By Rev. Michael Ives. This piece was originally posted at West Port Experiment.
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I am a conservative Christian. I also homeschool. I head to the range every month or so. Not only that, but I’m a Calvinist, a psalm-singer, and to boot, someone who believes that the state has an obligation to embrace and support Christianity. So really, I’m not your mainstream, happy-clappy evangelical. For most, I would be just to the right of Attila the Hun. I’m in a subculture of a subculture of a subculture.
And yet, I am increasingly concerned about how reactionary and polarizing folks like me can be. We often tend to be overly suspicious of anyone in government, education, or any institution that we feel encroaches on our freedoms. We can indulge in conspiratorialism, thinking that every government official or educator or doctor has made a self-conscious Faustian bargain with the Devil and is actively plotting our destruction. And then we respond accordingly.
I am concerned about all of this for two reasons. First, ethically, we have a responsibility to “honor all men” and make the Gospel we represent as winsome as possible. Our “light should so shine before men” that they might see our “good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven.” Yes, we must at times offend, but only if it is for “righteousness’ sake.” Yes, we must stand our ground when sacred truth is at stake. But we must do it only when necessary and in a manner that involves no personal offense. Otherwise, we should, “as far as it lies within us, be at peace with all men.”
Second, I have very practical concerns as well. The more we are hyper-suspicious, unreasonable, and just downright cantankerous, the more we court the overreaction of those in positions of power. Tit for tat. “Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him.” If we are proud and stubborn as Christians, how much more will the graceless respond in kind? If we want to preserve our freedoms, we should act worthy of them and not bait the enemy. “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently?” You’re just reaping what you’ve sown, says Peter.
I think we need to re-tune our theology and ethics here, in order to re-tune our practice. The following points I think are worth bearing in mind.
First, total depravity has been checked – sometimes very significantly – by common grace. To be sure, “there is none righteous, no not one.” And “the carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” But unconverted people can be restrained, sometimes greatly. There is a real sense in which we can speak about ‘good pagans.’ I know some really good pagans! They are decent people. Some of them are more decent than some Christians I know. Consequently, there are some decent liberal Democrats, some decent members of the National Education Association, some decent doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists and social workers. Many of them mean well and want to do good, at least on a human level. We ought to realize this and keep it in mind.
Second, the law of love dictates that we assume the best of people, including non-Christians. Love “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” Our ethical responsibility is not suspended the moment we leave the church. Our unconverted neighbors – including government officials, educators, and doctors – are innocent until proven guilty. Would we want them to treat us with suspicion upon no clear, justifiable grounds? Even so, let us do unto them as we would have them do unto us. And all the while, let us not forget simple courtesy. “Be ye courteous.”
Third, two wrongs do not make a right. If someone does us wrong – if they give us a hard time for our homeschooling curriculum or our decisions on immunizations – then let us be very careful not to “repay evil with evil.” Rather, our Master tells us, “Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.” We can all be tempted to get bitter and retaliate when we are mistreated. But it is not the will of our good and gracious Father, and it will usually only make matters worse.
Fourth, in God’s world, personal liberty must be counter-balanced with social responsibility. We owe it to our society (and yes, to our government!), to educate our children to the best of our abilities. They have a vested interest, as do we, in their academic success. If we turn out illiterates, this is not good for the economy or the tax revenues. It is just plain bad policy to say, let folks do what they will with their children. Now, mind you, I’m hardly advocating statism here. I really don’t want local school officials showing up on my doorstep to scour our textbooks and school records. Yet if they make reasonable requests – or even requirements – let us make sure that they are in fact unreasonable before we just tell them to take a hike.
And my doctor and the rest of society has a vested interest in my health. If I only eat fatty foods and exercise once every two decades, this is bad for me and for others. And if a whole demographic is just like me, then it bodes ill for all. If my mental health deteriorates and I become a risk to myself or others, yes, others have a vested interest in helping me before the unthinkable comes to pass.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not promoting a lemming-like acceptance of conventional wisdom or the judgments of the establishment. There’s a healthy place for critique. Nor am I suggesting we roll over and play dead when someone oversteps their bounds. I’m all for insisting on personal rights, especially when it concerns the well being of my family. We can and may involve others to help protect those rights. But we must at once learn how to be actually in the world and yet not of it, as well as to be “angry and sin not.”
Let’s be careful to avoid the bunker mentality. Let’s remember that we represent God and Christ before a perishing world of lost and blinded sinners. Let’s remember that we were just like them, whistling down the broad path on the way to destruction. And let’s make very sure that if we cross them, we do it for the Lord’s sake and not for our own agendas. And then we can live with quiet conscience in peace or persecution. “And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled; but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.”