Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself...Or Else

Each week or so I receive an email from Relevant Magazine that contains links to articles from their website or from the most recent issue of the magazine.  I subscribe to Relevant as a last-ditch attempt to stay up to date on pop culture, both secular and Christian (I've found that most attempts to remain "relevant" after getting married and having kids go by the wayside, so I guess my subscription to Relevant Magazine is my only hope).

I've posted before about some of the issues I have with the magazine - particularly about how it is consistently left-leaning in most areas.  But sometimes the articles are informative and worth the read, if for no other reason than to practice confronting ideas and beliefs that I personally find to be unsatisfactory.

This week's Relevant email had a bunch of articles whose titles piqued my interest, so I followed the links.  A couple of them had to do with the election (pre-election, that is - like how to vote in the election that was held last week - I guess that's what you get from a bi-monthly publication: information that isn't necessarily current or up to the minute).  One article from this category caught my eye: "5 Reasons I'm Voting This Year."

The article details the five reasons that Nick Price has found to be valid enough to inspire him to vote in the 2012 election (hopefully these reasons are valid for every election for Nick, and not just this one).  Looking over the list, I can see a few nuances I'd make to Nick's list, and ways that I might state things differently.  But in general, I think it's good...until you get to reason number 4.  Nick says the fourth reason that he was going to vote in this past election was that it would enable him "to give voice to the voiceless."  He cites Isaiah 1.17 in support of his reasoning, and says, "Throughout scripture, especially in the prophetic books, those who have power and a voice are encouraged to speak up on behalf of those who do not."  Amen.

Nick goes on to say, however, "As such, I enter the voting booth not only with my own interests in mind, but also the interests of those less fortunate than myself.  In this way, voting takes on a corporate dimension as I give away the power that I have to the powerless - voting for what serves the marginalized and oppressed, and using my voice to amplify the voice of those who are usually silenced.  I believe that in this way I also put into practice Jesus' call to love my neighbor as myself.  So I try to vote specifically with the interests of my most disadvantaged neighbors in mind.  I see my role as speaking up and pleading their case to those who are in power."

The sentiment described above is one that is increasingly common among younger evangelicals.  I agree with this sentiment in the sense that it speaks to those who truly have no voice, such as the unborn, or to those who are truly and unjustly on the fringes of society.  The ideas espoused by Price, however, have become more commonly associated with a stream of evangelicalism that believes that a more liberal social agenda should be implemented in order to stand in the gap on behalf of the oppressed and effectively "give voice to the voiceless."  In a very real sense, this stream believes that government serves as a means by which Christians can fulfill the second-greatest commandment (love your neighbor as yourself), by way of voting for politicians who will establish and vote for programs that are intended to defend the poor, give relief to the oppressed, and serve those on the margins of society.  This belief, in my opinion, represents a severe lack of understanding of scripture, however, and exposes why the evangelical vote in this country has tended toward the left in recent election cycles (it should be noted that I do not know if Price himself subscribes to this ideology, but there have been many who have said something similar to what he has said above, and have used this idea to support a liberal social agenda).

Certainly all Christians agree that followers of Jesus are required (if by no other means than by their association and identification with Him) to defend the cause of the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give relief to the oppressed, and fight for justice.  But not in the sense that it is a law that a Christian must keep in order to be a Christian.  Indeed not, as we are saved by grace, and not by loving our neighbors as ourselves.  If this were the litmus test for a faithful Christian, we would certainly all fail.  Instead, we love our neighbors as ourselves because we have been saved by Jesus - because he first loved us, and because his Spirit empowers us to be able to love others.  On this point we can definitely find agreement.  The question is, how do we do these things?  It is my opinion that accomplishing these things through government is a flawed, dangerous, and unbiblical way to go about it.  But rather than talk about what the government should be doing, or what the church should be doing, I want to think for just a minute about the implications of having the government be the enforcer of people loving their neighbors as themselves.

The second-greatest commandment says that we love people as ourselves by...well...loving them.  And loving them genuinely.  While obvious, this is important to understand.  Consider the fact that the Bible does not commend those who love their neighbors out of duty, or obligation, or as a means of being noted by others.  Instead, the Bible commends unforced sacrificial giving and loving.  There is a significant difference between the two.  In fact, the difference is so significant, that scripture details the former as leading to death, and the latter as leading to life.

If we choose to believe that the second-greatest commandment is fulfilled by way of the government then - other than voting - we have no say in the matter.  The last time I checked, taxes are required of every American who owns property, collects an income, etc., and that tax money goes to programs that voters have implemented via politicians to help the poor, clothe the naked, etc.  If we believe that Christians fulfill the second-greatest commandment through the government, then I, as a taxpayer, am not emotionally or spiritually invested in its fulfillment.  I am simply doing what the government requires me to do.  There is no love or concern on my part to speak of.  We will "love our neighbors as ourselves" whether we like it or not.

Forced charity is not charity at all.  And love isn't love if it is forced.  Instead, whatever care or concern we give to the marginalized by way of the government is actually born out of violence.  This kind of thinking seeks to (knowingly or unknowingly) do violence to those who would not love their neighbor as themselves, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the poor, etc.,  After all, what will be the fate of those who do not want to help the less-fortunate and subsequently evade their taxes?  They will be prosecuted and imprisoned.

You cannot use the government to force people to love the marginalized; you cannot use the government to defend the cause of the oppressed.  In fact, if you do use the government (or any other means) to force people to "love" others, then what you have isn't love.  The best you can do is have an authority structure (in our case, the government) bully people into following a set of rules (paying taxes) that allegedly benefits the less fortunate.  This is the same kind of thinking that Jesus condemned when he called out the Pharisees: they bullied people into following religious rules under the threat of condemnation if the rules weren't strictly adhered to.

So then, asserting that we should elect government officials, representatives, and leaders for the purpose of fulfilling the second-greatest commandment is, in my opinion, a biblically untenable position to take.  Moreover, it has the potential to be spiritually damaging (maybe even damning?).  Unfortunately, however, it is one that many evangelicals have adopted and have brought with them into the voting booth.

Note that I am not asserting that we should not pay taxes, nor am I saying that paying taxes to support programs that clothe, feed, house, and relieve the marginalized is wrong or sinful.  In fact, the opposite is true.  I am saying, however, that using the government to fulfill what is perhaps an idealistic interpretation of biblical mandates (such as the notion that the second-greatest commandment is fulfilled when I vote for candidates with a liberal social agenda) is misguided at best, and does real spiritual and physical damage at worst.

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