By Wendy Murray:
Amid the backlash that has erupted in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order on the status of refugees who come from hostile countries, I’ve been most perplexed by those who have mentioned the teachings of Jesus as their reason for standing against it.
I found myself embroiled in a Twitter thread with a man who tweeted, “The man said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ And Jesus replied: ‘It is not a Bible issue.’” This gentleman was directly referencing a statement made by the evangelical leader Franklin Graham to The Huffington Post: “It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come. That’s not a Bible issue.”
This episode revealed a lack of understanding about a Christian’s role in society and the role of government as it enacts affairs of state. Many theologians have wrestled with this conundrum, and none has articulated the particulars of it more thoroughly than Saint Augustine of Hippo.
In short, Augustine highlights the existence of two distinct and often opposing “cities” — the City of God, encompassing heavenly beings and the host of saints and angels living in harmony under the direct governance of God; and the City of Man, which exists in real time, on earth, for the purpose of maintaining civil order through fear of pain or punishment and for restraining destructive and barbaric acts of the self-serving.
How glorious it would be if all citizens of the world embodied the tenets of the City of God! But, alas, as Augustine notes, “While those are better who are guided aright by love, those are certainly more numerous who are corrected by fear.”
The overseers of states are left with a conundrum: While some citizens abide under divine governance and higher law of love, most don’t. Most citizens are “wicked men” who stop at nothing to override rights and safety of others if it means benefiting themselves. Thus, governance in the City of Man exists to constrain the barbarians, not to elevate souls of the godly. The latter is the domain of the church.
Christians need to recognize this distinction in the public discussion about the temporary refugee ban. Confusion arises because there’s some conflating of the two cities, each of which has distinct and specific mandates. It is not the mission of the state to be governed by principles of the gospel, as glorious as that would be.
It is the mission of the church, and its adherents, to be governed by the principles of the Gospel. And they are wrong who expect the state to carry this banner. In the City of Man — the worldly order — it is incumbent upon ruling authorities to govern all people, not simply Christian people. And, as already noted, most people do not comport themselves under the guiding hand of God’s grace-filled purposes, but instead are corrupt and self-serving brutes.
Governments exist to restrain such brutes from violating the protections and rights of the non-brutes, the citizens who are doing the best they can to live in peace under the law. It is imperfect, to be sure. But that is the price paid in reckoning with the brutes.
Augustine, in his writings, does allow for Christians to rise up against governments, “to obey God rather than man,” when the law would force them to commit acts of disobedience. This was the case (in today’s context) of the Little Sisters of Poor, who challenged the mandate in Obamacare that required them to facilitate access to contraceptives.
When it comes to today’s temporary ban of some refugees, nowhere in this decree does it simultaneously forbid Christians from obeying the principles of Christian charity that enjoin them to help refugees. By all means, help them! (Ironically, Franklin Graham, through his organization Samaritan’s Purse, stands out as a leader in generosity and aid to refugees worldwide.) God have mercy on us if we don’t help them!
But the confused and in some cases unhinged castigations that this policy is unChristian waves its banner while standing on the wrong hill. Of course the policy is unChristian! Our government — even “under God” — does not exist for the purpose of executing Christian polity. It does not operate under a biblical purview and does not exist to save souls. It exists solely to manage its affairs in the restraint of bad actors for the purposes of keeping peace in the land.
I am nonplussed by cultural critics who summon the name of Jesus in the backlash of this decree, as if Jesus is now our standard-bearer in matters of governance. This, after decades of driving Jesus from the public square and destroying the livelihoods of good citizens who invoked His name in other ways that affronted these same cultural critics.
I’m picturing owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, who were ordered to pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple whose wedding cake they opted not to provide, as dictated by their conscience in obedience to Jesus. In this case, clearly, Jesus was entirely irrelevant.
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