Friday, April 08, 2011
The 99 or the one ?
Christ points to the allowance God made for the hard heart that results from man's self-willed nature (i.e., our nature as we understand it, affected by the consequences of replacing God's assessment of the knowledge fit for our consumption with our own, as Eve did). But He does so in the course of forbidding us to abandon respect for the truth of our nature as God understands it, ("what God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.") On account of the Grace of God accessible to us through Christ, we are freed from the bondage of our self-willed nature. Christ's presence enjoins us to reach for and attain (by the Grace of God in Christ) the perfection of our God willed nature. "And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
Andrew Longman's position implies that in the world today, this is an unattainable standard. If this is his belief, his disagreement is not with me. I too often wrestle with the challenge of Christ's standard of perfection, as I'm sure we all do. Christ insists that God be our standard of perfection, and by His ministry (His life, passion, and resurrection) He gives that standard to us. Yet His reference to publicans reminds us that He sees righteousness in the example of a publican who prays "God be merciful to me, a sinner." And in the Lord's prayer He teaches us, when in prayer, always to seek God's forgiveness for our trespasses. In this way He instructs us never to pray without recalling our imperfection, our inability by ourselves perfectly to attain the aim of God. Yet, notwithstanding this persistent fact, He commands us to be perfect, as God is.
This seems like a contradiction. But only if we forget that it is Christ who speaks to us- Christ on whom God has laid our iniquity, but through whom, by the same token, He makes available the Grace which saves us from it. Thus the command of perfection makes sense only when we realize that our perfection or imperfection depends not on us but on God and Jesus Christ. Relying upon Christ and not ourselves alone; trusting in (i.e., having faith in) God and not ourselves alone, the perfection of God comes within our reach, by and through the reality of Christ's transformation of our lives.
From Christ we derive the freedom to take God's standard upon ourselves- something that, absent Christ's commanding presence in our lives, we could not presume to do. Is this not the vital core of the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free? (Galatians 5:1) Truly Christ frees us from the dominion of sin. Otherwise we end up accepting, perforce, the world's imperfection as the defining limit of our perfection. Instead of aiming to do right as God intends, (an aim which Christ makes possible for us even in our world as it is), we aim only to limit wrong, in a way that, de facto, abandons God's intention. This is the melancholy prudence that characterizes all the arguments Andrew Longman has presented.
Unfortunately, once we accept this understanding of prudence, we cease truly to seek the kingdom of God, i.e., to live as in the place of God's dominion. On the excuse that we find ourselves in the midst of those who submit to the dominion of unrighteousness, we agree to aim at doing only as much of right as that dominion allows. But if we find ourselves acting in this way, we are not excused. We are lost.
Can we excuse this mode of operating under the dominion of evil with the plea that we are right to do what we are able to do? But with this excuse we tacitly limit our possibilities for action to the imperfection of our nature as we understand it, rather than defining it (as Christ does) in terms of an understanding which reflects (is the image of) the perfection of God with respect to us. But this self-limitation ignores the imperative of Christ, which requires us to be true to the image (persona) of perfection God intends us to be ("in the image and likeness of God created He them." Hence the logic of securing respect for the human person as the strategic aim of the pro-life political cause. Except in practice the law enforces respect for the intrinsic worth of every one's life, the number of the dead loses its meaning.
Where one is worth nothing, a million times one is still worth nothing. But where one reflects God's worth, the worth of every one is beyond counting. So, when we permit ourselves to act as if one is worthless, the worth of all is potentially reduced to nothing. But when we act so as to acknowledge the God intended worth of each and every one, the God intended worth of all is restored.) As transformed by Christ we are called upon to conceive of human capacity in terms that reflect not our own imperfect mind (understanding), but the mind of Christ, who is God with(in) us (Immanuel).
You can say if you like that this is all well and good for Christians, but inappropriate for America's politics. But the prudence that replaces the perfect standard of God's will with subservience to what the world determines to be possible not only contradicts Christ. It also contradicts the principles of the American founding. The Founders explicitly rejected the understanding of right that defined what is possible in terms approved by the prevalence of this or that superiority of human power (might makes right.) Not unlike Christ, they asserted a standard for human conduct based on God's intention for our humanity. They declared the capacity for rights (i.e., actions taken on account of right) as endowed by God, to be a self-evident fact of human nature. They made securing every individual's freedom to demonstrate this capacity (that is, to exercise rights; to put right them into practice) the defining purpose of just human government.
The Founders did not accept the understanding of justice the world generally took (and still takes?) to be within the realm of political possibility. They acted instead on the view that by choice and deliberation, informed and motivated by a common dedication to right action, the American people could do what had until then been thought impossible- establish just, effective government on the basis of politics that respects the consent of the people. The pure Christian understanding of the primacy of God as the standard for human law and action does not therefore exceed or contradict the possibilities of American politics. Rather it epitomizes the understanding of right and justice that made the kind of politics found in America's constitutional, democratic republic conceivable in the first place.
It may be true, as Andrew Longman implies, that it will take a resurrecting miracle to restore that understanding to its rightful place at the head of America's practice of law and politics. But if we let our sin daunted understanding of what's possible determine what we seek to achieve, we will surely remove ourselves from the purview of any such miracles. We will continue our regression toward the idea that government is all about regulating wrongs, and not at all about respecting and preserving God endowed rights.
How can we invite a miracle that only God can perform unless, in our plan of action we hold fast to the principle of God and His righteousness, as America's founders did? By defining our objective in terms of what will win support from the unrighteous we act like the old wing-walkers, who knew better than to let go of one strut until the other was well in hand. But by following their prudence we make clear that in our counsels and strategic deliberations we are unwilling to trust God without reservation. We outwardly proclaim our exclusive faith in Him, but devise and carry out a strategy based on the assumption that no progress can be made unless due sacrifice (in this case quite literally child sacrifice) is offered to the idol of unrighteous power.
Rather than setting our goals to achieve only as much good as evil allows, we should faithfully aim at the mark that God has set for us.
We should therefore act "with firmness in the right as God give us to see the right." As for opening the eyes with which to see this God endowed vision, that surely lies beyond our poor power, especially given the narrow mentality of self-willed, material calculation that passes for expertise in the political world these days. But it is not beyond the power of our faith, not if we resolve to put into practice the motto some are so deliberately trying to remove from our coins: In God We Trust.
Rather than being content to do all that we think we are able to do, shouldn't we strive to do all that our trust (faith) in God makes possible for us. Then, our faithful actions will be the certain trumpet wherewith God prevails upon America's heart to return to America's creed. Christ made clear that such perfect trust (complete faith) in God can move mountains. But when we base our plans on the assumption that, without help from unrighteousness, this faith (trust) alone (sola fide) will not move America's heart, is our trust (faith) in God really complete (perfect)?