It has often been request of me, and I have long desired, to write up a more comprehensive statement of my view of the relationship between Christians and civil governments. Unfortunately, this is not such a statement. Instead, I recently encountered a quote in an unrelated context which seemed to me to capture, if not the totality, then at least the spirit of what I understand to be a correct stance of Christians toward civil government. In an article about the Sandemanians and their politics during the American Revolutionary War, Jean Hankins summarizes their position thus: "Sounding like activists, but acting like pacifists, New England's Sandemanians emerge as a different kind of loyalist." In this brief statement can be found three critical principles for a Christian relationship to government:
Submission: The term "loyalist," while an accurate term historically for supporters of the rights of the English crown to rule the colonies, would not describe appropriately a Christian disposition toward human government (i.e. I would not describe myself as "loyal" to America or her interests). The error is, however, semantic. What the quote describes is the basic framework for the relationship to Christian government, which is one of obligatory respect and submission. It is the same raw context for civic ethics that Paul enjoins in Romans 13:1 or Peter commands in 1 Peter 2:17. Whatever instances of so-called civil disobedience may be permitted, they are permitted as exceptions to the rule of submission not as a rule which allows for incidental or occasional submission. (Incidentally, since the American Revolution is the context of the quote, I wonder what contemporary Christians who idolize--and that word is deliberately chosen--the Revolution and its architects do with verses like these.)
Pacifism: I realize this will be the most contentious suggestion, particularly in an era in which American Christianity has so steeped itself in militarism that it has embraced a spiritual baptism in the blood of national imperial martyrs instead of the blood of a peaceful savior. Yet in our modern world of mass-produced warfare and ever more coercive governments, pacifism provides the primary means for suspending our obligation to submit to civil government. Gone are the days when "We must serve God rather than men" functioned primarily to oppose religious censorship. Now our governments require a full participation of the citizen in all the tainted mechanisms of government, and that participation is always and completely a moral activity, a tacit endorsement of the necessary means of human structures of power. Without enumerating what I believe are the many applications of this antagonism between a Christian vision of peace and civil government, let it suffice to say that as often as being a peacemaker stands contrary to the mechanisms of civil government--and those occasions will certainly be frequent--it is our ethical commitment to peace which takes precedence.
Activism: The most frequent critique of pacifism confuses a rejection of unrighteous means with a rejection of righteous ends. I cannot count the number of times I have seen arguments which boil down to this: if you don't support opposing injustice with violence, then you are supporting injustice by implication. It simply isn't true. Pacifism simply makes the claim--one which I obviously find convincing--that it is logically inconsistent to pretend to oppose injustice with violence, an unjust tool. Instead, pacifists make an effort to oppose injustice with just means. Pacifism is not quietism. It is absolutely the Christian's duty to "sound like an activist," which is to say we should be active through every ethically available means to promote peace, justice, and mercy in a world which thirsts for them. There is no virtue in pursuing justice at any cost, especially when the cost is the peace and mercy which we ought to be promoting with and through justice.
Admittedly, it is something of a contrivance to use Hankins's quote as a the framework for cutting to the heart of the question of a Christian relationship. Nevertheless, the broad categories it outlines demonstrate the main areas of discussion necessary: in what sense are Christians "loyalists," in what sense are we "pacifists," and in what sense are we "activists." I think the image presented to describe the Sandemanians (who, I admit, I know very little about) captures very nearly a picture of Christian civic virtue that grows naturally out of the Gospel.