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Wednesday, March 14, 2007
(9:31 PM) | Stephen:
Politics And The Nature Of God

Following up on my post about papal authority, it needs to be said that Pope Benedict XVI approaches temporal power from an entirely different standpoint than American-style Evangelical Fundamentalist Christians. While William Donohue is (publicly) feted by Protestants such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, the fact that their goals are currently so closely matched is one of those interesting quirks of history that keep popping up. As I said before, Benedict XVI believes he has the right to interfere in the politics of sovereign nations because the Roman Catholic Church has been the true authority behind many a throne. Popes have been able to call upon large armies from multiple nations to do their bidding.

American Evangelicals, of course, have none of this history. Their desire to control the American political process, as well as support for Adventures in Gunpowder Democracy comes, instead, from the Calvinist theology that provides the foundation for literally every aspect of the movement.

This isn't about TULIP or even really about Jean Calvin himself. I say Calvinist because that is what the theological tradition of Calvin has become in this country, not because it is necessarily a true representation of what Calvin actually taught. This Evangelical Calvinism, no matter what else it may have dropped or added to Calvin's theology, has wholeheartedly embraced the sovereignty of God. This is God's primary characteristic, the word that more than any other can describe not only God's character and the way in which he approaches us, but his very essence, the core of his being. God's love is expressed through the filter of his sovereignty. His grace, his judgment, everything comes to us through that particular filter.

It's important to take a look at what sovereign means in this context. It is much more than the idea that God is free to do whatever he wants. Rather, the sovereignty of God is expressed through his will (often capitalized), which is perfect and complete. God's will, established before he created the world, has mapped out all of creation's history, from the moment God thought it all up to the end of creation as determined by God. Every galaxy, every star, every human being all the way down to not only atoms but the quarks and neutrinos of our weird universe has it's every movement foreordained, determined. Why we as human beings are still supposed to be held accountable for the things we do is something I cannot explain. This view is a foreign language to me. And it is no caricature, no exaggeration to state it the way I have.

If we can set aside the question of why humans should ever do anything for a moment, we can perhaps start to see why people who believe that God is totally sovereign over everything would seek to bend even secular institutions, such as governments, to their (God's) will. God's will is that we will be righteous, and his will is for everyone and everything. Allowing, then, abominations such as abortion or gay marriage to exist in any setting is an affront to the sovereignty of God. His essence is being challenged by the existence of systems that do not perfectly reflect his will and his law.

Chief among the problems with this approach is that it does not allow room for human freedom. There's many ways to refute this bizarre absolute sovereignty: examples of God changing his mind (literally repenting) in the Noah story and regarding Israel's "chosen" status. The fact that the Bible is written as a story in which God seeks to persuade human beings to follow him, usually through the agency of other human beings.

But most compelling of all is found in the very beginning of Genesis. God, we are told, decided to make a creature in his own image. Subsequent books of the Bible should help us to dispense with any idea that we somehow physically look like God. His image - what does that mean? To understand we need to see the picture that is painted of God throughout the Bible. In Scripture God is shown as loving, angry, jealous, kind, able to change his mind - indeed, the picture we get of God is so human that one of the most common objections to belief in God is that he is clearly just another deity that we have created in our own image. But this God is faithful to his promises. He is consistent in the ways he pursues all people, the way he will not give up on any of us.

We also can be loving, angry, jealous, kind, and certainly able to change our minds. We also have been given moral agency, the ability to make our own decisions for ourselves, to rebel against the will of God. That's what it means to bear the image of God. When Christian theology talks about the restoration of the Imago Dei what is meant is that this image we bear will no longer be warped and perverted, no longer will we use our God-given abilities to hurt and destroy each other.

If human beings are truly free to make their own decisions, then laws that restrict human beings' choices are immoral insofar as they do not protect other human beings' ability to make choices. We live in community with one another, and each of us makes decisions every day that affect other people.

The problem is that these things get complicated. A case can be made that abortion should be totally outlawed because it impinges upon the rights of the fetus. Of course, the rights of the fetus can often intersect with the rights of the mother to live as well, which is why trying to be absolutist about it is so difficult - at least if one discards the easy-sounding slogans and moralizing and gets to the heart of the matter. With abortion, just as with gay marriage, drinking alcohol, having sex before marriage or whether to attend a Sunday church service, the issue is choice. If human beings exist only to serve the sovereignty of God, then by all means legislate away. It certainly is an affront to God's sovereignty that anyone anywhere can do anything that in the slightest way deviates from the plan laid out for us in the Bible.

However, if human beings are more than this, if we are made in God's image and given by him the ability to choose for ourselves, well or poorly, then any law that restricts a human being's ability to choose for him or herself the path to take is truly an affront to God's sovereignty - the self-limiting sovereignty of God that chose and still chooses to enter into partnerships with free beings, that seeks to attract and persuade rather than simply watch the grand toy empire he built run its course.

It should be entirely possible to be a Christian, even one that is against all abortion and considers homosexuality to be a truly awful sin, and still allow and advocate for the freedom of other human beings to make their choices. This does not mean that one must sit idly by or ignore the world. But it does mean that if we are to follow God's example - living up to the Imago Dei - there are better ways to spend our time than forcing people to outwardly conform to certain rules and regulations. Those Evangelical Christians who fight to ban abortion and pass amendments against homosexual marriage are accomplishing the exact opposite of what Jesus sent them into the world to do. They are perverting the message of the Bible, spreading false witness of the God's character and resisting his attempts to restore his image to them.

They're sincere, and many of them, most of the time, are very nice, compassionate and loving people. But the more one is committed to restricting the God-given freedom of one's fellow human beings, the harder it is to show true love to them. It's far past time for the American Evangelical movement to rediscover its priorities.



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