Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Church In The Time Of The Virus (Episode 15): Civil (Dis)Obedience

When churches suspended their weekly brick and mortar meetings, I decided to take some time to address online what it looks like for the church to be the church in times like this. Thus, The Church In The Time Of The Virus. I began posting this on my church's Facebook page several weeks ago; since then, I have had some thoughtful conversations sparked by some of the issues I addressed. Because of that - and because I like wrestling with important ideas - each post is going to follow this format:
  • Video
  • Transcript
  • Reflections
The beautiful thing about the reflections part is that I can constantly update it, so the conversation can continue! You are welcome to offer helpful comments in the comment section and be a part of this conversation/archival record (as local and modest as it is).

(Episode 1: Introduction)
(Episode 2:Fearless, Not Fearful)
(Episode 3: Bold, But Not Foolhardy)
(Episode 4: Sacrificial Of Self, Not Others)
(Episode 5: Faith-fullness Involves Trust)
(Episode 6: Faithfulness Requires Humble Obedience)
(Episode 7: The Church's History During Plagues)
(Episode 8: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Episode 9: Spurgeon And The Plague Of London)
(Episode 10: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Episode 11: A Few Thoughts Have Been Brewing)
(Episode 12: Is COVID-19 A Judgment From God?)
(Episode 13: Romans 12-14 - Coronavirus Version)
(Episode 14: Dear American Christian)

EPISODE 15: Civil (Dis)Obedience



In my previous post and in my sermon at church last week, I took a very black and white stance on the biblical command to honor the authorities God has placed in their life. It apparently left many of you as unsettled as it did me.

Having let the “black and white” sit for a bit, I want to talk about the tension we live in as Christians who live in a heavenly Kingdom that demands many things of us in a fallen world that challenges all of the.

In biblical ethics there's an idea called absolutism. That means when God commands something, the thing that He commands is a good thing, full stop. It’s absolutely a good command because it stems from God’s nature. And yet we live in a fallen world, and we will be put in positions where it seems that we have to choose one of God's absolute commands over another.

  • Do the Hebrew midwives obey Pharaoh's command to kill newborn boys or not? Well they didn't, and they lied. Okay we're not supposed to lie, that sure seems like they made the right choice by lying in order to save the lives of the Hebrew boys. 
  • In 1 Samuel, we read the story of David and his men eating the showbread in the temple that was consecrated for the priest alone. Feeding the men to preserve life was more important than the lie David told to get the bread. 
  • Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, a day when no work was to be done, and the Pharisees questioned Him about it. He answered, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”
  • Corrie Ten Boom provides a more modern example. Her family lied so that the Nazis couldn't discover the Jewish people they were hiding. Most of us would look at that and say that was the right choice.  
  • What about someone in an abusive marriage? The sanctity of marriage and the command to keep the covenant clashes with and the principle of human dignity.

Christian ethicists have responded to this reality in related but different ways.

Unqualified absolutism. That means there will never be any qualifications. If we are in a situation where it looks like we're going to have to break one of God's commands in order to honor another command, we are not seeing the third way out that God will always provide. We will never have to break a law to keep a law.

Qualified/conflicting absolutism. We are never justified in breaking one of God's commands even if it is to keep another of God's commands. We will have to because it's a fallen world, but then we need to pray for forgiveness because what we did was wrong.

Graded absolutism. Because we live in a fallen world, we will be put in positions where we have to choose to follow one of God's commands in such a way that we will have to break another one of God's commands. The term “graded” simply means that there is a biblical hierarchy of what are the greater commands. We are choosing the greater good, and that’s not a sin for which we need to ask forgiveness. Jesus taught about the lesser and greater commandments and the weightier matters of the law; the Biblementions different degrees of punishment and reward.

Norman Geisler and Josh McDowell compare this to a jetliner taking off, which places the laws of aerodynamics and gravity into conflict. As it lifts off, the aircraft does not break the law of gravity, it merely emphasizes the law of aerodynamics. When it lands, gravity moves front and center again. Neither one ceases to be true and compelling, but they take turns superseding the other.

The bottom line is this. We recognize that we live in a world full of tension. That means we are going to be put into situations where God is asking us to do two things that are both very important, but sometimes we are going to have to choose to do the one that is more important. The typical “pyramid of values” looks something like this:

1. Respect the source of the law (God)
2. Respect moral beings (persons)
3. Respect animate things  (animals)
4. Respect inanimate things (stuff)

Jesus summarizes all of this in “the law of love”: Love God and love others. He never tells us to love things, though we are to steward them.

So let's talk about the biblical command to be obedient to the authorities in our lives in light of graded absolutism (which is the spot I land on in the discussion). There will indeed be times where it would be wrong for us to obey the commands of the government because it would force us to break the commands of God.

I don't think there is any dispute about this in Christian circles. We all know this. The key things are that if the government asks you to deny your faith, to stop preaching the gospel, or to commit sin, these are obvious examples where we obey the higher law of obedience to God. Our holiness and the spreading of the gospel is on the line. These cannot be exempted. The story of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are classic examples from the Old Testament.  We don't bow to the idol.

So this brings us “the weirds” - a phrase a friend introduced me to as a description of what’s happening right now.  What does it look like for we Christians to navigate the tension of feeling like the government we are called to obey is becoming intrusive and perhaps even oppressive? In Ethics for a Brave New World, John and Paul Feinberg write about civil  disobedience:

 “What drives one to commit an act of civil disobedience is a decision based on the following: ‘(a) a moral decision or judgment that a law or activity is unjust, (b) after normal channels of addressing the injustice have proven fruitless (c) the moral objections to this injustice of the law outweigh the moral reasons in favor of obedience.’ 

I like this template. Let's run with it.

Civil disobedience is justified if a law is unjust. That can't simply mean a law that I don't like, a law that makes me uncomfortable, or a law that inconveniences me. It doesn’t even mean that it seems legally unjust or seems to violate our American sense of justice. Here we’re talking about moral injustice. If something is unjust, it means it is breaking a higher moral law that comes from God. in other words, the law would be the kind of law such that if I followed it, I would break the higher law of God.

Civil disobedience is justified after normal channels of addressing the Injustice of proven fruitless. One of the reasons the Civil Rights movement spilled into the streets was because normal channels of justice were proving to be fruitless. There was no good reason to believe that the structure in place in our society would address the issue. But still they had to try. Just thinking that this won’t get anywhere isn’t reason to skip this step. We’re talking about “after we’ve exhausted normal channels”

Civil disobedience is justified if the moral objections of the law outweigh the moral reasons in favor of obedience. That's really just graded absolutism. I am weighing the biblical command to be obedient to the God-ordained authorities in my life with the biblical command to obey the God who is over those authorities. If it is clear that those are clashing, I must obey God. So we’re talking about situations of God’s law vs God’s law - not God’s law vs. constitutional law.

So, let's look at the tensions we are feeling right now as Christians and as United States citizens. I don’t want to address how we respond purely as American citizens to concerns about constitutional encroachment or overreaching power. I want to focus on the Christian justification of civil disobedience, not the constitutional or political one. It's not that I don't think that other discussion is worth having, but that is not my primary focus.

I think I can summarize all three of the points from the Feinbergs by having us ask three questions.

1. Is what the government asking us to do biblically unjust? Is it demanding of us that we deny our faith, shut up about the gospel, or commit sin? I can't see how the commands involving state restrictions are doing this in and of themselves. The question we have to ask ourselves is if there is a ripple effect such that commands that in and of themselves are not unjust could lead to something unjust if we aren't careful? Let me give a silly but obvious example. The state would like us to wear masks in Menards, as would Menards. But what if someone collapses in Menards and they need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? Obviously we would take both masks off and break that law. And the reason we would do that is that saving a human life is more important than keeping the mask on or social distancing. So the rule about masks was not unjust in and of itself, and ought to be obeyed, but that obedience becomes unjustified if the obedience overrides a greater command, which in this case would be to protect the value and dignity of human life. This brings us to the second question.

2. Do government restrictions force me to disobey a higher law of God? Hopefully the example I just gave makes it clear that obviously there are reasons that we would step outside of the restrictions. It's not because we are trying to be rebellious or because we have decided that we don't care about authority.  It’s not because we are trying to shake our fists at the state because they're frustrating us. It's actually because we're being obedient to a Higher Law and we really care about that Higher Authority. So it's not lawlessness; it's actually lawfulness. In  the example I just gave, I think anyone would see that.

So what about breaking the governors mandates? Right now, the governor is outlining a lot of restrictions (though as I type this she has just announced we are moving into phase 4 in Michigan on Friday). In and of itself, the restrictions that have been in place do not seem to have been asking me to break some higher law of God, so as much as is possible, I could honor them in good faith as a Christian.

But I think what Christians are struggling with is that there appear to be situations that, while not as obvious as the person needing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, are examples of what I will call spiritual or relational resuscitation that also seem very “essential” in ways that might not make sense from a secular perspective.

This is typically in church lingo what we call “ministry” or “fellowship.” We toss those words out lightly sometimes, but what we mean is there are genuine needs that must be met. While not biological needs like food, drink, or oxygen, they are life-giving and life-sustaining activities. And it would sure seem that in the biblical hierarchy of things, the flourishing of human beings is very important.

However, we ought to feel the tension right away. The whole reason we're trying not to co-mingle with other families and do non-essential things is because we could spread a virus that takes human life.

So here we are at the tension. Foolhardiness or a carefree attitude about personal protection protocol could potentially lead to someone else's death, and God knows I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s death if at all possible.  And yet there are times that if we are not present with people in a physical way we have legitimate concern of a spiritual or emotional plunging off the deep end that could also have very serious consequences, potentially either physical or spiritual death. There is no doubt that presence is not only life-giving but sometimes directly life sustaining.

So this is the rock and the hard place, right? This is “thinking with both hands” to reference a previous episode.

I landed hard on obeying the government last week and in a few earlier posts in this series because I don't think we take it seriously enough. We can become very cavalier with an attitude that says, “I just don't care what the authorities in my life say. I'm going to do what I want.”  But that's very different from thoughtfully “thinking with both hands” and weighing out what our obligations are as a Christian. That's very different from making a decision with fear and trembling.

If someone who is a follower of Christ says to me, “Screw it!  I just don't care! I'm going to do what I want,” okay, we're going to very bluntly and strongly disagree. But if you are telling me that you are wrestling with these dual obligations you have as a Christian and through prayer and discussion with others Christians you're saying, “I feel like my greater obligation in this situation is to do this” -  oh, well then, that's a very different thing.

Of course, we have to be very,very careful that we're not using this as an excuse to just do what we want. That would be an example of turning liberty into license, of taking good freedoms and turning them into something destructive of self or others. Paul reminds us that not everything permissible is beneficial.

We have to be very careful that we study and guard our hearts so that the desire that motivates us is a desire to honor God's plan for our lives, the lives of those around us, and the church as well as we can. If that's the process we're going through, I have deep respect for that. If we're not taking that process seriously, I have grave concerns.

3. Am I maximizing the use of normal channels of addressing what I believe is injustice?  The early church provides a model of using the channels available to them. This is modeled first by the Apostle Paul claiming his Roman citizen rights to protect himself, and then over the next few centuries when Christian apologists would write letters to or go in front of Roman governors to state their case on behalf of Christians. In the United States, we have a lot of channels for addressing something that we believe is unjust or unfair. We can call, write, post on social media, start online petitions, write letters to the editor, put signs in our yard, and file a lawsuit. I don’t think any of those things are in and of themselves unbiblical responses.

When that doesn’t work to address genuine injustice, we move into a time-honored tradition in Christian history of civil disobedience, stepping out of boundaries so that we can do what is right and so that our presence will be felt.

There is no doubt that the initial lockdowns for the purpose of protecting human life could become and perhaps are becoming unjust if they actually begin to have the opposite effect and start to harm human life more than helping it.

Plenty of people are talking about the economic ripple effect and the impact real poverty has on human health and life. Others are rightly commenting on how mental health issues are climbing during this time of lockdown, and how hospitals are being forced to cancel operations such that people are dying of other diseases that would not have normally taken their lives. These are all part of the discussion of addressing just and unjust laws. In fact, here in Michigan, some hospitals have already filed a lawsuit about this issue. (Going through normal channels of addressing what they believe is injustice, which I believe is not only a good idea from a civil perspective but I think it's the right approach from a Biblical perspective.)

Churches are simultaneously wanting to honor the authorities while at the same time insisting that what we see as our essential role in the community be taken seriously by the state as it contemplates rules and guidelines. Several week ago I wrote a letter to the Governor expressing my hope about how she will handle the situation when it comes to churches reopening.

The vast majority of churches are seeking to be obedient while maximizing normal channels even up to the point of filing lawsuits in states where they believe they have been unfairly denied freedom when other similar venues have been open. I believe maximizing normal channels is the biblically correct way to do it.

Will there come a point where the larger church community begins to say that a law that started well and with just intentions has now become a law that is becoming overbearing and unjust? It could be. That is surely part of the discussion that is happening nationwide within denominations and individual churches. In my discussion with other pastors here in Traverse City, there is widespread agreement that we are still in a place where we want to and believe we should honor the restrictions that are in place, while recognizing there may come a day where we feel like we no longer can.

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