Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Necessity of Alternative

I, once again, got into a little argument about the death penalty this week. There are plenty of people who believe in the death penalty - and usually I have no moral or philosophical beef with their reasoning. The tension usually arises when I speak with Christians about the theological message of such a system.

In respect to those who disagree, I do have a pretty strong stance. I can't see any way to justify killing anyone without violating the core Christian claim that Jesus Christ is Lord. There's a much longer post about that somewhere - maybe I've already written it (you'll have to check). This week, I've become more curious about why and under what circumstances Christians became so assuredly and avowedly supportive of capital punishment.

It used to be a topic on which Christians were either adamantly opposed or seriously conflicted. It's been a relatively recently (recently in a historical sense, not a personal one) that the inverse position arose so strongly.

I wonder if it has something to do with the rise of democracy and the subtle, but definite loss of Christianity as an alternative community.

Early on, Christians were an alternative community by necessity. Their refusal to worship the emperor and the proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord (and thus Caesar is not), led them to be excluded from society and often killed. They had to look out for one another, because no one else would do it.

Ultimately, they grasped onto the notion of God's people - as Paul teaches, Christians are grafted onto the tree of Israel and remain a community "set apart" for a different life - an example to the world of how God created us to live.

This became slightly confused when the empire adopted the faith. It's only slightly confused because, while everyone was baptized from birth, the idea of fervency or serious faith existed mostly in the monasteries. There was still a set apart community. There was also still an empire. They may have been Christian in name, but the empire operated in the same manner it always had: control through coercion and power.

This separation, though, is quite necessary. While Christianity is a voluntary community (meaning the is free entry and exit), society is involuntary. As much as we'd sometimes like to live in the woods, off the grid, that existence doesn't exempt us from the rule of society. Everyone is necessarily involved. Being expelled isn't an option.

Well, expelled from society means killed. Empire has always practiced capital punishment, and no one has ever really objected to it. It is a necessity of societal rule, a requirement of empire. And empire has always been the counterpoint to the Church. Our prisons have "cells" because one of the early forms of societal punishment was for criminals to be sent to the monastery (where monks live in cells). It was thought that the rhythms of service, discipline, and devotion found there could help people to learn the ways of humanity from those dedicated to practicing forgiveness and humility. It was an attempt at reformation.

Of course, this often worked so well because the alternative was the empire. If you didn't learn the rhythms of the monastery, you were sent back into "the real world," and left at the mercy of society, which often meant death. Even before we had formal societies, when we were roving the hills as bands of hunter-gatherers, the threat of expulsion was real and life-threatening. As individual could literally not survive in the wild without the help of a tribe.

I used quotes for "the real world" above, because one of the tenets of Christian practice is that God's way is indeed the real world - the narrative of empire is fantasy. It is love, not coercion that changes the world. Discipline, in Christian practice, is one of sacrifice and patience. It may cost us something, perhaps our own lives and definitely suffering. An angry person may steal or injure or kill; our response is love and self-sacrifice. They may steal or kill again. Our response remains love. We do so in imitation of the God who allowed us to kill him, rather than force change upon us.

It's a strange notion for the world in which we live, but it is the very alternative-ness of the Church that allows it to thrive. You see, Christianity works on the concept of eternity. This life is not the end. If loving people, even difficult people, requires our lives, while it is a difficult and tragic sacrifice, it is not the end of the story. We can have patience because we have literally all the time in the world. We can toil away at seemingly fruitless love of enemies because we have faith that God will bring all things to completion in the end.

Society doesn't have that luxury. It is required to keep the peace now, since now is all it has. We may live 80 years if we're lucky and there is some urgency for society to get those 80 years right for the largest number of people. Society is unwilling to sacrifice for the possible redemption of a criminal. Instead, society locks people away, thinking a few years of dehumanization will suddenly make people more human. If all else fails, we kill them. Time is just too short.

What I fear, though, with the advent of democracy and especially the merging, for many Christians, of the Church and the State at least ideologically (the US as a new Israel, the religious undercurrents ascribed to the founding of the US, etc) is that we've lost (or given away) the Church as an alternative community.

Most people think the notion that society can be perfected (the Social Gospel movement) died out with the horror of WWI, but it remains alive today in the hearts of so many Christians who expect empire to operate on "Christian" principles. We merge the necessity of empire with the hopeful ideology of the Church and produce some bastardized version of life.

This replaces the stark contrast of Empire and Church with what amounts to the deification of sanctified practicality.

There is a real difference between saying "society is justified in executing people" and saying "Christians can and should justify this behavior as right." For many modern, Western Christians, we've ceased to treat our faith as primary and relegated it to one aspect of our lives, thus making the Church and society indivisible in our minds and lives.

Our churches have largely become one thing we do in the midst of our life in the world. We are subject primarily to the structure and authority of the society in which we live; the Church is secondary. It is one aspect of our lives; it no longer defines our lives.

With this comes our own association with the requirements of power. It's not just "them" who have responsibility for peace keeping, now it's us. We're included. We take on this mantle and necessarily revoke our ability to be an alternative.

I am not saying we must divest ourselves entirely from "the system" to be an alternative. Christians can advocate for more human responses to crime, but we must do so from a position of alternative. If we're not offering other ways of being in the world, we have no right to speak to changes in the world around us.

We must reclaim the notion of Christianity as alternative community. Yes, it is difficult to live in a society that willingly asks us to participate, without forgoing our allegiance to Christ - but it is not impossible. The ultimate message of the cross is that the way of the world, the way of empire: violence, coercion, selfishness, is not the way to live. Christ overturns those notions with radical self-giving and proves them in resurrection.

We participate in society, but our allegiance lies elsewhere. That's often been a dangerous position (which is why we've largely abandoned it), but when lived in peace and with patience - it has the power to change the world. The alternative way of Christ may not work out well in the world of empire, but it is the only way to live in an eternity which has already begun.

No comments: