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Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Centurion Option: Christian Democracy

When I first started this blog, I never wanted to discuss politics. That said, I think we are at a crucial place in history where, if we Christians do not push back, we will find ourselves in a worse context than first-century Rome—which executed believers for not worshiping the emperor. My goal in writing this entry is not to justify conservatism or liberalism, but to suggest a Christian alternative based on scripture and fair policy. It is time that we advance our own political cause rather than settling for some uneasy truce with an established party.

On Persecution

Consider the reality of persecution. First of all, I am trying not to come from a place of fear, since Jesus admonished us to avoid it. In fact, "do not be afraid" is typically considered the most-repeated command in scripture. I do not want persecution, and cringe when I hear my fellow believers romanticize it. In my lifetime, I have seen the secularists take away basic rights for Christians, not just certain tax benefits or cultural privileges as our critics suggest. Many people are losing their businesses for their convictions, and denominationally affiliated hospitals are being required to provide abortifacients—treatments that cause the violent deaths of unborn children. There is an ongoing systematic oppression of any Christian thought in public education, especially at the university level. These trends are not limited to the United States, nor to Western culture, but are exported across the globe through specific aid packages given by the United Nations and other international agencies (UN News Centre, 2016). Ever since the 1973 precedent in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the United States, unborn children and misinformed parents have suffered through a holocaust greater in number and scope than Adolf Hitler's "final solution" against the Jewish populations of Europe. Likewise, the passing of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015—which was only supposed to give the legal right for LGBT people to marry and apply for government programs—resulted in a further sociopolitical march toward the indoctrination of young children and a reckless compromise of their emotional health and physical safety. Simply put, this oppression is no longer a "Church and State" issue, but one that will have far-reaching consequences for everyone.

All things, considered, Paul of Tarsus reminds us that,
Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). 
In other words, we Christians must be careful to separate individuals from their political views and affiliations. Jesus himself prayed, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Even the most vindictive, hateful opponent still requires our unconditional love because they lack perspective. Yes, this is the frequent motto of "love the sinner, hate the sin."

In the gospel according to Matthew, the Lord warned us that we would be persecuted:
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils...and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony... Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved (Matt. 10:16-22). 
When I say that I do not want persecution, I am not saying this to contradict Jesus' alarm. No one should want to be persecuted, and it is not natural to desire it. The overwhelming gospel message tells us that it is much harder to live for God than it is to die for him. Whenever prosecution is avoidable, we must do everything in the Spirit's power to avoid it.

On Resistance

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor whom the Nazis executed for his faith and resistance, wrote,
Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes (Bonhoeffer, 17). 
In other words, God calls all of believers to stand tall in the world. In his much-anticipated book called The Benedict Option (2017), author Rod Dreher asks his fellow Christians to follow the example of Benedict of Nursia (480–547). Benedict founded a secluded community near the Italian village of Subiaco after fleeing from Rome—a city known for its pagan occultism, decadence, and corruption – in disgust. I am not writing this entry to either defend or criticize Dreher, but to convey the strengths and weaknesses of his position. I agree with his statement:
Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead build communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation...We can no longer rely on politicians and activists to fight the culture war alone on our behalf (Dreher, 12, 98).
The only thing I have reservations about is a complete withdrawal from civic involvement. Paul informed the Corinthian church, "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone" (1 Cor. 12:4-6). Notice the triune pattern of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but in reverse order? God emboldens our activities in his name; our service through Christ; and our gifts through the Spirit. Simply put, many of us are, and will be, called to seclusion for the preservation of a genuine Christian faith. However, others are, and will be, told to stand firm and continue to oppose the rapid secularization spiritual and moral decline of humankind, at large.

The Centurion Option

Whereas Dreher named his work The Benedict Option, I offer an additional, complementary view that I will call the "centurion option," based on Jesus' praise of a centurion for believing in God's ability to heal his servant (Matt. 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10). The command and role of a centurion generally correspond to that of a modern colonel, who leads between 2,000 and 4,000 soldiers in a brigade. Make no mistake: this "centurion" is not a newly-minted recruit who just learned to fight yesterday. Rather, he spent nearly two decades advancing through the ranks doing the most thankless, grueling, and dirtiest tasks that most civilians would balk at. So when the Roman centurion approached Jesus, it was because he realized the end of his abilities. Only God's absolute command would heal the servant from his illness or injury. In my experience in the military, I often think soldiers are the most trusting of outside forces because they are frequently in peril more than their civilian counterparts.

Jesus never told the centurion to lay down his arms, nor to give up his military career. Instead, he simply healed the centurion's servant. Likewise, both John the Baptist and Simon Peter had chances to rebuke soldiers for their warfighting ethos (Luke 3:10-14; Acts 10:1-33). However, all three of the teachers not only served the centurions, but respected them for their service.

In the church context, we need all types of people to move forward in this fallen world: centurions, soldiers, leaders, business persons, civil servants, and private citizens. No one is more important than the other. In the same way a society needs soldiers for defense, it requires everyday people to build infrastructure and economy even more so. The two halves of any society—national defense and private sector—must cooperate for their mutual betterment.

City of God vs. City of Man

In The City of God, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) discussed how the we typically separate our world according to two desires. First, we have the "city of man," which serves to fulfill our base and secular pleasures. Second, we have the "city of God," in which we trust in the Lord to provide our spiritual and material needs. To emphasize his point, Augustine contrasted the earliest brothers in human history, Cain and Abel (Gen. 4). Cain was from the "city of man" because his choices represented an animalistic nature replete with evil and lust. Abel, on the other hand, represented the "city of God," who knew where he came from in God's will and always sought to fulfill it (Dyson, 635). That said, we cannot live in both the "city of God" and the "city of man." We must choose one, and hate the other. As Jesus himself taught us, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matt. 6:24). Paul also warned, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains" (1 Tim. 6:10). Finally, James of Jerusalem, brother of the Lord, cautioned, "Ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord" (James 1:6-8). In other words, if we are to serve God and to live out our faith as genuine believers, we cannot separate our minds into "secular" and "spiritual/religious" compartments. That is being double-minded, or holding two opposing views in a tension prone to burst.

Conclusion: Toward a Christian Democracy

In the spirit of the last section, I believe we must be of one mind to advance the Christian faith inside the church and in the public square. However, we need to side with Christ in this, and sometimes, even against our own political and national traditions. If "separation of Church and State" means that no singular denomination controls the government, then let it be so. However, if the (post)modern interpretation means that we need to stay in our "stained glass prisons," then we Christians must never agree to that. While the "Benedict option" would have us all go into seclusion, some of us need to remain in civil society with the "centurion option." Question is, how do we get to the "Augustinian option" of bringing the City of God to our domains of man?

First, we realize that democracy is the fairest model of governance. No, it is not perfect by any means, but it allows the greatest opportunities for all human beings to flourish. That said, we must also acknowledge that God has always been, and will always be, concerned about how we treat the poor in civil society. If we believe that marriage between one man and one woman; the prohibition of abortion and euthanasia; and the protection of children are important enough to make policies about, then we must also admit that God's concern for the underprivileged fits into the same paradigm. No, I do not suggest any form of socialism, nor do I uphold unregulated capitalism. What I propose is the proliferation of "Christian democracy," or what is known as "economic distributism" in its strictly political—not religious—definition.

"Economic distributism" is not my coinage, but a well-known political theory in Europe. Some commentators also call it "social conservatism" or "Christian democracy." Distributism only officially reached the United States in 2011, with the founding of the American Solidarity Party. Recent examples of countries with formal and influential distributist representation include:
  • Austria (Österreichische Volkspartei – Austrian People's Party)
  • Belgium (Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams – Christian Democratic and Flemish)
  • Germany (Christlich Demokratische Union – Christian Democratic Union)
  • Ireland (Fine Gael – Family of the Irish)
  • Luxembourg (Chrëschtlech Sozial Vollekspartei – Christian Social People's Party)
  • Netherlands (Christen-Democratisch Appèl – Christian Democratic Appeal)
  • Poland (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – Law and Justice)
Distributists view property ownership as a fundamental right, and thus work toward a society in which it is widespread. Furthermore, they believe production should be spread as widely as possible, too. Simply put, distributism is opposed both to state socialism (production and property rights are centralized under the control of the state) and to unregulated corporate power. According to the definition of "Christian democracy," distributism seeks a fair alternative to the standard practice of dispossession akin to both socialism and raw capitalism. Frankly, more people will be drawn to God's mercy and grace if we Christians meet their needs fairly and promptly. 

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God's most pressing concern is our care of the poor. Incidentally, Jesus' strongest words about hellfire, judgment, and condemnation have to do with providing for those in need (Matt. 25:31-46). In fact, verse 32 should be a warning to those who say taking care of the poor is not a political issue: "All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats" (emphasis mine). In the more constitutional Old Testament, God did command the Israelites to uphold national policies for taking care of the poor, and often punished them for their failures to do so. They were told to leave the corners of their fields for the hungry; to release their slaves every fiftieth year (Jubilee); and to collect tithes for the poor. Here is a quick search on Bible Gateway for "poor" just to demonstrate exactly how concerned God is for the needy and what we should do for them:

For the record, distributism is not theocracy, which is a government directed by clergy or politicians with direct religious oversight. There is still the same freedom that comes with democracy to worship God, or to neglect him. That said, the goal of distributism and Christian democracy is to grant all people, Christian or not, the utmost opportunity to find spiritual fulfillment. After all, the U.S. Declaration of Independence reads,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009.

Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel, 2017.

Dyson, R. W., ed., trans. Augustine: The City of God Against the Pagans, Books 1-13. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

New Revised Standard Version. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.

UN News Centre. "Repealing Anti-abortion Laws Would Save the Lives of Nearly 50,000 Women A Year—UN Experts." New York: United Nations, 2016.

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