Christianity is Making a “Social Turn”
Christian thought and practice is making a turn toward a qualitatively social faith. That is, the good news of Jesus Christ is widely recognized by theologians, pastors, and laity alike as having significant social implications. To say there are social implications means that there are political implications to the life and teachings of Jesus. Libertarian Christians have a unique opportunity to communicate the message of liberty to a culture that has made this ‘social turn.’ I see this responsibility as two-fold: (1) as Christians we preach the social benefits of the gospel, and (2) as libertarians we communicate that a free society is demonstrably the best way to advance the cause of the gospel and promote human flourishing.
The Gospel is more than about individuals
How do we know that the gospel has political implications? The reasons are many, but the one that dominates (in my mind) is that if the gospel of Jesus were merely about personal spiritual awakening, Pilate and Herod — who were otherwise enemies with each other — would not have “become friends” in the arrest and trial and eventual crucifixion of Jesus (see Luke 23:12). Nor would Rome be out to murder Paul and the disciples in the Book of Acts. What could possibly be threatening to the great Roman empire about people having a private religious experience? No, if the followers of Jesus were changing their ways, that had profound (and threatening) consequences for the Roman empire. Best to squash the movement where it springs up. The gospel was a threat to Rome, and as such it is a threat to all empires (including modern ones).
“Jesus is Lord” is a counter-empire claim
To communicate that Jesus is Lord is to communicate to empires that they do not own, rule, or have claim to this world or the people in it. While governance in some form has a place in a free society, empires are opposed to the purposes of God. It would not be too much to say that the libertarian impulse against the state aligns quite nicely with God’s aim toward abolishing empires. To look at libertarianism through a gospel lens, Christian libertarians proclaim that Jesus has defeated the principalities and powers that are manifested in the empires which demand our allegiance here on Earth. Earthly nations can claim us as their citizens, but they cannot force from us the allegiance which is due to God alone.
Many in the western Church have relegated Jesus to the role of Secretary of Afterlife Affairs until his eventual future ‘promotion’ to Lord. But Jesus Christ is not Lord-elect; Jesus Christ is Lord today, and Kingdom citizens are responsible for communicating and demonstrating a new way of life. This life is founded upon a message of peace and carried out through the practice of love toward our neighbors. When individuals choose peace over conflict, they embody that upon which God’s Kingdom is built. When individuals die to self in efforts to reconcile differences, they embody what Jesus Christ said was true Kingdom power.
The Resurrection Defeated Violence
The gospel is the announcement that God’s new movement to rescue creation has started with Jesus. He demonstrated it in life, in death, and in his resurrection. The resurrection was not just God’s greatest magic trick to prove that Jesus was divine; it signaled the defeat of the satan by the defeat of Rome’s only mechanism for power: violence. In other words, Christ on the cross and God’s raising him to life is the final defeat of the violent Roman empire, and by implication all empires and all of their violence. This subversive proclamation was designed to upend the political structures of violence and oppression in a new and radical way. Liberation from empire means — among many things — that God cares about our freedom. When Christians declare that Jesus frees us from sin, that means Jesus frees us from the consequences of our own sin as well as the consequences of the damaging effects of sin.
Libertarian Christians are poised to offer a beautiful alternative to the limited options from which the Church and the world are used to selecting. We offer not a utopian society under our preferred conditions. Instead, we propose a community that is built upon peace. We also believe that stable property rights are the best framework within which free humans can cooperate and resolve conflict. We make no guarantees other than that which can be achieved peacefully and voluntarily. We embrace the intrinsic value and worth of every human being. We believe in peace and are against all forms of aggression. We avoid resorting to violent alternatives in spite of our impatience waiting for outcomes or annoyance with those who refuse to live in peace. We pray for and actively work toward a world where the will of God is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Using the Bible to Defend Freedom
Libertarians should use wisdom in using the Bible to defend freedom. Freedom from empire is certainly part of the good news of the gospel, but it is not the whole gospel. Liberation theology — for all its contributions to the theological conversation — seems to miss this point. Liberation from empire is part of the gospel because Jesus came to liberate us from sin and the manifestations of sin. The satan was defeated, and thus the satan’s greatest tool for institutionalized sin (the state) is defeated.
Liberty Can be Found in the Bible
For libertarians to prioritize individual liberty comes from a variety of sources, none of which conflict with the narrative of Scripture or the message of Jesus. It seems implicit throughout Scripture that people are free to make their lives meaningful in community and join God’s movement throughout history. While the kind of liberty we find in the Bible is not the kind we commonly hear propounded by modern libertarians, we do find a kind of liberty nonetheless. Not only is it found in God’s decision to delegate to human beings a say-so in the consequences of human action (see Greg Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil), it is found in the stories of God’s action to save those who are oppressed by violent regimes. If we take a brief survey of the Hebrew Scriptures, we find salient tales of God’s movement within history to redeem the world.
The universe was created from a free act of God’s love, not as the result of conflict between warring gods (as is found in many Ancient Near Eastern creation myths). God bestowed upon the first humans the dignity of choice. God’s heart is revealed by God’s response to the oppression of people as demonstrated in the Israelite exodus story. After being rescued, the Israelites were in charge of their own destiny, including how long it took to enter the Promised Land. Upon entering, God said through Joshua, “Choose this day whom you will serve!” The onus is on them. Centuries later, the prophets were clear that God despises the injustice of oppression, and they repeatedly call Israel to choose justice, mercy, and humility. In the tradition of the prophets, Jesus invited those around him to follow, and the apostles and the Church extend this choice to the rest of the world. The narrative of the Bible contains God’s election of a people to be a blessing to the world. That was the vocation of Israel, it was the vocation of Jesus, and it is the vocation of the Church. Christians are to bring God’s blessing to the world in the spirit of the exodus, the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles.
Because the incarnation of Jesus happened at a particular point in history and in a particular place on earth, his message was directed at that audience. It would be rather surprising (and anachronistic) to read the gospels and find Jesus directly addressing property rights or free trade. This is not to say Jesus is against property rights, free trade, or individual liberty; it simply means we need to do a better job at communicating why Christians today should advocate for those things if they want to embody the message of Jesus to those around us.
The incarnation of Jesus and his message of the Kingdom make it clear that the purposes of God will one day be fulfilled. How? It will be accomplished through the Body of Christ, the Church — which N.T. Wright calls “the renewed people of God” — led by the Spirit into this new Kingdom reality. Our call and vocation as followers of Jesus is to build towards this Kingdom. So if the gospel stories were written to proclaim that God has become King, and Jesus’ main proclamation was “The Kingdom of God is arriving in me,” then we have no reason to doubt the King’s power to advance his kingdom, in spite of all that stands in its way. Jesus’ way was peaceful, nonviolent, and self-sacrificial. This stands in stark contrast to the political kingdoms of this world (see Matthew 20:24-26).
Christians Are to be a Blessing to the World
It is in the power of the Spirit that the Church is carried forward to be a blessing to the whole world by demonstrating God’s love and justice. Jesus promised that the fortified gates of Hades would not be capable of withstanding the tour de force called the Kingdom of God. God raised Jesus from the dead, both to demonstrate God’s victory over the principalities and powers and to also spark the beginning of a new creation. The end for which God created the world has found its beginning in the accomplishment of Jesus. The satan is defeated. We march forward in that victory.
Worldly Kingdoms do not Offer Redemption
It is not in the powers of worldly kingdoms that God’s redemption occurs. It is not in power of coercion that people will bow before the Lord of all. It is not in threats of violence that justice and peace will reign. No, it is in the power of the Spirit by which we can carry forward the message of the gospel that will redeem the world.
If Christians are to hold a compatible view of individual liberty alongside the gospel and the Kingdom of God, it will only be done faithfully by the Church remaining confident in the power of the gospel to change lives and change society (and by extension, the world).
Jesus Would Approve of Libertarians
So while we cannot say that Jesus was a libertarian, he would certainly approve of the libertarian impulse to protect individuals from unjust forms of power, the affirmation of individual dignity, and the primacy of individual freedom in choosing good over evil. Libertarians see the world as a place where progress happens naturally when people cooperate freely and peaceful actions go about unimpeded by force, and where aggressive actions are naturally thwarted or opposed. We do not bend over backward to justify the use of institutional violence to advance our vision or the Kingdom of God.
Belief in the power of the gospel must go all the way from changing individual hearts to changing the world as we know it. Jesus began a new creation, establishing a New Earth where we pray that God’s will be done as it is in Heaven. We must choose to believe in this power for ourselves, and also for the world.