Religious Freedom and the Bible

Image result for christian flag over american flag
Over the 4th of July Holiday Some Churches
in North Carolina Flew the Christian Flag Above the American Flag

The recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality has renewed discussions of religious liberty, and the relationship between belief, conscience, and government in the lives of many Christian believers. David Gushee, a significant Christian Ethicist (and my former youth minister), claims that the ruling is tantamount to a "mutual conscience-shocking" event.  As we look across the divide caused by decades of culture wars, we are finding we cannot agree on the most basic issues of morality. Gushee coins the term "fruitless loop" to describe the never ceasing rounds of argumentation and recrimination that result. He predicts divisions in families, friendships, and communities. I suspect he is right. He also calls for more dialogue as the only reasonable way forward. I also agree.

To that end, I'd like to share a little of my own reflection on the discussion of moral conscience and religious liberty that has been in the news lately. I understand that some conservatives have been calling out for acts of civil disobedience against the marriage equality ruling. I'm not entirely sure what such acts would look like. The N.C. legislature recently passed a law allowing magistrates to refuse to perform marriages for same sex couples. In Indiana recently, a more expansive "religious liberty" law allows shopkeepers, service providers, and others to discriminate against same-sex couples who are seeking their services. Religious liberty apparently is being interpreted by evangelical conservatives as the right to discriminate against those with whom you disagree, or whose family choices you find problematic. This is a dangerous trend.

As the "Bible Guy," I have to admit that the Bible says very little about religious liberty. Religious liberty is a product of rationalism and the enlightenment. It was shaped and embraced by religious separatists who fled to the American continent to escape the intolerance and oppression they had experienced in Europe. Moderate Baptists have done a wonderful job of maintaining this unique and special history exemplified in the lives of George Truett, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, and John Leland. To be sure, for these men, religious liberty meant the freedom to read and interpret the Bible on an individual basis (something contemporary Christian fundamentalists are zealous to supplant). It also meant the freedom to baptize and be baptized (this was a big one for state churches in which infant baptism was practiced), the freedom to organize and govern churches, and  to speak freely about one's faith. I daresay, though, that the freedom to deny services or discriminate was quite far from these early champions' thoughts about religious liberty.

This brings us to the famous passage often trotted out in discussions of religious liberty, Romans 13:1-7. [Now, let me make a disclaimer that I am not a Paul scholar, so my reflections here are largely untutored. Nor am I engaging the rigor of an academic scholar in my reflections here. So please take these words as surface considerations from a biblical scholar who is interested more in opening a discussion. There are scholars who have spent a lifetime studying Paul and I am not one of them; nor do I imagine my views represent them here.]

So, let me share a few thoughts about the passage and how it may or may not relate to the current debate. Romans 13:1-7 tells "all people to be subject to governing authorities" (13:1). Frankly, as much as I'd like to beat my conservative colleagues over the head with this and tell them to obey the Supreme Court ruling, I shall refrain. Such raw, direct, literal application of Scripture to societal issues is the very thing I am teaching my students to avoid. So I shall avoid it myself, except to say to my fundamentalist friends that if they are going to embrace a literal reading of Scripture, they surely ought to reflect hard on what this text is telling them. There's little room for their brand (or any brand) of religious liberty within this biblical text, a text that was written in a world in which one god or another was represented by governing authorities, and in which theocracy was the practiced norm.

If my fundamentalist colleagues are suddenly going to embrace the enlightenment ideas of religious liberty, they will surely need to reexamine how they interpret Scripture.  I would point out that they are now no longer engaging in an inerrant literal reading of the Bible. My hope is that they might indeed embrace reason, experience, and tradition to think through their ethical and theological viewpoints. At least then we might have a chance of engaging in critical dialogue!

But to return to Romans 13:1-7, I also think there are myriad issues with this text. While I'd have to line up the evidence more clearly, I suspect there may be some evidence to view it as an interpolation by a later author. The vocabulary of "submission" mirrors strongly the language of the household codes in the deuteropaulines. The third person imperative in 13:1 breaks the flow of the second person imperative found in 12:21 and 13:8. There is also a digression in topic from that of love (12:9-21; 13:8-10) to  the obedience of governing authorities (13:1-7). If 13:1-7 were excised from the text,, Paul's discussion of love in 12:9-12:21 flows seamlessly to 13:8-10.  Paul also seems to strongly contradict himself.  In 13:7 he tells the Romans to pay everything to whom it is owed (including taxes, revenue, honor, and respect); yet in the very next verse, he tells the Romans that they should owe nothing to anyone except love. So, I think there's a good case to be made that verses 13:1-8 were inserted by a later hand.

Still, if we don't view the text as an interpolation, there's good reason to contextualize these statements of Paul with his other writings. It is clear from Paul's statements elsewhere that he expects the parousia, the coming of Christ, to occur during his lifetime. In fact much of his ethical teaching for congregational life in 1 Thess 4 and 1 Cor 7 is deeply immersed in a perspective of immanent apocalyptic eschatology. Indeed, many twentieth century scholars came to view Paul's teachings on the Christian life as an "interim ethics." Since Paul expected Christ to return at any moment, he never expected anyone beyond his immediate influence to even receive his advice, much less follow it. In this sense, Paul was like many of us who blog, without any expectation that anyone beyond our immediate circles will read our stuff.

Apart from this caveat, one ought also to view 13:1-7 in light of, for example, 1 Thess 4:1-12, where Paul instructs the Thessalonians to live simply, work with their hands, and avoid becoming economically (and otherwise) dependent upon on others. Read in this light, the instructions in 13:1-8 would seem to lead to a kind of political quietism. If one does good and pays one's taxes, according to Paul, there is no need to fear governing authorities. They have bigger fish to fry. They don't need to go after handful of believers in the Jewish ghettos of Rome. If Prisca and Aquilla (16:3) are recent returnees to Rome, they likely would not want to see another police action similar to that as the recent one under the emperor Claudius. They apparently had been banned, along with many other Jews, because the Romans had grown weary of religious infighting about the identity of the Jewish Messiah. Perhaps Paul's advice is meant to guard against such experiences with advice that leads to a kind of quietism. Such quietism, I might point out, has a rich history in this country among Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren, especially with regard to church-state issues and pacifism. Hauerwas' combination of the thought of the Mennonite biblical scholar, John Howard Yoder, with the revisionist virtue ethics of Alisdair MacIntyre, is one example where a mainline Christian ethicist has embraced a contemporary moral narrative of neo-quietism. Practicing such neo-quietism might bring a healthy dose of sanity for those on the Christian right. I suspect many of us would heartily greet their retreat from attempts to assault our common democratic values with their own brand of rabid theocratic ideology.

But if our colleagues on the right nonetheless intend to engage in acts of civil disobedience against what they see as an unjust government, let them take note of two ideas in which Paul's moral thought are grounded. First, Paul, along with the prophets, did indeed believe that God's justice would prevail in the end. This means that any actions one might undertake must line up with God's justice, and most particularly, do no harm.  Actions that harm same-sex families, whether by attempting to deny them their legal rights, or engaging in discrimination in the workplace, or in denying equal goods and services, do not square with God's justice. Such actions cannot be the fruits of conscientious objection, because such acts are unjust and de facto unconscionable.

Furthermore, such actions do not square with the rule of love that Paul describes in the passages
surrounding 13:1-7. Whether 13:1-7 is an interpolation by a later author or not, it is still deeply embedded in a passage about love, patient suffering, harmony, association with the broken and lowly, living peaceably, disavowing vengeance, etc. As Paul sums it up, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

In the past I have engaged in civil disobedience against a nation that has embraced militarism and indeed taught others how to partake in intolerable acts of evil and violence towards innocent people. However, in doing so, I tried to keep in mind Gandhi's thoughts on Ahimsa, which Martin Luther King, Jr. loosely translated as love. Apparently in Sanskrit, Ahimsa meant something like "no injury" or "no striking." Both Gandhi and King embraced it as a leading principle and purifying practice in acts of nonviolent resistance.  If my conservative sisters and brothers are seeking principles for their use of civil disobedience, they must keep in mind that love must be their guide. If their civil disobedience causes harm to their neighbor, they ought to examine their spiritual practice and reflect on whether their motives are driven by purity and God's love, or by fear, anger, and lack of knowledge. If Gandhi and King are too difficult to embrace, maybe they can simply keep in mind John Wesley's three spiritual laws: do all the good you can; do no harm; and stay in love with God.



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