Over the past couple of posts, we’ve been looking at Acts 4, to see if it has any lessons to teach us about how Christian engage with the political realm when they disagree with what the government is doing.
So far, we’ve talked about three things: (in Part 1) how Christians should engage with a political realm that comes in conflict with their faith; what is worth Christians disobeying the civil authorities over; and (in Part 2) the cultural and societal work we are called to that facilitates our Christian living and possible disobedience.
Today, we’ll finish this up with some principles and applications for moving forward.
Some Personal Contraceptive Conclusions
How do we decide what to employ Civil Disobedience and societal fights over? In Acts 4, Peter and John disobey the authorities when it came to healing the sick, preaching the Gospel, and seeing people connected to God. These are, I think, clearly issues worth fighting for. I applaud those that have continued to do these things in places around the world where it is difficult to do it openly, if not impossible.
But is contraception at the same level of “essential-ness” to the Christian faith as preaching the Gospel? I don’t know that I think so.
In my mind, if the government mandates you to pay for insurance that covers birth control, your problem isn’t with the government, it’s with your own church members that you don’t trust not to take advantage of that free birth control. If you include plans that cover it, and yet none of your people use it, then is any harm, done?
It seems to me then that the problem here is not necessarily with the State and its laws; it’s with the Church members. So if that’s really the case here–if the distinction and the problem is that subtle and complex–then is this really an issue to “rally the troops” over to go and fight the government? Again: I don’t think so.
The Bible’s Uncomfortable Silence
But what about other things? The New Testament can frustrate us here. The ancient world in which the early church found themselves was one where all sorts of evils were perpetrated by governments, and yet the Christians did not “fight the government” over them. None of the Apostles exercised Civil Disobedience to fight slavery, end wars, or even advocate for better resources for those in poverty.
Rather, it looks like the early Church had the perspective that they would live like Christians, laws be damned.
They wouldn’t fight slavery; they would teach Christian slaves and masters to relate to one another in such away that the abusive slavery power dynamics would become a non-issue. They wouldn’t fight against the government’s apathy towards the poor; they would just take care of them themselves. They wouldn’t fight for laws against violent or pornographic displays in society; they would just instill different values in their people so they wouldn’t engage in those things.
One can see this at play in Acts 19 with Paul in Ephesus. There was a whole industry making false idols for people to worship. Paul doesn’t go in and complain about how his taxes were paying into an economic system that allowed for these idols to spread throughout society. Instead he goes in, converts so many people to Christianity, that it practically puts the idol manufacturers out of business! There was not a single moment of Civil Disobedience, breaking the law, or political advocacy in that situation.
So…what do we do? And how?
And yet, would we say that those throughout history that have participated in Civil Disobedience in regards to slavery, civil rights, religious freedom, women’s rights, etc. were wrong? I don’t think so, and here’s why. I think there are two things that guide us: The Gospel and Discernment.
Civil Disobedience is reserved for issues that strike at the heart of the Gospel.
I actually hesitate saying that, because anyone can twist anything into a “Gospel issue”. Christians in the past and present have been able to take whatever their pet issue is and make it an essential thing that is seemingly “inextricably tied to the Gospel”. So, some caution, fear, and trembling is in order.
But hopefully we can see the difference (at least to Protestants) between slavery and the health insurance mandate (unless you’re a political pundit). I get the particular Catholic concern with contraceptives, as they think this is an assault on human dignity and life itself–I just don’t agree with it.
Outside of this, I want to encourage all people to fight against whatever policies they don’t like, but do it politically, and through the structures available to you. Don’t invoke your faith or use religious rhetoric when speaking against things that are not clear violations of the Kingdom of God and the Gospel.
Civil Disobedience should be done against those things that clearly and obviously try and prevent the Church from being the loving, serving, and proclaiming citizens of their own Kingdom. The Church should also employ Civil Disobedience against that which actively harms and disfigures human dignity, society, and its world (not just potentially harms them).
Civil Disobedience requires a Discernment of the issues, Providence, society, and timing.
In conclusion, we need to end on a more somber note. Civil Disobedience is something to which the Church is sometimes called precisely because the world is not now what it will be. Our Civil Disobedience is, in essence, a lament and not a victory march.
And part of what makes this all lamentable is that it’s not something the Church unilaterally does. Civil Disobedience–or at least, effective Civil Disobedience–is something done in tandem with both society itself and the Providence of God.
There have always been Christians that hate slavery, even in those societies where it is such an embedded institution. And yet, in each nation in which it is abolished, it wasn’t until certain societal factors were in place that it could be done.
Likewise, there had always been Christians (of all races) that despised the pre-Civil Rights treatment of blacks in American society. And yet, it wasn’t until society and Providence were also at a certain place that the Church could effectively do anything en masse.
In short, before we try and start a society-wide movement, we need to step back and ask: is this the appointed time? In the nineties, was the vocal Southern Baptist boycott of Disney an effective use–and timing–of their prophetic voice in society? Was that the time and the issue to organize over?
A lot of our work in society against injustice and evil will be quiet and individual, not boastful and institutional. A lot of it will go no where–at least for now. And yet, we continue to do all of that work I talked about yesterday–the work in society and culture of service, beauty, and love–and we do it while not only blasting the trumpets of joy, but wearing the ashes of repentance and the tears of lament.
Let us go forth in peace, to love and serve the Lord and his world.
[image: iconic photo of Greensboro, NC diner sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement]