Thursday, October 13, 2005

Coercion and Morality

And now for something completely different...

I've been reading "The Jesus I Never Knew" by Philip Yancey, and felt the following passage was worth repeating:

Seventy-four years of communism had proved beyond all doubt that goodness could not be legislated from the Kremlin and enforced at the point of a gun. In a heavy irony, attempts to compel morality tend to produce defiant subjects and tyrannical rulers who lose their moral core. I came away from Russia with the strong sense that we Christians would do well to relearn the basic lesson of the Temptation. Goodness cannot be imposed externally, from the top down; it must grow internally, from the bottom up.

The Temptation in the desert reveals a profound difference between God’s power and Satan’s power. Satan has the power to coerce, to dazzle, to force obedience, to destroy. Humans have learned much from that power, and governments draw deeply from its reservoir. With a bullwhip or a billy club or an AK-47, human beings can force other human beings to do just about anything they want. Satan’s power is external and coercive.

God’s power, in contrast, is internal and noncoercive. “You would not enslave man by a miracle, and craved faith given freely, not based on miracle,” said the Inquisitor to Jesus in Dostoevsky’s novel. Such power may seem at times like weakness. In its commitment to transform gently from the inside out and in its relentless dependence on human choice, God’s power may resemble a kind of abdication. As every parent and every lover knows, love can be rendered powerless if the beloved chooses to spurn it.

“God is not a Nazi,” said Thomas Merton. Indeed God is not. The Master of the universe would become its victim, powerless before a squad of soldiers in a garden. God made himself weak for one purpose: to let human beings choose freely for themselves what to do with him.

If not for space concerns I'd quote the entire chapter as a demonstration of why I'm more convinced than ever that organizations like Exodus and Focus on the Family have committed a dangerous error by intertwining their primary missions with political causes. I fully understand the temptation to use the political process to battle and suppress the sin we see all around us, but I also see how giving into this impulse to use Satan's tools of coercion and force comes at the cost of surrendering the church's true power, and how the religious right has sown the seeds for a political backlash that will ultimately undo everything it's been fighting for and leave the world in an even worse state than it was before. For all the time we spend worrying about a future era of persecution, we have become blind to everything we are doing to bring it about.

So am I saying that individual Christians should withdraw from political matters altogether? Not by any means. Government has a legitimate role to play in protecting the individual from the predations of others. But the instant it begins wielding powers outside of that basic mandate, it becomes part of the problem. As soon as we move beyond protecting the innocent and begin imposing our vision for a better world through political force - whether that take the form of Prohibition, the welfare state, anti-'sodomy' laws, invading 'rogue' nations or passing constitutional amendments that would trump local autonomy over moral matters - we become the very tyrants we claim to be fighting. It's a very fine line to walk and error is almost inevitable, but when every misstep has negative consequences we can't afford to proceed without utmost caution.

In practice, this means defending the autonomy of those who would hurt themselves by abusing their freedom. As difficult as that may be to sit back and watch, it is the ultimate in hubris for us to claim the right to take away the freedom that God Himself has granted to those individuals (and to each of us). That freedom does have its limits, naturally, but by taking it upon ourselves to force others to conform to our vision for their lives we are, in fact, placing ourselves above God, just as Lucifer did when he led a third of the angels in a rebellion against the One who created him. By appointing ourselves as enforcers of the will of God, we become violators of that same will.

1 comment:

JJ said...

I think that when we as Christians try to impose our morality on those who don't have Christ in their lives, it's kind of like saying "We have grace... you guys have to live under the Law." It's strange, because as Chritians we know that the Law cannot save a person.