Where is your citizenship?

US-Green-CardAs a student of politics I’ve been thinking about my citizenship. I love the United States, and I love our history, our diversity, and our shared values. At the same time, as a Christian I get frustrated by what I see in our nation’s evolving culture. While some changes have been good, many cultural changes have not been good, in the sense of being objectively good the way God sees things. If the US ever was a “Christian Nation,” we certainly aren’t anymore (even back in the 1970s Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer labeled the US as “Post-Christian.”).

It’s useful, then for me to return periodically to a biblical definition of where my loyalties actually ought to lay. That is, when I look at the culture of death that is growing in our nation, the intractability of human trafficking, the passing away of our society’s moral standards and fabric that for so long supported our culture, and the growing antagonism toward traditional Christianity in the public square, I wonder whether being American is all it’s cracked up to be. If I travel abroad and meet up with other brothers and sisters in the Lord, would I be proud to say I’m an American?

As usual, scripture must guide my thinking, so what does the Bible say about being an American? Nothing directly, of course. The British colonies were just a twinkle in Europe’s eye when the canon of scripture closed. But the apostles Peter and Paul both address citizenship in interesting ways. In Phillipians 3:20, Paul writes that “our citizenship is in Heaven,” which enables us to bear earthly problems with a heavenly mindset. But Peter provides a more thorough teaching.

Nestled between the metaphor of The Church being a building of “living stones” with Christ as the cornerstone and instructions on submission to governing authorities, such as the king or one’s employer, Peter writes,

But you are a CHOSEN RACE, a ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, a HOLY NATION, aA PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:9-12, NAS)

The capitalized letters tell us that these phrases are quotations, and these are from the Old Testament—phrases that were used to describe the nation of Israel (e.g., Exodus 19:16, Deut 7:6; Deut 14:2; Hosea 1:10, 2:23). This is consistent with other New Testament passages demonstrating that Christianity is an extension of Judaism, Israel’s spiritual heritage and co-heir to the promises God made to Abraham (this is a major theme of Galatians and Romans, for example).

Our National Identity. But in the context of Peter’s first century letter the phrases suggest that Christians have a distinct national identity, just as Israel did…now Christians are the chosen race, the royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God’s own possession. The identifying mark of our national identity is that we once weren’t unified (we “were not a people”) but now we are unified as “the people of God.” Our nationhood is based on the mercy we have received through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. We now have received mercy—the undeserved forgiveness for our sins—and that is what distinguishes us from other people groups, not circumcision, skin color, sex, socioeconomic status, or nation-of-origin.

Our National Mission. Peter provides a mission statement for this nation: “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This means the purpose for our existence is to proclaim the truth of God’s excellence to those around us, and the most excellent thing we could proclaim is the gospel message. Thus, we are to be about acting out Jesus’  Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). By definition, this means we ought to be known by our unusual message, wherever we are. If we are going out and making disciples our values are going to conflict with the culture where we find ourselves. This is likely to be uncomfortable and it will sometimes get us killed. (Just this week the North Korean government executed 13 Christians for obeying Christ in this way.) If we compromise this message and the teachings of the Lord out of some sense that we don’t want to be offensive to others or “old-fashioned” or intolerant (the values of a certain nation in which I happen to reside), we will be soon be off-track in obediently pursuing our true mission.

Our Immigration Status. Peter then uses two interesting words to describe us: “aliens and strangers.” These actually are two legal terms in the Greek.  The word translated “alien” is paroikos, “a stranger, a foreigner, one who lives in a place without the right of citizenship,” while “stranger” is parepidēmos, “one who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives” or “sojourning in a strange place, a foreigner.”

Did you catch that? Christians are foreigners wherever we live. We have come from our home country into a place that is not our home to live side-by-side with the natives. Our loyalty must not be displaced: we are Christians who happen to be living in a foreign land called the United States, China, Nigeria, or [insert where you reside]. This helps us make sense of our mission, because we don’t have to proclaim the excellencies of God to our countrymen, because we already know about them. It’s the citizens of the nation where we temporarily reside that need our message, so they will want to acquire naturalized citizenship and we can help our King grow our nation.

Our testimony in a foreign culture. We serve a different king than whoever is in charge of the country where we happen to reside, and we therefore represent Him where we live.  In the same way that we observe foreigners and make judgments about their people group or nation, our behavior reflects on our King and the rest of our nation. Thus, Peter instructs his countrymen to “abstain from fleshly lusts” and “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles.”  Why? Because when we speak and act just like the people who belong to the country where we live, there won’t be anything special about us. If we’re thinking and acting just like the Gentiles around us, adapting the teachings of our true nation to the values of our temporary lodging, why would any of them see the need to change their citizenship?

Our good deeds are supposed be evidence to counteract what our opponents will say about us. Imagine living in a country where your motives are questioned, your language is defined as “hate,” you’re accused of being a threat, and your values are so unusual that people will trash you and say bad things about your home country. They’ll slander you because of your foreign ways and values; you won’t talk like them, act like them, you’ll disapprove of things they tolerate, and this will earn you their ire. UNLESS your good deeds outweigh your weirdness. It will be our good deeds that testify to why we sojourners are good to have around, why our King is righteous, and why it’s worth renouncing one citizenship for a better one. As Jesus put it, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

Fellow Christian, you are part of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, diverse, chosen, redeemed, holy nation of priests, who are temporarily residing in a foreign country. If you’re pursuing the mission our King has assigned us, expect to be rejected and hated, because His ways will contradict the ways of this land. Nevertheless, live uprightly and do good in this land so that your King and citizenship in His Kingdom will be attractive to others. In the same way that the United States was for two centuries the destination of choice for people around the world because of its freedom and opportunities, let us make citizenship in our true Kingdom a desirable thing.

Election 2012: A Difficult Choice (Detailed)

For my introduction, go here.

Which of the candidates more closely matches God’s intentions for civil government, as expressed in the Bible?

1. The civil government is to encourage people to do good (Rom 13:3-4; 1 Peter 2:13-14). 

Both candidates encourage people to be “good citizens” and to engage in acts of charity. However what Peter and Paul most likely mean when they refer to “good” includes living a righteous life. Romney’s personal life and actions, including stewardship of his own resources (e.g., charitable giving) model this idea. I also believe that Obama’s compassion for the poor, a righteous character trait, is genuine.

My conclusion:  A Draw.

2. A. The civil government is to discourage citizens from doing evil, and to punish people who do evil (Rom 13:3-4; 1 Peter 2:13-14). B. This includes managing a just criminal justice system (e.g., Deut 16:18-20; Psalm 72:1-2).

Obama. He encourages socially just attitudes and behavior and an earnest desire for economically fair policies. However, he also directly and indirectly encourages and legitimizes evil (i.e, sinful) behavior through his strong support for abortion rights in the US and abroad, which licenses and promotes murder of unborn innocents; and through his strong support for same-sex marriage, which licenses and legitimizes sinful behaviors.

Romney. I think he also genuinely believes that his economic policies will produce a more economically just set of outcomes. He supports the biblical ideal of marriage. His tepid anti-abortion position seems mostly designed to win the Republican nomination; but even half-hearted support for pre-born children is better than Mr. Obama’s policies.

My conclusion: Romney

A just criminal justice system, according to the Bible, is one in which justice is applied equally regardless of the social and economic position of the accused or the victim.

Romney. His judicial philosophy seems to be based on Natural Law theory, which coincides with ideas such as the “rule of law” that make the basis for judicial decisions the constitution and stated intents of law writers. This should, though doesn’t always, lead to more evenhanded application of the law.

Obama’s judicial philosophy emanates from Critical Law or Legal Positivism theories, in which judges’ discretion is broader, and which views the legal system as a primary means for undoing and remedying systemic social injustices against historically “oppressed” groups. In this philosophy traditionalistic religious views are viewed with suspicion and are generally falling under the category of “hate speech.”

My conclusion: Romney, because Natural Law theory, justly applied, does not advantage any one, rich or poor, whereas Critical Law and Legal Positivism assume someone must be oppressed and freed from something.

3. The civil government is to provide a secure and a tranquil social environment in which the gospel can be freely proclaimed (1 Tim 2:1-4). 

I believe both candidates care about the United States’ national security; in general their foreign and defense policies don’t really differ all that much.

Obama. The president’s policies toward freedom of religion are rather antagonistic. His administration re-defined the “free exercise” of religion to include merely “freedom of worship.” This means that your freedom of religion extends only to the ways in which you specifically worship, and not in the way you live your life; thus, for example, Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services requires every company, except for churches, to include abortificants (pills that cause abortion in case of “accidental” pregnancy) in their health insurance coverage, even if the company is religiously opposed to abortion. (Technically, HHS requires the company’s health insurance provider to include this “benefit,” but the effect is the same because the company still pays the premiums.) Obama’s Department of Justice has specifically said that a company owner gives up his or her right to religious free exercise when they offer services to the public. This is inconsistent with an environment that permits free discussion and application of the gospel to people’s lives—basically, DOJ says you’re allowed to believe the Bible, you’re just not allowed to act like you believe the Bible. In the international arena, the Obama administration has virtually ceased any efforts to systematically report on or promote freedom of religion around the world.

Romney. Appears to hold the more traditional view of free expression of religion. Since Mormons were historically persecuted because of their religious beliefs, they tend to be tolerant of alternative religions in the public sphere.

My conclusion: A draw on national security; domestically: Romney,because of the Obama administration’s policies that limit freedom of religion to freedom of worship.

4. The civil government is to facilitate a just social and economic environment in which the poor are not oppressed (Ps 72:3-4; 12-14) .To provide for those in society who have no family or church means of support (1 Tim 5:3-16; Ps 72:12-14), but without discouraging people from laboring to provide for themselves (many Proverbs praise diligent labor and criticize slothfulness; 2 Thess 3:8). 

A biblical policy for this area would be to (1) strongly encourage people who can provide for themselves to do so, strictly limiting benefits for able workers; (2) strongly encourage family members to care for their own “truly needy” family members; (3) strongly encourage churches to care for their church family members who are truly needy and truly can’t provide for themselves; (4) strongly encourage churches to care for those in their communities who are truly needy and truly can’t provide for themselves [By the way, this requires Christians and local churches to genuinely step up to do these things.]; and (5) identify those people who are left (after policies 1-4)  and who are truly needy and truly can’t provide for themselves, and facilitate their temporary support until their needs can be met by family or a local social support network or agency. The benefits of all of these family- and local-based support are clear—help is available from my family, church, and local community when I need it, but because these are “my people” I will be less likely to keep going to them when it isn’t really necessary. The creation of a remote, faceless bureaucracy for getting help provides no social accountability for my actions.

Neither candidate poses a public policy agenda that looks like this. So which comes closer?

Obama. I believe he is strongly motivated by compassion for the poor and this is worthy of praise. One of his major solutions has been to expand access to government support by redefining “poverty” to include a lot more people. While I don’t think this is wrong in and of itself, there are well-known “unintended effects” of these kinds of policies, including the tendency to discourage people from providing for themselves while encouraging them to continue seeking government support even when they could provide for themselves. (The Heritage Foundation—a conservative think tank—has reported that the Obama administration weakened federal requirements to seek work in order to continue receiving social welfare benefits; if this is true, this moves the government’s programs even further from the biblical model.) Support in the administration has dwindled for Faith-Based Initiatives, in which local faith communities had expanded access to federal social welfare support grants; while I have problems with churches going to the government for funding, the principle was a step in the right direction; that the administration de-prioritized faith-based solutions was a step in the wrong direction.

Romney. His personal record is also one that reflects compassion for and service to the needy, but his public plan deals with poverty less directly than Mr. Obama’s. His plan seems to have more general macro-economic focus, in which economic improvement for all will lift many out of poverty. The budgetary priorities of Paul Ryan include dramatic cuts for many government programs, including social welfare programs that support the newly-expanded definition of people in “poverty.” Simply cutting these is not a solution for poverty, nor does it move us in the direction of a policy that strongly develops local solutions to support the “truly needy” in society. On the other hand, Romney’s emphasis on locally-based job retraining programs suggest a step in the right direction. Romney’s stated plans for ensuring the long-term stability of federal insurance programs for the elderly and “truly needy” also don’t ensure local engagement.

My conclusion: A Draw. Neither set of programs come close to the Bible’s approach to caring for society’s “truly needy.” Obama’s policies emphasize government benefits, but have a high risk for encouraging dependency on the government. Romney’s policies don’t adequately emphasize local solutions to poverty.