Peter and the other apostles replied: "We ought to obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29)
Should government abide by the same rules as the rest of us? Ask any random sample of the human race, and you’re likely to get 100 percent agreement with the proposition that it should. Even politicians who so obviously don’t believe it — witness their eagerness to fleece taxpayers to protect their pals on Wall Street from the consequences of their own bad business decisions, many of which were encouraged or even demanded by those same politicians — still give lip service to it, knowing that it’s the required answer.
When it comes time actually to apply this belief, however, it rapidly becomes apparent that very few people truly believe that all governments, and all persons in those governments, at all times must be subject to the same laws as the people they rule. Democrats will excoriate Republicans for minor infractions while excusing vast crimes by members of their own party, and vice versa. Individuals will gripe about Congress’s pork-barrel spending but reelect their own congressman on the basis that he brought home the bacon. Americans will mercilessly berate foreign governments for their transgressions while excusing, and sometimes even praising, their own government for doing the same or worse. Practically everyone is willing to permit the government to engage in all kinds of practices that he would never accept from a private individual, organization, or business.
This is nothing new, of course, but it was brought home to me recently after a column was posted here at LRC in which I criticized Christians for lionizing Lt. Col. Oliver North and, by extension, the U.S. military and the federal government. It seemed obvious to me that a man who has voluntarily murdered innocent people in horrific ways, violated constitutional laws, participated in a cover-up of his and others’ crimes, armed both sides of a war, and supported aggressive wars against other countries should be a pariah. Apparently it seemed obvious to most LRC readers, too, because the response was overwhelmingly positive.
However, two people, both acquaintances of mine and both Christians, took umbrage at my assertions. Their criticisms were not that I had the facts wrong or even that I had interpreted them incorrectly. They were angry because I had indirectly insulted their idol, Ronald Reagan, and directly condemned two more idols, North and the U.S. military. Thus, though I repeatedly requested substantive points of disagreement rather than invective, I received none. I was simply told that I shouldn’t shoot the messenger (North) because he was just following orders — one told me this after I had just replied that it was an unacceptable defense — and that I shouldn’t criticize a veteran because of the great debt I supposedly owe to the American soldier. Also, so I was told, U.S. intervention in Vietnam, no matter how brutal and lethal toward civilians, was justified because the communists killed lots of people there, too.
Clearly these individuals do not apply the same rules to government as they do to everyone else. They would never accept such justifications for a private citizen to engage in the same practices. If an accountant lied on a client’s financial report and was later tried for fraud, would this be excusable on the basis that his client had ordered him to do it? If the same accountant shredded the books and lied about his actions, would this be excusable on the same basis? If I drove a tank into South Central Los Angeles and started blasting away indiscriminately, would that be acceptable since I’m certain to kill a few gang members who probably have committed or will commit crimes? If I sold machine guns to both the Crips and the Bloods but did so in order to make money to send to alleged freedom fighters in Georgia, would that make everything okay?
That the government should be bound by the same laws — immutable laws of God (or nature, for the irreligious among us), not the made-up "laws" of the state — as the rest of us is the central libertarian insight, which is why those of us who take libertarianism to its logical conclusion reject the state completely. It is an institution founded on violence and owes its very existence to theft, which it euphemistically calls taxation.
Christians should thus be among the most vocal opponents of the state because we believe that God makes the rules and that no one, regardless of his exalted position by virtue of birth or of hoodwinking enough people into voting for him, has the authority to modify, abolish, or flout those rules. The Bible makes no distinction between the ruler and the ruled, and neither should we.
The prime example of this is the case of David and Bathsheba (II Samuel 11, 12). King David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. When she informed him that the act had resulted in pregnancy, David had Uriah sent to the front lines of a battle so that he would be killed and David’s sin would go undetected.
In any other culture of the day, or throughout most of human history for that matter, David’s actions would have been considered unremarkable. Kings, often considered gods themselves, took whatever they wanted and bumped off whichever citizens they wanted, and that was that. In Israel, however, the king was considered a servant of God and therefore answerable to Him. Thus, God first prodded David into condemning himself through the prophet Nathan and then punished him for his sins. Now this was something different: a king judged by the same laws as the people he rules!
Even foreign kings were not exempt, as demonstrated when God removed Nebuchadnezzar from power in Babylon and drove him into the wilderness, where he lived with the animals and "ate grass like cattle" until he acknowledged the Lord’s dominion over the whole earth (Daniel 4).
Think of the Ten Commandments or any other laws in the Old Testament. Do any of these feature exceptions for rulers? Is it "You shall not murder" or "You shall not murder unless ordered to do so by your government"? Is it "You shall not steal" or "You shall not steal unless you dub it taxation"? Clearly God did not consider there to be any exceptions to His laws, and neither should Christians today.
The New Testament makes no distinction between the rulers and the ruled either. All have sinned, writes the Apostle Paul (Romans 3:23), and are in need of God’s grace. The path to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is the same for all: "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Officials such as Nicodemus (John 3), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), and the jailer of Paul and Silas (Acts 16) must come to God through His Son just the same as ordinary people. Even Romans 13, much abused by conservative Christians during the George W. Bush presidency (though, strangely, they hardly mentioned it at all during the previous eight years), establishes that rulers exist to serve God, not to be gods.
The state, however, invariably sets itself up in opposition to God, sometimes blatantly as when emperors claim to be gods or when governments persecute Christians, but often more subtly. Perhaps the state’s greatest conceit is that it makes laws rather than simply codifying preexisting notions of right and wrong. Any entity that creates law is, by definition, a god; and since there is only one God, all the other "little gods" known as governments are false gods who become idols when people grant that these gods can expiate sins — or, worse, redefine sins as patriotic duties — by fiat.
Hence, while everyone would agree that lying is sinful (it’s right there in Exodus 20), when the president lies to us about the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussein and is plainly demonstrated to have fabricated the entire scenario, there are those who will blame it on an "intelligence failure" or claim that it’s not a lie since other governments believed it, too — or perhaps they agree with Richard Nixon that "when the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal" or unethical, at least as long at the president is a member of their preferred political party. "You shall not covet" is plainly stated in that same chapter; yet the state thrives on covetousness, promising to rob Peter to pay Paul, in turn violating the commandment against theft. How many Christians participate in this, whether they’re on the left, represented by the likes of Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, or the right, which supports President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative? Worst of all, how many can be suckered into cheerleading for the murder of innocent people under the guise of liberation (Iraq), stopping genocide (Serbia), or preventing the spread of godless communism (Korea, Vietnam, and various lesser interventions) despite the fact that murder is explicitly prohibited (Exodus 20:13) while making peace (Matthew 5:9, James 3:18) and loving your neighbor (Mark 12:31) are explicitly praised?
Embracing the state’s commandments when they directly conflict with God’s commandments is idolatry, pure and simple. Claiming that sin isn’t sin if the government, or a member of one’s political party, commits or orders it is merely a manifestation of this idolatry. Ultimately the problem boils down to the acceptance of, and desire for, a visible ruler, just as the Israelites’ waywardness in the Old Testament was frequently attributable to their desire to have gods they could see. In fact, their demand for a human king "like all the other nations" (I Samuel 8:20) was bluntly condemned by God as a rejection of Him (I Samuel 8:7) and, therefore, idolatry. Once a person has rejected God as his king, redefining sin to accommodate the state’s priorities is simply a natural consequence.
So which is it, Christian friend? Do you stand with the prophets of the Old Testament and the martyrs of the New Testament, including our Savior, in affirming that "as for me and my household, we will worship the Lord" (Joshua 24:15) and "serve Him only" (Luke 4:8)? Or do you stand with those who used the government to violate Scripture by putting to death the blameless King of Kings as they affirmed their loyalty to "no king but Caesar" (John 19:15)? There is no middle ground, for you cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). Choose wisely.
Michael Tennant [send him mail] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.