Sunday, January 02, 2022

Christ and the Police State

The Rutherford Institute is a nonpartisan organization whose self-appointed mission is to hold the U.S. government accountable to abide by the rule of law, sound the alarm over institutional abuses of power, and educate Americans about reclaiming their constitutionally-guaranteed but steadily-eroding freedoms. Its founder John Whitehead is deeply concerned that America is becoming a police state, and he offers plenty of evidence to back up his claims.

All very important stuff in its own place, I’m sure, but what does it have to do with Christians? Well, Whitehead has written a Christmas post entitled “The Christmas Baby Born in a Police State: Then and Now”, in which he asks the question “What if Jesus had been born 2,000 years later?”

Okay, now I’m interested.

What Would Jesus Do?

What would Jesus do?-type speculations are common, though I quite dislike them. They often appear in political contexts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought Jesus might have opposed Hitler. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn thought Jesus might have spoken out about government abuses in the Soviet Union. Martin Luther King Jr. thought Jesus would have opposed the Vietnam War. Many people have thought Jesus might have said and done many things.

But the dangers in letting our imaginations run wild like this should be obvious: bringing Jesus into one’s politics generates lots of rhetorical heat with precisely zero actual substance. You can neither prove nor disprove any of these theories about what the Lord might have said or done under circumstances vastly different from those of first century Judea, though Christians familiar with the Gospel narratives will certainly have strong opinions. Whitehead’s own characterization of the Lord’s ministry as “speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo of his day, and pushing back against the abuses of the Roman Empire” is about what we might expect from such an exercise: long on drama and awfully short on facts.

Speaking Truth to Power

Now, if we are talking about speaking truth to religious power or about the status quo within first century Judaism ... well, certainly. The seven woes of Matthew 23 would back you up there, though I note the Lord prefaced his scathing verbal demolition of the Pharisees with a command to his followers to “Do and observe whatever they tell you.”

Not much of a revolution in that, is there.

Those same corrupt religious leaders whose authority Jesus upheld tried desperately to make him into a political figure in order to turn the authority of the state against him, but they were unable to do it without twisting his words and lying about his intentions. If memory serves, for example, I believe the sum total of the Lord’s remarks about the abuses of the Roman Empire was limited to a gentle, private reminder to Pontius Pilate that “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” Far from seeking to establish a new and more righteous world order, he twice asserted “My kingdom is not of this world.” Whitehead is way out to lunch on that one.

So then, using the Lord’s authority to push a political agenda in the here and now is a dangerous game. At very least we should be asking those who do it to produce a scintilla of biblical evidence for their claims. Speculating about what we think the Lord Jesus might have done is at best a substance-free exercise; at worst, it is flirting with blasphemy. It’s not safe to put our own words in the mouth of the Eternal God.

What the U.S. Government Would Do to Jesus Today

But all that is just preliminary. Whitehead is actually more interested in speculating about what the current U.S. government might do (or try to do) with Jesus if given the opportunity. Here at least we are outside blasphemy territory, though still well within the realm of wild conjecture.

For example, Whitehead points out that if a twelve-year old Jesus were to disappear on a family visit to a major U.S. city, his parents could be arrested and jailed for negligence. If Jesus were to associate with the modern equivalent of John the Baptist, he might be flagged for FBI surveillance. His “foxes have holes” lifestyle would be unacceptable today in many American cities, where homelessness is effectively criminalized. Driving out demons might get him carted off to a mental health facility. Cleansing the temple might easily be labeled a hate crime. And so on, and so on.

It’s difficult to figure out quite what Whitehead is trying to get at here. Is he concerned that technology and regulatory power have made government abuses worse today than they were in the first century? In some respects, perhaps, but the upper limit on the ability of governments to persecute and harass their citizens has always been the same: they can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Two millennia down the road, it’s still hard to imagine an ending worse than hanging for hours from a Roman cross.

Or Would They?

It may indeed be the case that the ways in which the state can interfere in the lives of its undesirables and regulate its citizens have multiplied because of technology, but the end game is no different than it ever was. Today, the Lord’s parents might be carted off to jail for having an unassisted birth. In the first century, they fled Judea for Egypt to avoid Herod’s state-sanctioned bout of baby murder. A rogue state is a rogue state regardless of the tools it employs, and life under a rogue state was and remains suboptimal in any century.

Moreover, Whitehead also reckons without God’s protection of his servants. He speculates about what the state might do to Jesus today without considering the numerous occasions on which the Lord either miraculously or strategically evaded the authorities, on which the authorities restrained themselves because they feared a public backlash, or on which the officers tasked with seizing the Lord failed to do their job. Even when they came to take Jesus in Gethsemane, they were utterly unable to do so without his cooperation, and that was without him taking advantage of the twelve legions of angelic backup standing ready to respond. Technology today may be unprecedented, impressive and hugely invasive, but it’s still operated by human beings. The king’s heart remains a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.

There have always been rogue governments, but no matter how a rogue government abuses its constitution, it cannot do anything to a servant of God that his master does not allow.

Institutions and Individuals

Whitehead raises some interesting questions on the way to this conclusion: “That baby born in a police state grew up to be a man who did not turn away from the evils of his age but rather spoke out against it. We must do no less.” Well, yes and no.

Yes, the Roman Empire was a police state, and yes, it’s hard to argue that America has not become a police state too. Nevertheless, pulling Jesus into it to make your case is a non-starter. His first advent was not about tearing down corrupt institutions, but about transforming the individuals who live in and under them. The Sermon on the Mount is not about holding one’s government to a higher standard; it’s about holding yourself to a higher standard, which provokes the obvious question: where does that power to live a life pleasing to God come from? And the Lord did not leave his followers without an answer: Abide in me, and you will bear much fruit.

Don’t get me wrong: God is as concerned with justice at the institutional and national levels as he is with justice at the individual level; the Old Testament prophets are proof of that. But our Lord’s first advent was not the time for institutional reform. It was not the time for the rulers of the earth to serve the Lord with fear. It was not the time to “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way.”

Don’t worry, that time is coming. It just won’t be you or me that brings it about.

No comments :

Post a Comment