To Resist or To Comply: That is The Issue
As may happen when we visit family on vacation, a family member called me to an important theological discussion. He works in management for a city in southern California and had recently taken on an intern who was up for fulltime employment. When the intern was given the option to apply for the fulltime position the response was, “I can’t take a municipal job because I have to swear allegiance to the Constitution of the State of California and I’m opposed to certain parts of it as a Christian.” The intern, unfortunately, thought certain legal propositions the State of California passed were in its Constitution, which they are not. So the position taken was confused and confusing.
We discussed this because we thought that the overarching issues of Christian support for the state and swearing oaths were worthy of attention anyway.
The majority Christian position has always been to support the state as a God-given structure – even in poor times. The state, along with the family and other institutions, is called “an order of creation.” We support it because we believed that God intended order instead of chaos in our world. The position is based on specific New Testament passages from the Apostles Paul and Peter.
As for swearing oaths, the majority position has been that we may do so as long as it does not involve us in lying or dishonesty on one hand, or support for immoral positions on the other. Despite Jesus’ saying in Matthew about never swearing and simply stating your Yes or No, there are instances of Jesus and Paul being placed under oath and accepting that as a natural part of society. So the church by and large has accepted oath taking.
There are minority positions. The Society of Friends, known popularly as Quakers, have refused oath-taking on the grounds that, if you take an oath, you admit that there may be times when you will not be truthful, and Quaker passion for truth-telling is well known. Mennonites follow the same logical and commendable reasoning, but most Christians have felt it unnecessary to think that you admit the possibility of falsehood in other circumstances simply by taking an oath.
Support for the state has always been hard to calculate. If the state pursues policies committed to justice and equity, the Church goes along. But what if the state turns against its own people, as happened in Hitler’s Germany or Lenin and Stalin’s Soviet system? The theory has always been that, for Christians, civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance are the principal forms of opposition. A bedrock commitment to peacemaking underlies this approach, even if it has proven almost impossible to exercise under authoritarian regimes.
These few words cannot begin to capture our discussion but I cite them to show that there are flash points all Christians look for. “Be sober, be vigilant, for your enemy the devil walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” That line from Peter’s epistle lies in tension with his concession of support for the emperor so long as justice is the state’s agenda. Of course the issue is: whose justice are we serving? That’s why vigilance is always needed.
We are “strangers and aliens” in our own land, another quote from Peter. Our allegiance to the state is subservient to a higher calling; hence Christians have sometimes been at odds with their governments. The issue is when to resist and when to comply. That remains our contemporary concern, especially with abortion and other bioethical issues, immigration, defense budgets, and human sexuality. We are not through with the struggle…and we never will be until the end of the age.
12 Aug 2013