It is assumed that the task of the Christian is not to question or critique existing social structures, such as economic or political practices.  This is the Lutheran assumption known as an ethic of vocation. 

The powers that be are assumed to be the most wise and good amongst men exactly because they are the most powerful (they are on top).  Therefore, none are wise enough or good enough to challenge their authority and no mention is ever to be made of how they achieved their ascendancy over society (the economic or political means).  The disciple may only critique and question the methods of the poor and downtrodden that may have contributed to their depravity and of those learned (but not “schooled”) who would question the legitimacy of certain institutional authority.  The assumption follows that the politician knows more about how to regulate relationships between persons than the persons themselves, whether the relationship is between husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student, doctor and patient, lawyer and client, clergy and disciple, employer and employee, victim and perpetrator, etc.  In some cases this might be true while in others the parties to the relationships are best suited for regulating them.  The “ethic of vocation” assumes that individuals are not mature or responsible enough to regulate their own relationships or to seek out a third party to mediate for them.  A third party (other than the Lord) is required by law because self-control (righteous self-government) is impossible (man is inherently evil).  “Interdependency” must be forced and must not be allowed to occur naturally (also called “The Myth of Natural Monopoly” cf. Thomas J. DiLorenzo). The “ethics of vocation” creates “moral hazard,” but not for the person one would assume.  It is the third party imposed on relationships that loses control.

The Christian brings certain values (such as the importance of “being honest”) or attitudes (such as “love”) or traits (such as industriousness) to those existing social practices.  But the existing social practices or vocations are not questioned in and of themselves.  We owe this to the “ethic of vocation.”  When the reformer Martin Luther went about his task of recovering the good news, he did not recover the teachings of Jesus as something that had concrete political and economic relevance (United Order).  Instead, he continued the Augustinian tradition of interiorizing, of spiritualizing, the ethics of Jesus.  For Luther, there exist two spheres, or two “kingdoms,” each ordained by God, that pertain to different ends and make use of different methods:  the church employs the methods of Jesus to attain “spiritual” ends, and the state employs the methods of sword and court to attain “civil” ends. So Luther restricted the teaching of Jesus to the spiritual realm, while the civil realm employs an ethic rooted in an authority (ordained by God) other than that of Jesus.

For example, the Sermon on the Mount pertains to one’s personal attitudes and actions within the kingdom of Christ while the use of the sword, or the use of the court, is legitimate when acting as a participant in the kingdoms of this world, or as a member of secular society.  Luther suggests that the ethic of one’s job depends not upon the Sermon on the Mount, or any other teaching of Jesus, but upon the ethic rooted in that job itself.  So Luther asserted, “Do you want to know what your duty is as a prince or a judge or a lord or a lady, with people under you?  You do not have to ask Christ about your duty.  Ask the imperial or the territorial law.  It will soon tell you your duty toward your inferiors as their protector.  It gives you both the power and the might to protect and to punish within the limits of your authority and commission, not as a Christian, but as an imperial subject.”

Consequently, Luther helped establish a line dividing two spheres of activity: the spiritual and the civil.  These two different spheres do not designate different classes of people, but different spheres of activity within each individual Christian life:  “Thus, when a Christian goes to war or when he sits on a judge’s bench, punishing his neighbor, or when he registers an official complaint, he is not doing this as a Christian, but as a citizen soldier or a citizen judge or as a citizen lawyer.  At the same time he keeps a Christian heart.”  This may have been a concession afforded under the Law of Moses, but is it a concession afforded under the Law of the Gospel?  Is it possible to bring Christian values, attitudes and traits to a civil order that is in opposition with the church? Luther was correct that the church and the civil authority are ordered under different powers and principalities.  Luther’s failing was in his idea of bringing Christian values, attitudes and traits to the civil order, rather than in abolishing it. “Christianizing” the works of the devil will not abolish those works, only give them legitimacy.  “Christianizing” the great and abominable church of the devil will not make it the Church of Jesus Christ. The civil order is carnal, sensual, temporal and natural and at no time was it ever “instituted” by God (D&C 29:34-36).  Adam was tempted to establish the civil order by the devil and Christ was offered ascendancy over the civil order by the devil.  Both rejected such temptation.  The goal of a Christian is not to tame the civil order with Christian values, attitudes and traits.  This would merely be to make the civil authority a secular and superfluous copy of the church (without the power and authority thereof). And maybe that is ok if one can get The Powers That Be to consent to such reforms (especially since they are not Saints).  But we cannot say “Lord, Lord, look at all we have done in your name” and expect for him to recognize our work.  The state must be abolished (the world that is in rebellion and refuses to accept the lordship of Jesus) and we must grow the church, the kingdom of heaven which is here now.

Social order serves as one of Luther’s great concerns, and he concludes that Christians ought to participate in the preservation of this order.  But in this task, the “spiritual” teaching of Jesus is not binding.  In order to deal with sin, the power of the sword must be utilized: “For without the civil authority, this life could not endure.”  In other words, “What would happen if everybody did that—what would happen if everyone obeyed Jesus’s commands?”  Though Luther reacts against much medieval Christian practice, his ethic, in many ways, further supports (if not deepens) the old Christian cataract.

An “ethic of vocation” serves ultimately to circumscribe the ethic of Jesus: the civil authority is left to define and determine its own ethic (the Supreme Court is the final arbiter on what is constitutional).  However much Luther may not have intended it, there is built into this ethic a social conservatism: the civil authority, the status quo, serves as the authority for what we are to do in our private vocations (family, marriage, church, business, property, etc.)  The Bill of Rights is all but a dead letter and a travesty to an “ethic of vocation.”  These private vocations are not to be protected from the civil authority, rather should be controlled by the civil authority.  Ultimately, render not only that which is Caesar’s to Caesar, but also that which belongs to the Lord.  You can serve two masters (and this is what is so “revolutionary” about the gospel). You can be an apostate in good standing with the Lord.  Exception can be made for sin.

This does not mean for Luther that the church is to be flatly subservient to the state.  But these are two very different realms, requiring different ethics.  The same disjunction between the “church” and the “secular” continues to reign in much Christian practice.  “He’s really a very serious Christian,” someone once told me about a very high-profile businessman in Phoenix, “but you just wouldn’t know it by the way he practices politics.”  Here indeed is the “ethic of vocation” in its present garb: one might be very “spiritual,” one might be a “faithful church member,” but politics are politics.  In spite of the fact that Jesus taught so much about not serving two masters, about not taking oaths and about rendering unto the Lord that which belongs to the Lord (consecrate yourselves), the Christian politician is thought to legitimately help society by centralizing state power.  In spite of the fact that Jesus taught forgiveness of debts, the Christian legislator and judge prosecute those who repent of their misdeeds.  “It’s just good government” seems to be a self-evident maxim that trumps serious engagement with the responsibilities of discipleship:  “Sorry, that’s just not good government practice” serves as a way for Christians to leave their “convictions” at the church building, or certainly not bring them to the civil order.

“Politics” is seen as an endeavor with a very specific telos, a very specific goal or end: to punish and control, to maximize effectiveness, to provide ascendancy and security to those most willing to sacrifice their values, attitudes and traits when acting civilly.  This does not mean, of course, that politics is without ethics.  Indeed, the proliferation of political ethics—particularly justifiable war theory and constitutionalism—profess that politics can be done “ethically.”  Political ethics thus teaches young politicians to stick with the platform one is elected on, to avoid scandal, to uphold habeus corpus and due process, to keep within the limits of domestic and international law.

There is much good to be said about honesty and the avoidance of legal excess, but this “ethic of vocation” is insufficient witness to the kingdom of God.  To seek the interests of others before oneself; to refuse to profit off labors of the people; to prioritize maximizing the good of one’s communities and citizens rather than the maximization of control and effectiveness, to see government as something which requires voluntary consent rather than mandatory compliance—these practices all constitute a very different order than “political ethics,” in pursuit of a very different telos, a very different end.  But it is quite easier, and much more widely practiced, to accept an “ethic of vocation” so that we need not carry this goal, this purpose, into the arena of politics.

Out of fear to the cost to ourselves—“What would happen if everybody did that?”—we much prefer to limit such goals and purposes to the realm of church and be “good Christians” in politics by being nice about pacifying the public through overwhelming violence.

Christianity and the State

christian pledge

Since the goal of Christian faith is to bear witness to the order of the kingdom of God (church), and the goal of politics is something else altogether, discipleship necessitates our forsaking the notion that the civil authority is God’s political order.   It simply is no such thing, no more than a nation “making the world safe for democracy” through perpetual war and overbearing militarism is evangelism (as if the way to peace is for all of us to become guilty—you are self-righteous and perfectionist if you refuse to participate in politics or affairs of state—you are self-righteous and perfectionist if you, as a citizen, forgive, but not if you, as politician or magistrate, condemn.  It is the perfectionist who condemns by claiming he is without sin, not the one who, recognizing he is unworthy to judge, forgives).  When the status of “citizen” is defined to incorporate the individual as a part of the state, freedom is truly lost and every member of society becomes a threat that must be destroyed in Total War.  There is no such thing as a noncombatant and nuclear holocaust becomes justifiable (or as Mitt Romney states, “an option not to be removed from the table”). By making us all guilty through citizenship, rather than being unaccountable for condemning, it should be our responsibility not to condemn (especially The Powers That Be who make of themselves the biggest sinners amongst us).  The temptation to identify “our” political system with God’s will is the same temptation we’ve witnessed since at least the time of Eusebius—to identify God’s will with a system of power and success that nominally supports Christianity.  It is God’s will that we be subject, not that we subject others.  But meanwhile the concrete meaning of Jesus is laid aside.

Too often, arguments over political orders give us a false set of choices.  Often, the tired debates present a continuum running from communism to minarchism, and then require us to pick a spot somewhere on that continuum as being the “most Christian.”  This argument is now, of course, irrelevant, because of the late-twentieth-century downfall of socialist orders.  But this way of putting the question misses the point anyway.  If there is a significant distinction to be made between “church” (as the community that proclaims and embodies the lordship of Jesus) and “world” (as the community that lives in rebellion to the Creator’s intention for creation), then Christians cannot pick and choose among unredeemed political orders and then ascribe God’s favor to one particular unredeemed political order.

This distinction between church and state necessarily leads us to make a distinction between the political practices of God’s kingdom and the political systems of the unredeemed principalities and powers.  Politics ultimately mandates the use of violence by an elite few against all or by all against all. One of the assumptions of the state and of politics is the absence of any substantive “common good.”  That is, arbitration and security need not be oriented toward the good of the local community, or toward human relationships.  These are sacrificed to and expropriated for the good of the state.  It does not matter, for example, if the immense resources indiscriminately poured into pork and barrel policies could be much more faithfully invested by families for the education of their children and for the care of their elderly parents. No, the funds are much more needed to build a road to the mountains that one person travels a year or to fund daily flights to a location to which only a few people travel monthly.  What “matters,” it is thought, is “what the middle class can bear.”

Western political systems begin with the assumed goodness of the free play of self-interest, trusting that democracy will guide the interplay of self-centered motives for the common good of all.   The idea of forced interdependency is that we are serving each other rather than ourselves (as if hiring a hitman was somehow better than “taking the law into our own hands” or that it would secure a more empirical and objective justice).  But, as Peter Maurin put it, disciples must be “go-givers” rather than “go-getters.”  Nonetheless, the stereotypical language of some Christian college freshmen betrays the degree to which the alleged gospel of politics dominates our worldview, rather than the good news of Jesus:  “I want to use student loans to major in something that will allow me to get a government job and a fat pension upon retirement.”  In this worldview, college degrees are precious stewardships entrusted to college students for the purpose of centralizing state power in exchange for allowing them to attain individualistic goals and whims at the expense of their communities.

If political leaders are nothing more than good and wise men that people would seek out and pay to mediate their disputes, then why do the payment of taxes require their enforcement through violence?  I understand the desire to cloak the state in a bunch of sophistry that sounds nice to prevent the people from rebelling, but this is deception and only teaches self-control by perpetuating ignorance through sophistry.  We should accept the state for what it is: theft, murder and slavery.  Then we should accept the gospel which calls us to love our enemies, to forgive and to facilitate repentance through social salvation.  To say that the state arises out of a natural order is to mock the black slaves, with the hope of preventing their uprising, by telling them that the slaveholders are wise and good men, thereby inferring the slaves ignorance and inability to learn self-control, who came into that position because their ancestors sought them out to mediate disputes amongst themselves.  Oh yeah that is exactly what religious leaders were saying in the days of slavery, peradventure they should be liberated, they would lay waste to the country side with pillaging, plunder and rapes!  But that did not happen and it is unlikely that it would happen by abolishing the nanny state and empowering individuals to be responsible and accountable for their own provision and security.

Politics are not entirely individualistic.  There is, of course, one necessary “common good” in which the participants in the political order are expected to participate—the mere survival of the political order. Bumper sticker patriotism—United We Stand—makes sense only in a time of warfare against some real or perceived enemy, for the very point of Western liberal democracies is that we are not “united” upon anything, except the survival of the order that allows us to live in “license,” legally taking turns to pursue our own individualistic self-interest.  For this reason, politics benefits from war-making, for war-making provides some common enemy that will keep the order from fragmenting into three hundred and fifty million frayed individualistic agendas (so we are led to believe that the family, the church and other private institutions being empowered would not replace the state to maintain law and order).  It is for this reason that a “war on terror,” a war in which we shall supposedly rid the world of “evil,” is so convenient, for it provides an endless war to provide some point of unity and common purpose in politics.

Ministry and the Church

The church offers the world a hopeful alternative—rather than expropriation and murderous defense of one’s political booty, the church extends the invitation to eat together at the Lord’s table (publicans and sinners).  There, we all acknowledge the immensity of God’s love and the immensity of the debts forgiven us; there, as the bread is broken, we receive forgiveness to be broken in behalf of our neighbor; there, where the water is poured out, we receive forgiveness to be poured out for the world.  The Sacrament is the place where we eat with our Lord in the kingdom, receiving God’s grace and empowerment.  It is a sign, for it symbolizes to the world our servitude, in which all peoples, regardless of supposed merit or rank or status, gather to break bread together having repented of their erroneous ways.  It is sustenance, for there we share bread and water, for to the degree that we truly eat meals together, the Lord’s supper becomes a very tangible political sharing, which gives rise to a fellowship, to a partnership, in which we surely care for one another’s very real needs, whatever they might be.

If we as a covenanted people, as the new humanity, do share communion together, then practices of jubilee will inevitably become part and parcel of our life together. (The Lord tells rulers to sell all they have and give back to society what they have taken, then, and only then, “come follow me.”  One wonders if an acceptable jubilee offering is in goods expropriated by force from the community?)  How jubilee gets played out in concrete terms will obviously vary with the context (the world in which we are subjected), but there are innumerable possibilities (subsidization of low-incomes by private institutions, private grants and scholarships, larger fast offerings, low-interest private loans, private subsidization of college tuition, bishop storehouses, visiting those in prison, etc.).  We need not fret that we cannot “fix” the world from top down—our task is to bear witness to and practice the sharing of the kingdom of God, from bottom up.  We are as the widow who gave her last penny.  We are not as the rulers who give a small percentage of their means. We have consecrated ourselves to the rulers of this world, suffering their every offense against us, but without suffering participation in their offenses against others.

The path of discipleship calls us to a life of consistently practicing a giving and sharing that seeks to meet, however we can, the needs of the weak and impoverished, ever remembering that in serving the felon and the magistrate we are serving Christ.  Or so Jesus is recounted as having put it, in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46.  We are judged worthy not because we set out to show some charity here, and to even give generously there.  Instead, our very character, our identity, is best expressed in our bearing the burdens of those offended and ministering to those who offend.

Taking such practices seriously may mean that disciples question their political practices on very different criteria than those commonly employed.  Given the immense poverty and need in our communities, perhaps it is not sufficient for Christians merely to make laws having the homeless removed.  Perhaps it is not sufficient to simply put them on the dole while continuing a centrally planned economic policy of 10 to 15% under/unemployment.   The mission of the kingdom will find plenty at odds with a culture like ours that practices, to use Rodney Clapp’s memorable phrase, the “deification of dissatisfaction” that resolves itself through wielding coercive power of states.  That is, why should we expropriate such immense resources in an attempt to make people unhappy, scared, dissatisfied with their present state of existence, so that we can have politicians that do things to and for people?  And why assume that this is the very meaning of political existence?  Why expropriate funds to provide services people can provide for themselves at a better price and quality using those same funds privately?  So some college graduate with a degree funded by taxpayer dollars can have a job and pension at taxpayer expense?  Why judge more harshly those who represent themselves at court than those who do not?  So we can secure an income for lawyers through coerced “interdependency” after we all have become lawyers on taxpayer funded student loans? (Sound silly?  If you are a farmer who sells harvested crop on the market, it is illegal to feed your family from your own harvest.  The farmer must purchase from other farmers.  Self-sufficiency is prohibited by law when profiting from the market.  This is to force “interdependency.”)

We might take a cue from the eighteenth-century Quaker John Woolman, who gained his livelihood as through the economic means as a shopkeeper and tailor.  When his business began to expand and grow, he decided not to pursue wealth, and so intentionally decided not to lobby government for privileges and immunities in order to avoid the burdens of having to compete for market share.  Whatever the particulars, we are called to feast at the table of the Lord.  Sharing partnership around that table, we find that no one goes away hungry—in more ways than one.  We feast in the kingdom of God, receiving God’s abundance.   Having freely received, we freely give.  To do otherwise would make no sense, given the graciousness of our host.

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L. Richard Nielsen

L. Richard Nielsen

L. Richard Nielsen

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