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Sunday, June 27, 2010  

Distinguishing Law and Gospel in Politics

There's a lot to think about in the Huckabee profile in last week's New Yorker, which I commend to anyone interested in this genuinely interesting guy, and the interesting topic he unavoidably raises, namely the relationship between the Republican Party and Christian social ethics. I just trashed his view of Israel and Palestinians, but he says a lot of things that are worthy more serious consideration. Here's a folksy analogy:

Huckabee firmly believes that here on planet Earth, however, there should be only one set of guidelines. In several of his seven books, he tells a story about the time his young son John Mark baked a cake. The boy didn’t know what a “dash” of salt was, so he added a cup to the batter, and the cake was inedible. This, Huckabee asserts, is what happens when human beings come up with their own measures of right and wrong, instead of following the Bible’s. “Consider homosexuality,” he writes. “Until recently, who would have dared to suggest that the practice should be accepted on equal footing with heterosexuality, to be thought of as a personal decision and nothing more?”

The problem here is Huckabee's typically Anabaptist unwillingness to distinguish Law from Gospel, and more specifically, to distinguish the civil use of Law from the spiritual uses. The civil law--which includes some of the precepts given to Israel in Bible times as well as the whole apparatus of reason, secular law, and governance--is ordained by God for the protection and preservation of creation. It is evident in places that know nothing of Biblical revelation but that clatter along more or less as well and as badly in their civil affairs as those of us partaking in the "Judeo-Christian" or, more plausibly, Abrahamic monotheistic traditions. The patriarchs had multiple wives and concubines, after all, not because such an arrangement represented God's immutable and saving will for human communities, but because in hunter-gatherer societies it worked out that way. Monogamy was a later development, bolstered by strict and even violent measures to ensure female chastity--measures that even Mike Huckabee would likely blanch at were they to be attempted today. Companionate marriage is a later development still, and it goes hand-in-hand with both serial monogamy (within and without the bounds of civil marriage) and same-sex partnerships.

In its early centuries, the Church was not especially concerned with civil marriages. Orders for Christian marriage only emerged long after baptism and the eucharist had settled into fairly stable and enduring patterns. This is not to say that the Church was indifferent to sexual morality or domestic life--far from it--but only that the external form was not widely and uniformly subject to church definition and discipline for a long time. If you're looking for a Christian morality in this or any area, you need to go beyond what God requires for the minimal ordering and preservation of common life into an ethic of radical servanthood and sacrifice that can sometimes clash with the kinds of order and propriety required by the civil sphere.

My colleague Frank Senn is a rare Christian voice for distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel of marriage on these grounds. The civil order may acknowledge relationships for the sake of social harmony and stability that the Church, as the bearer of saving truth, will not acknowledge. Divorce and remarriage, for instance, is something that may be viewed by some as falling short of the radical unity of Christ and the Church that Scripture describes in terms of marriage, but that at the same time must be embraced in the civil sphere for the sake of good order in a way that it wasn't a millennium ago. Same-sex relationships, which will continue to happen and may either be brought into the stabilizing realm of law or continue being consigned to the destructive realm of secrecy and vice, could be viewed the same way without prejudice to what the Church teaches about the sexuality of those reborn in baptism.

A law-gospel distinction is not the only way to think about these things theologically, and even if it is the way one chooses, it doesn't lead to any necessary conclusions. But it does need to be considered, I think, if we are to avoid cramming all of our theology into our transitory and complicated social relations and vice versa. And so you see heroic efforts by "evangelical" theologians to find room for divorce and remarriage within the church's proclamation. This is not a confusion confined to the right, either. A lot of the "peace and justice" advocacy of liberal Christians is done without any firm commitment to true pacifism or to the kind of radical egalitarianism implied in Acts 2. The Church has a long and, I would argue, wise tradition of viewing war as an inevitable evil that may be minimized and constrained but not eliminated short of the return of Christ. The alternatives to that view are, on one hand, a sacralization of any and all wars fought by a friendly power (as one sees on the right in some cases) or a real or implied pacifism that takes no account of the horrific consequences of abandoning armed action in dire cases. The gospel of peace proclaimed to all humanity need not be dissolved into either agenda.

An earlier, and very worthwhile, New Yorker article on the legal challenge to Proposition 8 opens the door to this kind of analysis:

The case has involved some unexpected staking out of positions—as though both sides had been reading up on the work of postmodern academics and come to opposite conclusions. Olson’s team will argue that marriage is a malleable institution, shaped by shifting notions of gender, race, and property, while sexual orientation is innate. And the defendants will likely argue that marriage is immutable, and sexual orientation is a performative act, a chosen identity.

There's a strong case to be made, I think, for the "postmodern" halves of both cases. But for Christians, if not necessarily for others, the malleable quality of both civil marriage and human sexuality is not the aimless evolution of abstract rights and duties. It is, rather, the concrete call to protect and uphold the common good and the preservation of a good, though fallen, creation in all of our laws. This consideration may legitimately lead people to different conclusions. Even so, it is a starting point for a productive conversation where that has typically been so much acrimony and misunderstanding.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 5:11 PM
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