blogger expressed dismay at the tone and impression other Christians were giving in the course of debate. The blogger rightly tilts against hysteria, fear, and bigotry, accepting that non-Christians might display these traits, but demanding more from Christians:

But if you name Jesus as king? Well, then I’m sorry, Christian, but you don’t get to make that move.

He goes on to tell us things Christians don’t get to do, including:

We don’t get to hunt around for excuses for why we don’t need to include “those people” in the category of “neighbour.”

We don’t get to look for justifications for why it’s better to build a wall than open a door.

We don’t get to label people in convenient and self-serving ways in order to convince ourselves that we don’t have to care for them.

And:

We don’t get to reduce the gospel of peace and life and hope to a business-as-usual kind of political pragmatism with a bit of individual salvation on top.

We don’t get to ask, as our default question, “How can I protect myself and my way of life?” but “How does the love of Christ constrain and liberate me in this particular situation?”

Who can argue against this? My concern though is that such a post ends up getting used by others as a straw man in debate. If all objections to hosting refugees boil down to laziness, carelessness, fear and panic, then how can a Christian or a citizen express legitimate concerns about real dangers affecting her society, her neighbors, her family, or even herself? This absolute position needs a test drive, too.

Taking absolutes for a spin

Recall Piper’s concern that Christians should trust “in the help of God in every situation.” What about situations where Christians or those they care for fall ill? Most seek a doctor, and rightly so. Few people think this entails a lack of trust in God; such a position is absurd. It seems then that in some cases Christians are justified in actively preventing and mitigating their own and others’ suffering.

An obvious objection to this is to distinguish between resisting natural evil and resisting evil coming from the hand of others. After all, both Romans and 1 Peter say not to repay evil with evil. Then maybe “we” ordinary Christians shouldn’t defend ourselves against attack after all. I’ll complicate this objection by appealing to the imperative to protect others. Imagine a case where a Christian, by failing to resist an assailant, allows his wife to die. To extend the test drive of this absolute principle, how about if a Christian by similar inaction allows her own child to die, or her neighbor’s child? It is not at all clear that testifying about Christ requires these kinds of “sacrifices.” By the light of conscience these cases seem morally repugnant. The absolute prohibition against defense of others, and perhaps even self-defense, breaks down.

What about the controversy of being hesitant to take in refugees? Do Christians really not “get to make that move”? The same dynamics seem to be at play with Christians and guns. If following Jesus means urging law enforcement and others to forget completely about the threat of terrorism and violence, then let me suggest that is an absurd and unthinking Christianity.

Every Christian should imitate Christ’s self-sacrifice in appropriate circumstances. But carelessly disregarding one’s own life or the lives of others contradicts essential aspects of Christianity. Bearers of God’s image–including ourselves–deserve great respect and ought to be preserved as much as possible. Deuteronomy 30 exhorts us to “choose life.” Jesus in Mark 12 commands that you love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and that you love your neighbor as yourself. And in Jeremiah 29:7, God urges, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” Dying a martyr’s death for the gospel is a noble aspiration and has its proper place, but we should not seek it in every situation we face, let alone enlist our neighbors. In light of scripture and reason, “we” don’t always have to roll over and die.

 

Photo credit: David Villarreal Fernández via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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Bad news: national security train wreck!

[2] / Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

As a result of the deeply damaging Snowden leak, I am reminded of the principles that make me more of a security hawk than my libertarian compatriots.

Dan Mitchell at International Liberty staked a respectable position regarding the still-unfolding NSA surveillance story.  But some of the comments from his more ardent libertarian readers are real forehead-slappers.  Like the proposition that our military should consist solely of a Coast Guard and maybe an army reserve.

It seems to me that civil liberties advocates tend to have it half-right.  Judeo-Christian tradition informs the concept of Natural Law in many ways: we are equal in dignity before our Creator because we bear His image.  We ought to be suspicious of those in authority because they, like all created persons, are sinful.  Even the best of us are blinded by pride or tempted to abuse.  Indeed, this is the clearest argument from the Christian worldview against centralized, progressive technocracies.

But the forgotten half of Judeo-Christian anthropology is that there are and will always be actors–states, individuals, movements–bent on destroying our government, killing our people, and weakening our society.

On this myopia, I’m reminded of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  Its villains, who would wreck American civilization, were either bumbling bleeding hearts or  homegrown totalitarians.  Socialism and central planning were alive and well in Rand’s imagination, but the threat of international communism was nowhere to be found.  Rather strange for a book released in 1957, the year Sputnik was launched, the year after Khrushchev barked “We will bury you!” and four years after the Soviets acquired the hydrogen bomb, thanks of course to the traitorous Julius Rosenberg.

There is no Soviet Union today, but between Putin’s desperately declining Russia, the unscrupulous authoritarians running the People’s Republic of China, the bottomless supply of Islamist terrorists, and the Pandora’s box of asymmetric capabilities at everyone’s disposal, today’s world is hardly Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Big data is everywhere, and we sure as well better have the good guys using it, because the bad guys definitely are.

Former attorney general Michael Mukasey couldn’t have put it better when he wrote in a recent op-ed :

The Constitution and U.S. laws are not a treaty with the universe; they protect U.S. citizens. Foreign governments spy on us and our citizens. We spy on them and theirs. Welcome to the world.

I’ve given a piece of my mind on intel leakers in the past.  Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are the bratty poster children for a grave generational defect. The simple reality is that our nation’s security is in the hands of Millennials, whose self-defined attributes include a sharply liberal political bent and “superior intelligence” according to a 2010 Pew poll.

Snowden’s affinities, as revealed in a Guardian interview, gel with his cohort.  He’s more cosmopolitan than patriotic:

“There are conflicts between the United States government and the Chinese PRC government, but the peoples inherently… we don’t care, we trade with each other freely, we are not at war, we’re not in armed conflict and we’re not trying to be. We’re the largest trading partners out there for each other.”

Cue Lennon’s Imagine. The view is gravely misinformed.  Acts of conscience don’t do much good when the premisses are flat out wrong.

And speaking of China, how did President Obama’s California summit with President Xi go?  I’m sure we made a sterling show of strength, unity, and integrity.  Peace through Strength, and the Shining City on a Hill.  That’s Reagan, not our bumbling Obama.

Then again, China may have had a hand in this surveillance program compromise all along.  Or, with publicly aired allegations of US hacking, maybe US-China relations will be severely set back.  Certainly, terrorists have gotten a little wiser about avoiding detection.  Any which way you cut it, nothing good comes out of this fiasco.  There is no way Snowden could possibly be a hero.

It’s beyond frustrating that such undisciplined, uninformed flunkies stumble into treason.  Who knows how many more Mannings and Snowdens have access to secrets and are all-too-willing to spill the beans?  That, not any NSA surveillance overreach,  is what should keep us up at night.

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