A Context for Love and Mercy

There are so many differing opinions and beliefs. It occurs in the political realm, and also in the theological realm. It must be a consequence of Babel. I’d like to describe something that might be agreeable to people who usually disagree with my own opinions and beliefs. It’s about love and mercy.

Generally, everyone would be in favor of love and mercy, especially at those times when we might be the recipient of them. Even the most legalistic Muslim would joyfully receive mercy from his god rather than damnation for his sins, would he not? It seems to me that all liberals, all conservatives, and the squishy-squashy people in the middle; all Christians, all pagans, and all those conflicted atheists are in favor of love and mercy, in some form, at some time.

The point I’d like them all to consider is that love and mercy don’t exist in a vacuum. Imagine pure anarchy: the lack of rule or law. How could anyone show love or mercy in a context like that? Mercy is unnecessary, because it would be impossible to do wrong. Love is undefined, because there would be no expectations on inter-personal relationships.

In order for mercy to exist among us, there must be the possibility of earning certain, definite punishments. In order for love to exist, there must be some kind of inter-personal behavior considered to be the norm, to make loving behavior distinguishable.

Someone might argue that love and mercy are just nonsense syllables until each of us assigns our own meanings to them. That is nonsense, and is easily demonstrated as false by simply communicating with one another, in any number of languages. No, there is some kind of mutual understanding we have of these two words, and that understanding requires that the things they represent have a context of laws and norms.

I’d like to write more about this later. For now, here is an exercise for the reader. Ask yourself: “What laws and norms exist to provide a context for love and mercy, from where have they come, and how are they enforced?”

Religiously Scrupulous

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, …

So begins the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. Having read about the formation of that amendment, as well as some of the Federalist Papers, I know that the militia was an important priority for the Founders and their generation. It was so important that Congress was given the authority to regulate the militias of the various states, and citizens were obligated by law to report for an annual muster. In the course of setting out these requirements, there was a debate about conscientious objectors. A frequently-used term was “the religiously scrupulous,” designating who were exempted from both the muster and a financial levy toward the common defense. After some discussion, the Founders wisely recognized that protecting the free exercise of religion preempts the need for a well-regulated militia.

Now it is reported that the Senate version of the nationalized health care bill requires everyone with public health insurance to pay monthly into a fund that will pay the cost of abortions. Apparently, the drafters and supporters of this bill consider the free exercise of religion to be less important than the “right” to health insurance coverage, even for abortions. (Though I don’t find that right in the Bill of Rights.) There seems to have been a shift. Whereas the Founders prioritized religious scruples before other important things, our current leadership has chosen new priorities that are not found in the Constitution, and promoted them above the First Amendment.

If you are a Christian in more than name, now is a good time to pray and to exercise your responsibility as a Christian in the kingdom of the Left. That is certainly easier than being prosecuted later under unjust laws for abiding by your religious scruples.

Luther on Living a Holy Life

But the holy orders and true religious institutions established by God are these three: the office of priest, the estate of marriage, the civil government. [See Large Catechism, 4th Commandment, 158, and the Augsburg Confession, Article XVI] All who are engaged in the clerical office or ministry of the Word are in a holy, proper, good, and God-pleasing order and estate, such as those who preach, administer sacraments, supervise the common chest, sextons and messengers or servants who serve such persons. These are engaged in works which are altogether holy in God’s sight.

Again, all fathers and mothers who regulate their household wisely and bring up their children to the service of God are engaged in pure holiness, in a holy work and a holy order. Similarly, when children and servants show obedience to their elders and masters, here too is pure holiness, and whoever is thus engaged is a living saint on earth.

Moreover, princes and lords, judges, civil officers, state officials, notaries, male and female servants and all who serve such persons, and further, all their obedient subjects — all are engaged in pure holiness and leading a holy life before God. For these three religious institutions or orders are found in God’s Word and commandment; and whatever is contained in God’s Word must be holy, for God’s Word is holy and sanctifies everything connected with it and involved in it.

Above these three institutions and orders is the common order of Christian love, in which one serves not only the three orders, but also serves every needy person in general with all kinds of benevolent deeds, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, forgiving enemies, praying for all men on earth, suffering all kinds of evil on earth, etc. Behold, all of these are called good and holy works. However, none of these orders is a means of salvation. There remains only one way above them all, viz. faith in Jesus Christ.

For to be holy and to be saved are two entirely different things. We are saved through Christ alone; but we become holy both through this faith and through these divine foundations and orders. Even the godless may have much about them that is holy without being saved thereby. For God wishes us to perform such works to his praise and glory. And all who are saved in the faith of Christ surely do these works and maintain these orders.

(AE 37:364-365)

Note that neither the three broad categories (churchly, domestic, and civil) that Luther describes, nor the examples he gives, are meant to be mutually exclusive. Our church Treasurer supervises the common chest, but also holds other churchly responsibilities, as well as responsibilities in the other categories.

Government: Not Evil, but Fallen

I was just looking at reports of today’s rally on the west lawn of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. One attendee was quoted as saying that it now seems the government has become evil.

I’m glad to see eyes opening to the possibility of evil, even in our own country. Yes, it can happen here. At the same time, I caution anyone who cares to read this against thinking that any government is evil in a civil sense. Governments are gifts from God, to benefit the lives of their citizens in this fallen world. The American system of government is no exception, and neither is the current (or any prior) slate of elected officials.

Government can become twisted in service to evil, until it seems to be inextricably bound to it. Certain 20th Century examples spring to mind, and perhaps present-day Persia. Yet even there, the government as such has certain divinely-assigned responsibilities, which make it a blessing to its people, and even to neighboring nations.

While a government is not intrinsically evil, it is certainly part of this fallen world. That means that it can make mistakes, like the rest of us. The difference is that when I make a mistake, it affects fewer people. I just finished reading a history of the Great Depression called The Forgotten Man, by Amity Schlaes. The disregard of F.D.R. and many of his advisors for the tremendous negative influence of government mistakes is astounding. That disregard was probably induced by the politics of the crisis, but I would rather have a President willing to be denied reelection as the cost of doing the smallest possible harm to others. The governing philosophy of Coolidge might have helped Americans much more, though they would have missed the hollow comforts in F.D.R.’s fireside chats.

Please do not think that government is evil, even when it has done evil. In a spiritual sense, it is no more evil than you or I am evil. (We are all condemned sinners in a world destined for destruction.) Christians who have the forgiveness of sins can appreciate that Christ’s redemption has also provided us a sanctified use of the government. Christians can serve as elected or appointed officials, as bureaucratic employees or soldiers. Whether we do or not, we must also hold our fallen government accountable, so that it does less harm, and promotes the only kind of justice for which God has made it responsible. That’s not “social justice” or “media justice” (which are really different kinds of injustice), but the punishment and suppression of evils that threaten the lives and property of its citizens.

Christians can also take comfort that we are citizens of a better and perfect government. It’s a monarchy, but only subjects of this King are ever truly free. Thanks to the blood and death of our risen Lord, we will enjoy this freedom for eternity. All earthly governments will go the way of Rome, into mere history. Our Lord and King lives forever.