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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Don’t Push the Green Button

Having seen Iron Man 2, and then engaged in some thought and discussion about super heroes, I have come to conclude that the current crop of comic book heroes are the wrong ones for our society.  Last time I mentioned the naivete of the Superman and Spiderman protagonists, and I will say the same rules extend to Iron Man.  In a major way, the former characters are quite different from Tony Stark.  While the three suited-up men are always humbled by the formidability of their respective foes, the unsuited Tony Stark is not as bumbling as Peter Parker or Clark Kent.  But underlying Stark’s rock star persona is an earnest search for meaning and a desire to single-handedly bring world peace.  While these are nice sentiments becoming the likes of Madonna or Bono, the hero’s god-like abilities and achievements put him in a plane that does not intersect the viewer’s reality.

The most prominent offense of most super heroes is their ability to dodge the issues we must face in real life.  Early in Iron Man 2, the viewer discovers Stark is slowly being poisoned.  Without revealing too much of an utterly gripping plot, its safe to say that through a combination of deus ex machina and good old gumption, Stark is able to invent his way out of death–apparently overnight.  You might pause and ask if it is contradictory to shoot down Stark’s grit and determination as undesirable since I have previously defended the “bootstraps” idea of success in America.  The difference is that in reality, hard work is hard.

On the silver screen and in comic book pages, mythical heroes can magically make super devices and single-handedly resolve eternal dilemmas overnight.  But satisfying narratives need profound sacrifice–whether it is blood, sweat, or forbearance.  That is why the Gospel is so naturally compelling: God as Christ submitted to reality as we experience it, facing humiliation and death to bring a ringing victory over sin.  Many exemplary stories shine because of their portrayal of sacrifice, but for most comic book heroes sacrifice is either superficial or arbitrary.

The heroes that defy this trend tend not to be so singular or over the top.  The X-Men franchise is pretty solid, but the best may be Batman.  In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne and his fellow players must come to terms with a gritty world populated by jaded citizens and fallible heroes, a world that offers only heartbreak and insurmountable moral dilemmas.  While Batman is a rich, technological whiz like Tony Stark, he is not in danger of teaching the moral that pushing a green button will magically make life better.  Neither does Batman feed the idea that there are certain exceptional individuals we should look to solve our problems.  Rather, The Dark Knight emphasizes the democratization of morality and virtue, which is clearly born out in the climactic ferry boat stand off.

We may look to comic book blockbusters as just a little vacuous, harmless entertainment, but we should not be lulled into an unconscious acceptance of their implicit worldview.  Not all comic book movies were created equal, and I am not talking in terms of computer graphics and explosions.  It matters just how one goes about saving the world.

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