EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Romans 13:1-7 teaches that a Christian has a prima facie duty to obey the government, that the burden of proof rests upon the believer who would defy the magistrate’s directives. This applies even to Christians who find themselves in states who view and treat them as nuisances. (Paul wrote his Romans counsel to those under Roman rule.) And when Christians are fortunate to live where grievances may be redressed through political action, the duty to play by the rules is manifest, especially when obedience does not force one to violate a clear biblical command. Still, it is not an absolute command; there is a time too for a citizen to say “No!” or “Enough!”
Good Christians can and do disagree over when that time has come. Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has presented us all with a fresh opportunity to differ with one another on this issue. By placing a stone Ten Commandments monument prominently in his courthouse, he provoked the ACLU to the point of hyperventilation (a prima facie laudatory outcome). He lost the ensuing court battle, a battle some evangelicals wished he hadn’t fought.
For the following reasons, I’m more sanguine about his effort:
1. System Breakdown. Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks had recourse to political action when she broke the rules by sitting at the front of a city bus. She could have mailed her complaint to the citizens of Montgomery or lobbied for her cause down at city hall. But leaders — who had lost sight of the primacy of righteousness in a critical sector — had corrupted the system. We praise her for her civil disobedience. Judge Moore is a candidate for similar praise.
2. Position of Power. Civil servants have a greater, not a lesser, duty than private citizens to be civilly disobedient when things are wrong. The average citizen who righteously defies the state is likely to be marginalized and forgotten. If, however, one in power is appropriately defiant, things are more likely to get changed.
3. Illegal Order. Our system even teaches disobedience in certain circumstances. Those of us who went through Army officer training were told that some orders were unlawful (e.g., herding POW’s in front of you to clear mines), that they should be disregarded, and that the one issuing them should be reported. Officers and officials are not puppets in our system.
4. Obvious Incongruity. The Supreme Court displays the Decalogue on its own walls yet a lower court denies its display in the Alabama court lobby. Moreover, God “talk” is ubiquitous in our state documents, from the Declaration of Independence to the Star Spangled Banner to presidential inaugural addresses. Suddenly to wince at God “talk” in the Alabama halls of state is absurd.
5. Wedge Busting. Sports Illustrated once ran an article on “wedge busters” in football. When the opposing team returns a punt or kickoff, several of their blockers form a wedge in front of the ball carrier. The first defender on the scene is unlikely to make the tackle. Rather, his job is to throw himself into the wedge, to break it up so that the follow-up defenders can bring the runner down. It’s not pretty, but it’s necessary to change the balance of power. By analogy, a powerful and mobile wedge has formed in defense of those who would strip our public square of Judeo-Christian influence. Judge Moore has sacrificed himself by hurling his body into the wedge. Now more discriminating defenders can pick their way through what remains and make the stop.
6. Instructive Spectacle. The judge has made a spectacle of the left. They love to hide in the shadows of academia, the spin of media, the minutiae of appellate wranglings, and the smug counsels of power. Now they are forced to sweat in the noonday sun as they seek to wrestle a holy document to the broom closet. Everyone could see that the Ten Commandments monument harmed no one. Yes, the display offended a few, but there is no right of freedom from offense.
7. Reason. The judge is defending the court against stupidity. By his opponent’s reasoning, the state should act as though it saw no more merit in the Ten Commandments than in the canons of the Rastafarian “bible,” Kebra Negast (which prescribes dreadlocks, which calls marijuana a “sacred herb,” and which worships the Ethiopian King Silassie I as “Lord of Lords.”). For liberals, it’s six of one, a half-dozen of another. For Judge Moore, there is all the difference in the world. (And, of course, the historical record about our Founding Fathers’ — including the Deists’ — intent regarding religion favors Moore’s actions over Myron Thompson’s judicial findings.)
8. The Referee’s Attention. Many a coach has profitably disputed a bad call by the referee, not supposing that the official will reverse his decision. Rather, he is working toward a favorable outcome on the next close call. If we’re serene when bad calls go against us, the referee may take our interests for granted in the future.
9. The Barney Factor. Back in the midst of the SBC conservative resurgence, a popular inerrantist was playing it coy when it came to public commitments to the cause. He told a visiting evangelist that he was saving his bullet until just the right time. The evangelist retorted that he resembled Deputy Barney Fife who carried his one bullet around in his shirt pocket. In Alabama, “Sheriff Taylor” was in a firefight. Where was Barney?
10. “Public Relations.” Some worry that this is a “public relations disaster.” Folks, the Church, when healthy, is a public relations disaster. Those outside Jesus’ circle hated Him because He so often went cross-grain to the culture; can we expect less when we honor Him and His Scripture?
Mark Coppenger, at [email protected], is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church.