Monday, August 26, 2013

My Reflections on the Worst of the Worst- "Under God" 4

On January 21, 1776, Peter Muhlenberg preached from his pulpit that it was time for Virginians to get involved in the war. After his closing prayer, he removed his vestments (presumably he was Anglican) and announced that he was joining the ranks. On his way out of the church he gave an implicit challenge to his congregation: "if you do not choose to be involved, if you do not fight to protect your liberties, there will soon be no liberties to protect." (21) Three hundred men from his church consequently joined the military struggle against the British (20-22).

This story of course raises important questions. Was Muhlenberg right to preach war and revolution from the pulpit? Was he right to encourage his congregation to follow his example and go kill redcoats?  Was it truly, as Muhlenberg said quoting Ecclesiastes 3 "A time of war"? Was this the Christian thing to do?

Let's consider for a moment the alternative perspective presented by the preacher Jonathan Boucher. Boucher was an ardent supporter of the rights of the colonies. He argued that Britain had no right to treat the American colonists as anything less than full citizens, that the Stamp Act was an illegal and tyrannical act imposed on innocent civilians, and that George Washington was a pretty swell guy (the two were good friends).

And yet, Boucher preached obedience to the government of England and submission even to tyrannical laws. He preached the following (while wearing pistols openly, since as we got closer to revolution his preaching became increasingly unpopular) in 1775:
Obedience to government is every man's duty, because it is every man's interest; but it is particularly incumbent on Christians, because (in addition to its moral fitness) it is enjoined by the positive commands of God; and, therefore, when Christians are disobedient to human ordinances, they are also disobedient to God. If the form of government under which the good providence of God has been pleased to place us be mild and free, it is our duty to enjoy it with gratitude and with thankfulness and, in particular, to be careful not to abuse it by licentiousness. If it be less indulgent and less liberal than in reason it ought to be, still it is our duty not to disturb and destroy the peace of the community by becoming refractory and rebellious subjects and resisting the ordinances of God. However humiliating such acquiescence may seem to men of warm and eager minds, the wisdom of God in having made it our duty is manifest. For, as it is the natural temper and bias of the human mind to be impatient under restraint, it was wise and merciful in the blessed Author of our religion not to add any new impulse to the natural force of this prevailing propensity but, with the whole weight of his authority, altogether to discountenance every tendency to disobedience.
Shortly after delivering this sermon Boucher fled to England, fearing for his life.

So, on the one hand we have the Reverend Muhlenberg, preaching revolution and joining the Continental Army--and encouraging his flock to do the same. On the other hand we have the Reverend Boucher, preaching submission to the governing authority and obedience to even unjust laws, then fleeing for his life to the country which he believed the Bible had commanded him to obey. Who was right?

The short version is, I don't know. I do know that at the end of the day we as Christians should not be thinking in terms of "this preacher supports America (or, for that matter, Britain) therefore he is right." If that's our category for "good preaching," we've already gone off the rails somewhere. Rather we should be asking questions like "does this preacher clearly and faithfully exposit the Scriptures in a Gospel-centered and Christ-focused way?" Anything else and we run the risk of making idols of politics and country. And while that may be the way our civil religion demands we operate, for those who embrace the true religion of the cross that can never be more than a shallow and sinful substitute.

As a brief concluding aside, I think this whole question brings up an important point--and one which I like to think both Muhlenberg and Boucher would agree on. In any given war, a Christian always has more in common with a Christian on the other side of the lines than he does with other citizens of his own nation. The forgiveness that comes through the blood of Christ creates a bond that we share which transcends anything like national or cultural boundaries and ties us together a family tighter than anything found in the world. Which in a sense adds yet another level of tragedy to war, as you may very well have a Christian trying to kill another Christian in combat. The tragic result of the reality of sin in the world is that two people who have been reconciled to God and forgiven for their rebellion against him may find themselves locked in a mortal struggle-- possibly even with an ethical obligation to pursue that struggle to its bitter end. Such a circumstance is deplorable and can only leave us with the cry "come, Lord Jesus!" as we long for the day when there will be no more war.

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