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Conservatism, liberalism, or non-aggression?

This guest post is from Randy Peters, who writes at TheGutDoc.com.

There is a distant friend of mine who is a conservative, political activist who regularly insults and belittles ideological opponents on Facebook.  A few weeks ago in one of his many cyber-arguments he quipped, “I am a social conservative and a Republican because of my faith in Christ.”  A few days later, my wife and I were entering one of our favorite restaurants.  Out front was an older, economy car with both  2008 and 2012 Obama/Biden bumper stickers and another sticker declaring, “I am a Democrat because of my faith.”  Beside the statement was a cross.

Republicans-vs-Democrats.jpgSince that experience, I have puzzled over how the same religion can foster such diametrically opposed political advocates.  Is the paradox inherent in Christianity or in the practitioners of Christianity?  Obviously, one is inclined to conclude the latter, but in the mosaic of Christendom has God planned such diversity?  Certainly he has permitted it, but is the widely variant political application of our Christianity God’s design or our persistent sinfulness?  Our spiritual immaturity?  Clearly, as one examines the life of Jesus and the full body of scripture, there are many commandments, many admonitions for how we are to live as Christians.  Yet, we are reminded that for Christ, there are “weightier matters” among those commandments (Matthew 23:23.)  As we strive to be salt and light in the world, as we endeavor to leave our “Holy Huddles” and engage the public forum to make our world better, where would Christ have us place our emphases?

From this apparent contradiction, one is inclined to accept the premise of neuroscientist Michael Shermer, who in his book The Believing Brain argues that contemporary neuroscience demonstrates that humans develop beliefs early in life for a variety of reasons and that the brain is genetically programmed to find evidence for these beliefs for the rest of its life ignoring or rationalizing all contradictory evidence.

It is easy for one to look at Matthew 23:23, Matthew 25, the Sermon on the Mount – indeed most of the New Testament and the Prophets – and conclude that “social justice” as it is commonly understood among progressives is clearly a manifestation of Jesus’ weightier matters of justice, faith and mercy.  It is easy to conclude from Scripture that God is concerned about the poor, the disadvantaged, the foreigner, the homeless and wants  – indeed commands – us to be likewise.  Many Christians to whom government is a benign, beneficent agency go further and conclude that government should be the agent of that justice, compassion and mercy, and their faith justifies support of that cause.  But what if government is not a benign, beneficent agency?  What if government is peopled by sinners like the rest of us who are selfish, lust for power and advantage and who unscrupulously use the tools and power of government mainly for their own ends – and along the way throw a few crumbs to the poor.  Suppose that government beneficence is shown to be ineffective if not harmful.  Do government programs and agencies ever go away?  Can such programs be easily corrected?  Experience suggests not.

Furthermore, does Scripture command us to practice our charity through the middleman of the state?  Or does it command us to a deeper level of commitment to the poor than marching, voting and placing bumper stickers?  Does Scripture command us to actually love those people and give to them out of our own heart and substance?  Scripture does not always take a favorable view of the state.  Certainly neither THE LORD nor Samuel thought highly of even a theocratic king in 1 Samuel 8:6-18. The history of ancient Israel is replete with examples of bad government.  We must not forget that the Sadducees and Pharisees with whom Jesus regularly contested were the Jewish government of his day.  Lastly, it was the power of the state that killed Jesus, persecuted the Church and for most of the first 1500 years of its existence co-opted the Church for its own ends.  No, one must be cautious if one wants the state to be the agent of Christian charity.

Most people of the conservative political bent maintain a healthy suspicion of the role of the state.  They believe that coerced charity is not charity at all.  They believe in property rights; they believe that government welfare programs do little good and foster a dependency on the state that maintains their recipients and their children in poverty.  Unfortunately, too many of them are too willing to use the power of the state to enforce a socially conservative moral code on all of society.  Perhaps worse, too many of them are too comfortable with military intervention around the globe for reasons that are often little more than economic nationalism.  The Christianity of the conservative often becomes a fixation on using the coercive power of the state to secure “righteousness” at home and defeat “evil” abroad.  In their zeal, they sacrifice lives and liberty bringing resentment on themselves, the state and their faith.

Perhaps the most succinct statement of practical Judaeo-Christian ethics is Micah 6:8:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (NRSV)

I have never met a Christian who disputes the simple, Godly principles expressed in that little sentence.

Let’s conduct a thought experiment.  Suppose you are a “progressive” Christian. You have deep compassion for the poor and disadvantaged.  You live in a small town wherein you have all power and the authority to use violence to exercise your authority.  There are ten people in your town.  Two of them are very successful making things that everyone else wants, and they have amassed much wealth. Two of your townspeople are inept and struggle constantly for subsistence.  What does the simple ethic of Micah 6:8 lead you to do?  What is justice in this case? Does your love of kindness (or mercy in some translations) give you leave to exercise violence to force the two or the eight well-off members of your town to share with the two impoverished ones?  How much violence may you use to coerce the unwilling and how much of their “stuff” do you take from them to give to others?  If they refuse to cooperate, do you beat them?  Imprison them?  Kill them?  Most importantly, how do you walk humbly with your God when you claim for yourself – even if you are in a position of authority – the wisdom and judgement to make those decisions over the lives and livelihoods of other people – and to steal from them, hurt them, imprison them or kill them if they refuse to comply with your command.

Consider the same experiment from the “right-wing” perspective.  You are now a social conservative Christian who has all authority and power in your town. You have a heart for the righteousness of adherence to God’s law as revealed in Scripture, and you loathe adultery, fornication, sodomy.  In your town, two people are committing adultery and two others are Gay.  What should your response to them be?  How much force may you use to compel them to adhere to your understanding of God’s law?  How far can you go if they refuse?  And again, if you take it upon yourself to exercise judgement and apply punishment including physical force against “sinners,” can you say that you are loving kindness and walking humbly with your God?

I submit that when any one of us – with civil authority or without it – takes upon himself the presumption to coerce others to do as we think God would have them do, we are no longer walking humbly with God.  We have become the Pharisees, enjoying our long robes and places of honor, thanking God that we are not like other men and imposing upon them grievous burdens for which we will not offer the help of our little finger.  There are many human behaviors condemned in the Holy Scripture; haughtiness may be one of the most condemned.

Make no mistake: when one argues that government is to be the arbiter of compassion or righteousness, one is arguing that violence is to be the tool by which those goals are achieved; for how else does government achieve its purpose?  Taxes, fines, regulations, laws boundaries all rest on the discretion of the government to use violence to enforce them.  When one maintains that the state should force his neighbors to do something, he is saying that violence should be used ultimately to accomplish that directive.  Note that there are areas wherein there is unanimous agreement  that communities or governments are justified in using force: to defend themselves from violence, to protect the lives of their members, to stop other crimes against persons or their property.  But can one say that government has a legitimate and justifiable role to use its police powers – its exclusive claim on the use of violence – to force charity? To force acts of service?  To force men and women to comply with “moral laws” with which they do not agree and which may not enjoy wide-spread acceptance in a community?  Furthermore, may a disciple of Christ take upon himself the authority under God to say to his neighbors, “I speak in the name of God, and I order you to do thus under pain of imprisonment or death.”

It is clear from Scripture that a follower of Christ may love his neighbors, may serve his neighbors, may teach, disciple, baptize and admonish his neighbors.  He may give to his neighbors; he may chose not to give to his neighbors.  But it is not clear from Holy Scripture that the Christian may do violence to his neighbor if he is not following the Law of God as well as the Christian would like; in fact, the Christian is admonished to see to the log in his own eye before addressing the speck in his neighbor’s.

The fundamental principle of libertarianism is the “non-aggression principle.”  This principle:

asserts that “aggression” is inherently illegitimate. “Aggression” is defined as the “initiation” of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property. In contrast to pacifism, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violent self-defense. (1)

Recently, I saw a very succinct, glib re-statement of the non-aggression principle:

Don’t hurt people, and don’t steal their stuff.

It is clear to me that the nonaggression principle – and any political philosophy that might be derived from it – is very, very close to the heart of Godliness.  The Ten Commandments, Micah 6:8, the Sermon on the Mount including the Golden Rule all emphasize the centrality of honoring God and valuing the personhood of other human beings.  Central to that personhood, is granting them the right to live as they see fit – even if we find their lives selfish or unrighteous.  The Baptist principle of “Soul Freedom” or the “Freedom of the Conscience before God” honors the moral worth of persons created in the image of God.  What dishonor we do to God and others when we claim for ourselves individually or collectively the right to coerce others to practice charity or righteousness as we think they ought.  Are not reason, education and example so much more effective?

As we grant that the state – with its legalism, indiscretion and ineptitude – is to be the agent of our charity or our morality, we replace the Sovereignty of God with the whims of the community and the state.  Our society and public discourse is thus reduced to incessant clamor for control of the state and its machinery so that our god will be your god, and our morality, your morality – which is fine when “our” group has power, but what comes when it doesn’t?  Is it not wiser to restrain the state to a few, simple tasks that it has proven to do well, and to leave men alone to live peacefully as each sees fit?

Isn’t Liberty the wiser, more Godly way?

Notes

(1.) http://wiki.mises.org/wiki/Principle_of_non-aggression

LCI posts articles representing a broad range of views from authors who identify as both Christian and libertarian. Of course, not everyone will agree with every article, and not every article represents an official position from LCI. Please direct any inquiries regarding the specifics of the article to the author. 

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