The Greatest Commandment: “And on Your Gates” (Part 7): Returning to the Question of Christians and Political Responsibility

It’s time to return to the question I started the series with, “Should Christians be involved in politics?” Or, put another way, once I have love actualized on my body, once the words God is commanding today have changed my cellular memories because they have affected what I do with my life, do I have any business whatsoever telling others what they should do? What are my political responsibilities as a Christian?

Defining the terms of the question: What is a Christian?

I do not define Christians as some do, as “those who adhere to doctrines established at Nicaea.” I realize that’s helpful for some circumstances, but I want the dynamic 300 years of the faith before that and all the writers of the New Testament in my definition. I do have in mind someone who believes Jesus is resurrected and the Son of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I have in mind someone who might be Jewish or gentile. I also have in mind believers for whom the prophetic promise of the V’ahavta is at work in their lives by the work of the holy spirit–whether they know it yet or not. They may still be wrestling with the Shema. They may be wrestling with the abstract of idea of loving God with all their hearts. The word of God is powerful (Heb. 4:12), and the promise of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31+) is unstoppable: In Jesus, we will have the commands of God written on our hearts so that our hearts and his words are one.

An aside: The extent to which the commands of God have moved from the Pentatuch to our hearts is the extent to which we are translated into the Kingdom in an ongoing process that will culminate in a change at Jesus’ return when we will be like him. This is cool because I can test it: if I have to look up the good, holy, perfect, acceptable will of God over a specific situation which he recorded for us in the Bible, then that word is still in the process of being engraved on my heart. Once it’s on my heart, I won’t have to look it up: it’ll just be who I am, what I do naturally through his supernatural transformation in my life. But, everyone is on that journey–except for Jesus–right now. We are all predestined to conform to the image of Jesus. Some of our journeys have significant detours, mud pits, and death-shadow valleys, but they are still our journeys with the same end point of new life in Jesus. He is able to pull people out of slime pits, feed and anoint them in death-shadow valleys, shepherd them through detours. His love is stronger than all life and the grave.

What is politics?

To clarify, when I say “politics,” I mean the art of managing human to human interaction. I don’t mean fallacious either-or policy choices presented to US voters under the classifications of “Democrat or Republican.” Politics is concerned with questions of the right and wrong use of power, questions of order, and questions of conflict resolution. Whenever we’re talking about the question of how we should live life together, we are talking about politics. (There are more precise definitions out there, like Aristotle’s, for example.) In the early pages of Gorgias, Socrates divides politics into two major categories, legislation–what should exist as law governing interactions between people–and justice–what should be done when there’s a problem. He compares them to health in the body: an exercise plan for health functions like legislation for the society; medicine is applied when there’s a disease like justice steps in when there’s a problem.

As soon as we encounter another human being, we are engaged in politics. It might be more precise to say that when we encounter another human being with whom we will cooperate, we are involved in economics, but when we encounter another human being with whom we find ourselves conflict, we are involved in politics. Is that a reasonable divide? I’m not sure because justice matters in economics, hence the wealth of Torah laws related to ethical business practices. At this point, perhaps I’ll swoop both interactions under the heading of politics.

A more accurate question

So you can see, asking “Should Christians be involved in politics?” assumes that Christians could somehow remove themselves from political questions, but they can only do that if they are alone. And even then, since the ground beneath their feet may be disputed property, I’m not sure they can be away from it even if they are alone. Alone on unclaimed, undisputed land–that’s the only place politics can be avoided.

If that’s the case, then a better question is “To what extent might Christians be involved in politics?” Or, “What do Christians bring to the realm of politics?” Or this: “How might Christians contribute coherent political ideas to secular culture?”

Returning to the Greatest Commandment: “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

I left the previous post asking if having the commandments on the doorposts of one’s house can still be seen as an essentially private concern. This leads us to the last half of the last line of the V’ahavta: “and on your gates.”

The last line of the V’ahavta teaches us that the love of God in us doesn’t stop at our houses. It makes its way all the way to our gates.

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What’s a gate?

Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 6:9 says it can refer to gate at the end of private property, but it also extends to the city. Genesies’ Hebrew Chaldee Lexicon on sha’ar will give you an extended replay of the way the term is used within the Old Testament and connects it to the entry point of a city, nation, or land.

Gates are the borders of the protected part of the city. It’s where you grab people to act as witnesses for legal transactions, among other things. We find Lot seated at the gate of Sodom.  Jeremiah goes there to exchange a land deed. Boaz goes there to redeem Naomi’s land and get legal recognition for taking Ruth as a wife. I’m not sure what all happens in my city’s courthouse, so I’m not sure how far to extend the analogy, but it’s kind of like a locus of city operations. In Rev. 21, the gates have the names of the tribes of Israel inscribed on them. (I wonder if that’s the World to Come’s remaking of land inheritance of each tribe for the new heavens and new earth?) The gates of Psalm 24 refer to the authorities of the city.

Thus, if we’re writing the commands of God on our gates, it means our city is ruled by the law of God. If you go in the city, you’re expected to obey the law. If you don’t want to obey the law, don’t go in the city. You might need to leave the nation to get out of all the laws, but you can certainly get away with breaking more laws when you’re not in a city that has them inscribed on its gates to let people know they’re being enforced.

In order to write God’s word on the gates of the city, God’s people are going to have to take their places as authorities over their cities. You might think it’s inappropriate for a believer to get distracted by city politics or state politics or national politics, but consider the alternative. Aristotle rightly observed that the penalty for good men not getting involved in politics is that they are ruled by their inferiors. Selah.

More than that, if we are not in the gates, someone else’s laws are likely to end up inscribed there, governing the city. Which would you prefer: man’s laws or God’s laws?

Let’s slow down on this point. Is God a better lawgiver than someone else? Yes, seems to me he is. If the Torah (law) of God is holy, just, and good, then having something other than the Torah means we have something other than what is holy, just, and good: the unholy, the unjust, and the not good. True but probably not compelling, I know. Even the Libertarian Christian Podcast won’t go that far, but I’m not done trying to make this case.

Here’s another way to phrase the same question: if we are given a choice between a just and righteous legal system (God’s) and an unjust and unrighteous legal system (man’s), which would we choose?

That many people would throw their luck in with the secular unrighteous system tells me that they either (1) think the laws written in the Bible are not really from God but from man, or (2) they think the laws in the Bible are God’s, but they believe God’s laws are really not good for them.

In the first case, the criticism is this: my question has a suspicious assumption, that there is such a thing as a just and righteous choice. That makes the question unfair, and it seems to them like a choice between two types of unjust systems: one enforced by the authority of man, and one enforced by the authority of what claims to be God (but likely isn’t). Therefore, if pressed and inclined to play along, they would choose man’s system, which is the better because a changeable, weak human system would be better than an unchangeable, powerful (also human) system masquerading as God’s system. If it were the case that we could not have God’s system, then I would agree, but it’s not evident to me that we can’t have God’s system since God himself said his law is in our mouths to do it–if only we would do it, and we’re invited to taste and see that he is actually good in practice. So while it’s a fair criticism, I believe someone could test their way, law by law, out of that concern. The unbeliever could be convinced if only she could see the law in practice or go to a city that employed it to experience life within its framework. The law of God was always supposed to be a testimony of God’s amazing grace and goodness to nations who did not know anything about him, as Moses reminds the people, asking, “And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (English Standard Version, Deut. 4.8).

It’s a rhetorical question. It is a way of saying that no other nation will ever have statutes and rules as righteous as all that law set before them by the mouth of God through the hand of Moses and recorded for us right in our Bibles.

In the second case of criticizing the way I phrased the question about which law, man’s or God’s, one might choose, people believe in God but doubt God’s character and/or mistrust his instructions, a win for the line of reasoning given by the serpent in the garden. That mistrust of the law of God as it applies to politics seems like the default view within Christian culture, and that’s the view I’m really addressing with this post. If Christians who claim to know God don’t trust his laws and don’t recommend them, why would secular culture even consider them?

This is a sad state of affairs. Here’s what I’d like all my Christian friends to keep in mind when they’re discussing politics:

Jesus is a king with a kingdom and a law, which we can already read about in the Bible. The law, or Torah, is perfect, spiritual, and holy. It can’t be improved by taking away from it or adding to it. The foundation of the throne of King Messiah is righteousness and justice. The law of God is justice justly pursued. The law of God is good.

The goodness of God causes the nations to fear him. All creation desires the manifestation of the sons of God, which comes through our obedience to the Son of God. The law is a witnessing tool because the nation because the nations desire justice.

I think it’s reasonable to say that Jesus is our king to the extent that we submit to his rule, which is to say his law. (I’ve subsequently learned there’s a book out on this topic: By Allegiance Alone, written by a Christian within a Christian framework, so he gets to this idea without bringing in Jewish eschatology.) Even within the context of Jewish eschatology, I’m not saying the whole world will be circumcised to be ethnically Jewish. I am saying that the extent to which gentile believers willingly and voluntarily submit to the rule of King Jesus is the extent to which we can claim to be part of his kingdom. It’s coming, but we can live in it now by choosing his ways. We can annex our hearts, bodies, homes, cities, and nations into the kingdom of heaven now in a voluntarily expression of love for our beautiful King Jesus. When Satan is chained, it will be the obvious best choice. When he is loosed at the end of the Messianic Age, Psalm 2 tells us nations will stage a hostile take-over to try to throw off the yoke of our Messiah, so there will be a last chance to make a voluntary choice for Jesus or against him—in other words, for justice, love, and respect or against them.

Human Courts and Divine Courts

For those who are not sure if the law of God is good in practice, it’s worth mentioning, that not every law in the Torah is judged by a human court. Some are left to a divine court. For example, if you don’t afflict yourself on Yom Kippur, no human court will punish you even if you’re Jewish. Does that mean there is no consequence? No, it just means the divine court will handle it; it’s not under the jurisdiction of a human court. There are a lot of laws in the Torah that are like that. There are other laws that do fall under the jurisdiction of a human court, and those are highly regulated with a detailed legal procedure far better than our modern systems. Pulling lines out of context, it can look like wild vigilantism in the law of God, but it’s not like that. It is a tightly balanced justice system that stands or falls as a whole. You can’t have a couple laws you like and skip others. If you like the appeal court idea (which the Torah has in it) but forget that you need the law that obligates a false witness to the same penalty he seeks for his victim, you will get false witnesses undermining the system (see Jesus use this grace-in-the-law point to rescue the woman caught in adultery in John 8). You need both the court and the controls related to judges and witnesses. It’s a complete system. Elegant. Balanced. Just.

Love is the fulfillment (full application of) the Law, so to love our neighbors means that we will act in accordance with the Torah, which is the fine print that defines what love is and what love is not. ( I mentioned this early on, but will mention it here for those not following the whole series: To love our neighbors as ourselves is a limiter, not an expansion, of the idea of love.)

With that background in mind, the question could also be phrased this way: Do we as Christians want to live in a city ruled by love or a city ruled by something else? It looks to me like a choice between two trees: one that leads to life and one that leads to a mixture that looks good but is good and evil mixed into something that harms rather than helps life.

A good, desirable political system would pursue justice through just means, which means that even atheists and people of other religious affiliations would do better under the Torah’s legal system than under another system. The perfect legal system would be designed to do good, not evil. We might pretend we’re talking about a purely secular subject when we’re talking about the best course of political action, but for believers, God is a judge interested in justice, and he holds the world accountable for the good or evil it does through political power. For even many non-believers, there is an acknowledged underlying structure of justice in the cosmos, which means we ought to consider whether our actions, both private and political, align with that structure. For one who believes in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it is a given that we make recourse to God to test and prove what is good in politics as we would in all other realms.

Yes to the City of Love, but…

I think some people might intellectually assent to this idea of living in a city ruled by love. But there are a couple concerns from a Christian point of view.

One is that promoting the law of God in the city will make the work of Christ of none effect. No, Paul’s gospel to the gentiles warned that promoting legal conversion to Judaism as the ultimate means of salvation into the Messianic Era and World to Come undercuts the work of Christ; promoting the law makes visible all humanity’s need for a savior. The question of the New Testament is not “What do we do about the Law of Moses?” but “What do we do about the god-fearing gentiles who are coming to faith in Messiah?” Promoting the law of God is promoting justice. Promoting something other than the law of God does not promote justice.

Second, Christians might well be concerned with the question of who could be trusted to interpret and apply the laws of God written in the Bible. Are some things in the law hard to understand? Sure, and the more foreign the context, the more foreign the concepts seem and the more greatly we’re likely to miss the point completely. Does a Christian need to know how to explain and defend every law against criticism? No. What might a Christian do when confronted with a law she is not able to defend? If you’ve been reading along recently, this suggestion will come as no surprise: Refer the questioner to Jewish commentaries, simple ones, like Rashi’s. Start there. Then if you need more help, ask a rabbi.

Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God, and they’re the only people on earth who have ever actually attempted to employ the Torah as their national constitution, so they have experience with its practical, legal application–and they have a record of that in their extra-biblical texts. As an aside and to highlight the difference between the way Jews view the Scriptures and gentile Christians view the Scriptures, ask yourself this question: If the way you handle the Bible was the standard for what was passed down to the next generation, what would remain after you’re gone? Looking at my own life, if the survival of ethical monotheism and the transmission of the Bible text and interpretation depended on me, the next generation is in a world of trouble. Consider the treasure we have preserved for us because generations of Jews have received the Word of God and passed it down as a family inheritance.

I suggest picking up the earlier posts in the series to see the progression of where God’s laws are applied, and how they radiate out from the heart, consistent with Deuteronomy’s promise and Jeremiah’s description of the new covenant (that the Torah will be on our hearts) and Ezekiel’s promise that we will have a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone, spirit-filled in a way that empowers us to walk in the statutes of God. In short, the point seems to be that what is inscribed on your gates is what has already been inscribed in your heart and changed the nature of your heart, body, and home. The direction moves from the inside to the outside, not the other way around. But make no mistake, the laws do radiate outward. We live the kingdom in Christ, and we can advance it by advocating for his righteousness. We will pursue and overtake. Righteousness, peace, and joy are coming to our cities through our savior and his kingdom.

So, not to leave this whole post in a philosophical, detached sort of style, it’s time for the cosmic flip: what does this line of the V’ahavta tell us about God? I think it tells us that being close to him is a choice. On his doorposts are his words, but they are also on the very gates of his city. New Jerusalem that descends in the World to Come has gates, and nothing unclean shall ever enter them:

And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life (King James Version, Rev. 21.27).

The gates of that city never shut (Rev. 21:25). The reason given is that there is no night. It’s a world of all sabbath, like the seventh day, no evening and no morning? We’ll measure time differently there, which makes sense if all decay has ceased, time will no longer be a measure of decay. Time may no longer be time as we know it, but in that world, the invitation to go through the gates is never interrupted by military threats or darkness. The gates of that city seem to me to be a picture of God’s arms flung wide in all directions, the revelation of a cosmic invitation for us to make our home with him as he has always done all he could to make his home with us.

The city that love built is a city of blessing, mercy, life, and peace, and may we all, through the righteous work of Jesus, merit to walk in that great light with him.

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