Our Sick Political Culture

The oldest cousin on my mother’s side of the family died last year. This weekend, those of us who could met in a little country cemetery adjoining a family farm just outside Fithian, Illinois. It was a poignant moment. My cousin was born just after the Second World War to an American soldier who married a British citizen. A cousin from Great Britain attended the funeral! That evening, the family had dinner together. Near the end of our dinner, I picked up my cell phone to look at the news, thinking I would learn about the evening’s events in Israel and Gaza. Instead, I learned that former president Trump had been shot. Like many people, I could not say I was shocked, given the vitriol directed towards him over the past decade.

This week, I intended to return to discipleship as the blog’s theme. Saturday evening, I knew immediately that I could not do that. I’m sure that I can’t add anything to the thousands of words written on the Internet, nor can I add anything to what former President Trump and President Biden have said in their respective statements. But maybe I can add something about our very diseased political culture.

The United States of America has a problem with political violence. Four United States Presidents have been assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. In addition, attempts have been made on the lives of Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and now Donald Trump. Presidential candidates have also been targets of assassination attempts. Attempts have been made on the lives of Theodore Roosevelt as a candidate, Robert Kennedy (successful), George C. Wallace (seriously wounded), and now former President Trump.

What does this say about our political culture? What does it say about our national fascination with violence? What does it say about the deluded capacity of Americans to believe that the ends justify the means?

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

In these blogs, I’ve had the opportunity to introduce readers to the notion of the “myth of redemptive violence.” The Myth of Redemptive Violence entails a belief that violence can be redemptive. The term was coined by a liberal Protestant theologian at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Walter Wink. Wink believed that (and provided impressive evidence for his theory) American society was and is deeply impacted by a subconscious belief that violence can be redemptive; that is to say, violence to overcome evil is warranted and even positive. Underneath the plot line of nearly every action movie we might see is this notion that violence can be redemptive. (One need not look any further than the latest James Bond movie to the theory at work.) Wink believed the myth of redemptive violence needed to be demystified to show how deeply misleading it is. For Christians, the myth is contrary to the gospel.

Here is how Wink describes our situation:

No other religious system has even remotely rivalled the myth of redemptive violence in its ability to catechise its young so totally. From the earliest age, children are awash in depictions of violence as the ultimate solution to human conflicts. Nor does saturation in the myth end with the close of adolescence. There is no rite of passage from adolescent to adult status in the national cult of violence, but rather a years-long assimilation to adult television and movie fare. Not all shows for children or adults are based on violence, of course. Reality is far more complex than the simplicities of this myth, and maturer minds will demand more subtle, nuanced, complex presentations. But the basic structure of the combat myth underlies the pap to which a great many adults turn in order to escape the harsher realities of their everyday lives: spy thrillers, westerns, cop shows, and combat programes. It is as if we must watch so much ”redemptive” violence to reassure ourselves, against the deluge of facts to the contrary in our actual day-to-day lives, that reality really is that simple. [1]

Recently, my wife and I watched a television show that exemplifies the problems with the contemporary entertainment industry. The show’s storyline concerns young people who can travel backward in time. Two different groups are attempting to influence the direction of human history. Roughly speaking, one group is portrayed as “bad guys” and the other as “good guys.” The good guys kill just as many people and act irrationally as the bad guys, except they are trying to “protect human freedom.” The bad guys are trying to control the future for their political and economic interests. The bad guys are mere caricatures of the people the media industry dislikes. The show is saturated by human self-assertion and ethical chaos. The characters struggle with the idea that there might be a higher power who controls the future, but of course, there isn’t one active in their plotline, so they must struggle to create a meaningful future all on their own. They have to make choices.

Deep in the moral incoherency of the show is what Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence” – the notion that violence can be redemptive if only the “good guys” defeat the “bad guys.” (It’s not redemptive for bad guys to kill good guys.) The result is a constant replay of a shallow, relativistic philosophy the writers were probably taught in High School and College. In addition, because the show takes the watcher back into history, occasionally, the watcher is treated to a shallow, cartoon version of world history, sometimes distorted.

A society dominated by entertainment reduces complex problems to sound bites and catchy lyrics. Gone are the human race’s fundamental moral and spiritual dilemmas, which are replaced by a simplistic one-hour drama. A media-saturated society allows people to view sex and violence without consequences. News depictions of our politics have become similarly shallow. If politicians often oversimplify complex problems, the media has largely lost interest in educating the public on the facts, which are usually complex and challenging to understand, finding it easier to give opinion pieces and distorted coverage of current events. Complicated problems cannot receive proper attention. They are too complex, and solutions require deep thought and careful weighing of alternatives. It is easier just to decide which side of the cultural divide you are on and download the talking points of your favorite candidate.

Politicians have reacted to the situation by taking advantage of it. By the middle 1970s, politicians noticed that it was much easier to get someone to vote against a hateful opponent than to get people to believe in the policy views of your particular party. Here, we have the genesis of what we have to call “negative politics” and “negative campaigning.” Negative campaigning takes advantage of our natural human fearfulness and anxiety to paint our political opponents as absolute devils who must be stopped at any price. Particular candidates are often described as devils incarnate (frequently using the word Nazi). Naturally, if I am fighting against Hitler, the kind of total warfare in which the United States engaged in the Second World War might be justified on a political level. Truth doesn’t matter if I’m slandering an evil opponent. Love doesn’t matter if I’m slandering an evil opponent. Morality doesn’t matter if I’m slandering an evil opponent. What matters is saving the world from this demon incarnate. After all, I’m saving the world. Therefore, the myth of redemptive violence justifies the intellectual violence in which I am engaged.

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life reading history. Henry Ford thought history was bunk. I believe Henry Ford’s theory is bunk. Those who study history come to see things from an entirely different perspective than those who simply listen to the evening news or their local politicians. As one writer mentioned, taking a long look at history helps avoid repeating it.

Just to give one example, any review of the history of Ukraine reveals that it has long been a battleground, often under partial or complete Russian control. The problems the West is having restraining the Russian invasion of Ukraine is nothing new. On the other hand, both Napoleon and Hitler crossed Ukraine to reach Russia. In particular, the Russians have terrible memories of the German invasion that precipitated the Second World War. After the Second World War, the Russians annexed Ukraine, and it became part of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine became a free nation with a substantial Russian minority population.

The Russians have, therefore, always viewed Ukraine as critical to their national security. When the United States began to do things like place troops in Ukraine and allowing the CIA to conduct operations and develop an extensive network in the country, the Russians warned the West that was a red line. [2] When we began to contemplate allowing Ukraine to join NATO, Putin warned the West that this was a redline. He would not allow Ukraine to become allied with what Russia views as a hostile power. We continued our activities in the Ukraine.

The easy view that the current war in the Ukraine is all Vladimir Putin’s fault is only partially true. The other truth is that the United States and its allies were complicit in what happened there and provoked the war. I have friends who believe that we should stop giving all aid to Ukraine because of the financial and otherwise “dirty history” of our involvement. I don’t subscribe to this view. I do believe we should seek a peaceful solution to the problem, saving the Western economies billions of dollars spent on military hardware. I also think we should learn from the results our arrogance and corruption have created in the Ukraine. We should stop the behavior resulting in costly and unfruitful conflict. In other words, this is not an easy problem to solve.

Closer to home, there’s no question but that our financial system is stressed because of the continuing use of deficit spending at levels that are not sustainable. [3] We are permanently impoverishing not just the next generation of Americans but several generations of Americans. On the left and the right, completely unrealistic proposals are sometimes made. I suspect that, to solve the problem, some kind of a middle solution will have to be found. Taxes will have to rise, and spending must fall in some areas. The question is how to do this wisely and carefully so that the interests of all Americans, particularly the most vulnerable Americans, are protected.

Conclusion

When President Biden and former President Trump urged their supporters to turn down the vitriol, they said the right thing. Of course, the question remains: Will they enforce this among their supporters? In a time of communication over social media, perhaps the more difficult question is, “Will all of us turn down the temperature of the political dialogue in our country?” All I can say is that I continue to get a lot of inaccurate and hateful spam directed against both candidates.

I keep in touch with friends from as far back as high school. In high school, I was a debater. In college, I studied philosophy, political science, and economics. In law school, I studied law. In seminary, I studied oral communication. My long-suffering wife has often reminded me when we are having heated discussions, that physical violence is not the only kind of violence. A knowledgeable person who is also highly trained can use their intellect and vocabulary to dominate another person. It took a long time, but I eventually got the point. There’s a kind of intellectual violence into which people like me can easily fall. The Myth of Redemptive Violence applies to all sorts of violence, of which military violence is only one type. Most of us are not in a position to employ that kind of violence. We are, however, capable of other types of violence. We can deceive. We can slander. We can undermine. We can twist the truth and words. All of this is forbidden to Christians and ought to be abhorred by those who love freedom.

Before I sign off, I will let everyone know that I am in the final stages of completing a book much different than any book I’ve ever written. It’s a philosophy book that outlines a kind of postmodern, constructive political philosophy, Sophio-Agapism. I believe the book will be finished sometime in the next several weeks since I have a draft back from the proofreader. The title is Illumined by Wisdom and Love: Essays on a Sophio-Agapic Constructive Postmodern Political Philosophy. I expect to sell about four copies of the book (if my children agree to buy copies), but it was motivated by a deep concern for our political culture at several levels. At one level, my problem is precisely the kind of politics that produced last weekend’s events—blessings to all.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Walter Wink, “The Myth of Remptive Violence” at https://www2.goshen.edu/~joannab/women/wink99.pdf (downloaded July 16, 2024).

[2] See, for example, Mark Episkopos, “CIA in Ukraine: Why is this not seen as Provocation? Responsible Statecraft (February 27, 2024), Spy War: Who the CIA Secretly Helps Ukraine Fight Russia (February 28, 2024); Greg Millar & Usabelle Khursudyan, “Ukrainian Spies with Deep Ties to CIA Wage Shadow War against Russia” Washington Post (October 23, 2023). The amount of literature on this, both popular and technical, is huge.

[3] See for example, Brian Riedl, “Manhattan Institute, A Comprehensive Federal Budget Plan to Avert a Debt Crisis” Manhattan Institute (June 27, 2024); William G. Gale, “Five Myths about Federal Debt” Brookings Institute (May 2, 2019); James McBride, Noah Berman, &  Anshu Siripurapu “The U.S. National Debt Dilemma” Council on Foreign Relations (December 4, 2023). I have deliberately referenced articles from all sides of the issue.

Presidential Disability and the 25th Amendment

Amidst the recent discussions about the president’s capacity to conduct the office of the presidency, his fitness to be a candidate for office, and the often-exaggerated posts about the role of a vice president, I felt it was essential to return to the legal side of my brain. In this blog, I aim to outline the 25th Amendment and the circumstances under which a President may be removed from office.

I hope that this blog will be helpful to readers as they consider the country’s current situation. As always, I’m trying to be neutral and simply explain how the amendment’s provisions would operate.

Background

By the mid-1960s, several 20th-century several episodes caused Congress to believe an amendment to the Constitution needed to clarify what would happen if a president became incapacitated. After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke during his second term in office and was incapacitated for a good bit of the last portion of his tenure. President Roosevelt, who died in office, had brain cancer and was severely limited during his final years in office. This was particularly apparent in Tehran, where many decisions impacted the world for years. Stalin took advantage of the President’s condition during their negotiations.

After World War II, President Eisenhower suffered a severe heart attack during the latter part of his first term and experienced ill health for part of his second term. During Eisenhower’s presidency, he and President Nixon created an arrangement by which presidential powers would be transferred to the vice president in the case of the president’s infirmity.

In 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated under circumstances in which he might have survived but not been capable of conducting the business of the presidency. In particular, President Kennedy’s assassination was instrumental in persuading Congress that a mechanism was needed to allow a president to resign or be removed and succeeded in office by the vice President. In 1867, Senator Birch Bayh introduced into legislation what has become the 25th Amendment.

25th Amendment

With this brief history in mind, let us look at the amendment:

Section 1. The first section makes it plain that if a president is removed from office or dies or resigns, the vice president becomes president. The term “removal” means that if a president is impeached, the vice president immediately becomes president. This provision was used at least once when President Nixon resigned and Vice President Ford became President.

Section 2. The second section provides that, whenever there is a vacancy in the vice president’s office, the president nominates a vice president who takes office when confirmed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Once again, this provision was used in President Ford’s nomination as Vice president upon Vice President Agnew’s resignation and also when Ford nominated Nelson Rockefeller as vice president.

Section 3. The third section provides that a president may transmit to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives a written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written statement to the contrary, the powers of the presidency will be discharged by the vice president as the Acting President. This provision has been used by Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Biden when temporarily incapacitated due to medical procedures. It has become the standard means to provide continuity of leadership when the president must be under anesthesia.

When President Reagan notified Congress, he used the following language:

 After consultation with my Counsel and the Attorney General, I am mindful of the provisions of Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution and of the uncertainties of its application to such brief and temporary periods of incapacity. I do not believe that the drafters of this Amendment intended its application to situations such as the instant one.

Nevertheless, consistent with my longstanding arrangement with Vice President George Bush, and not intending to set a precedent binding anyone privileged to hold this Office in the future, I have determined and it is my intention and direction that Vice President George Bush shall discharge those powers and duties in my stead commencing with the administration of anesthesia to me in this instance.

I shall advise you and the Vice President when I determine that I am able to resume the discharge of the Constitutional powers and duties of this Office. [1]

After the surgery, President Reagan sent the following notice that he was resuming his duties as President:

Following up on my letter to you of this date, please be advised I am able to resume the discharge of the Constitutional powers and duties of the Office of the President of the United States. I have informed the Vice President of my determination and my resumption of those powers and duties. [2]

This kind of letter has been used five times in recent years. Vice Presidents Kamala Harris, Richard Cheney, and George H. W. Bush have briefly exercised presidential powers under this provision. Interestingly, it is apparent from Reagan’s letter that the the use of the 25th Amendment for temporary incapacity was not assumed when he wrote his letter.

President Biden’s formula for invoking the 25th Amendment has been as follows:

Today I will undergo a routine medical procedure requiring sedation. In view of the present circumstances, I have determined to temporarily transfer the powers and duties of the office of President of the United States to the Vice President during the brief period of the procedure and recovery.

In accordance with the provisions of section 3 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, this letter shall constitute my written declaration that I am presently unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office of the President of the United States.

Pursuant to section 3, the Vice President shall discharge those powers and duties as Acting President until I transmit to you a written declaration that I am able to resume the discharge of those powers and duties. [3]

His formula for resuming office is:

In accordance with the provisions of section 3 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, I hereby transmit to you my written declaration that I am able to discharge the powers and duties of the Office of the President of the United States and that I am resuming those powers and duties. [4]

At this time, it is clear that a president may temporarily give up his powers to undergo routine medical procedures using the 25th Amendment. It is also clear that a president could transfer power for a more extended period if he felt unable to conduct the duties of the presidency. In other words, President Biden might not need to resign from office this close to an election. He might simply turn over his powers to Kamala Harris as acting president and only resume his duties as president if and when he feels able.

Section 4. It is Section 4 that has been most discussed in recent days. Therefore, I’m going to discuss its provisions at length. This section begins by setting out the situations in which a President may be removed due to incapacity:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President. [5]

Section 4 authorizes the vice president and a majority of the president’s cabinet or Congress to decide if the president cannot perform their duties. Note that neither the vice president nor the principal officers of the executive departments can act alone. It requires that the vice president and a majority of the principal officers of the executive departments agree. This decision becomes active upon transmission to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Kamala Harris, for example, cannot act alone but only with the agreement of a significant number of the president’s principal officers.

Despite the preceding, the initial decision is not necessarily final. A president may object to the decision made by his vice president and principal officers. If a president disagrees with the decision made by his vice president and a majority of his principal executive officers, he may transmit to Congress his declaration that he is, in fact, not unable to perform his duties. Under these circumstances, after four days the president resumes his duties unless the vice president and a majority of the principal executive officers continue to believe that the president cannot perform his duties and inform both houses of Congress of their decision.

If the vice president and a majority of the principal executive officers continue to believe that the president cannot perform his duties, Congress is authorized to decide by 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress. Under the circumstances, the vice president continues to exercise the president’s responsibilities.

There are several portions of this particular provision that raise issues and confusion. Rather than the vague language of “vice president and a majority of the principal officers of the president,” I think a better method would be to have the decision made by the Vice President,  Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, and the Attorney General. It is possible that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency should be added to this list, though I do not think it necessary.

This is a much smaller group of people and would likely be able to make the decision in a collegial manner. I question whether, even now, other cabinet members would be willing to overcome the judgment of these four principal cabinet officials. It also seems that, in a nuclear age, the timeframe specified in Section 4 for decision is too long. Finally, the Secretary of State should be tasked with convening the group. Protecting a vice president from being seen as leading a coup against a sitting president is important.

Conclusion

Although the 25th Amendment is an acceptable and workable solution to the problem of presidential succession and incapacity, there remains the question as to what constitutes “inability.” During the Constitutional Convention, John Dickinson raised this exact question concerning the meaning of ‘disability’” and who would be the judge of presidential disability.

The 25th Amendment does not answer the question of what constitutes a disability. Still, it does answer the question of who determines if one exists. Initially, it is the vice president and the principal officers of the executive branch and, if that decision is not accepted, the Congress by a two-thirds vote. One assumes that getting a two-thirds majority would be difficult unless there was a bipartisan agreement concerning the issue. Furthermore, I think it best to leave the decision to the participants rather than attempting to define disability in the Constitution.

I suppose one final word is in order. No law can substitute for restraint and judgment. President Washington exercised great self-restraint when he refused to run for a third term in office, although he would certainly have been reelected. Those privileged to hold the office of president need to exercise self-restraint in running for office and determining when it is in the country’s best interest for them to no longer hold the office. I don’t like age requirements because there are 70-year-olds who can run marathons and who would be capable of exercising the office of the presidency. On the other hand, there are 40-year-olds who could not. No law can completely substitute for wisdom and self-restraint.

I do hope that this little essay is helpful for readers who would like to understand more about the 25th Amendment and how it operates to ensure the continuity of presidential authority during a nuclear age.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] President Ronald Reagan, “Letter to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House on the Discharge of the President’s Powers and Duties During His Surgery (July 13, 1985). This letter indicates that President Reagan had doubts about the applicability of the Amendment to surgeries, but he invoked its provisions in any case. Subsequent Presidents have simply sent the letter and resumed the office by letter.

[2] Ronald Reagan, Letter to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House on the President’s Resumption of His Powers and Duties Following Surgery (July 13, 1985)

[3] Joseph Biden, Letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives on the Temporary Transfer of the Powers and Duties of President of the United States (November 19, 2021).

[4] Joseph Biden, Letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives on Resuming the Powers and Duties of President of the United States (November 19, 2021).

[5] United States Constitution, Amendment 25, Section 4.

Christians in Unstable Times

Unsurprisingly, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the tone of political debate in Washington and how, on important matters, each party’s desire to win the next election often eclipses concern for the national interest. We have seen this phenomenon in debates over the War on Terror, the debate over the Gaza War, Abortion, Tax Policy, the role of the Federal Courts, the Federal Deficit, Social Security Reform, and other issues that profoundly affect the quality of life we and our children enjoy into the next generation and beyond. Both political parties tend to frame the problems in such a way as to win votes from their electoral base but make realistic compromise almost impossible. Much of the time, the facts are distorted in service to a political agenda.

Unfortunately, we Christians can become a part of this regrettable phenomenon. Conservative Christians are often looked at as mere tools of the Republican Party, and Liberal Christians are frequently seen as mere tools of the Democratic Party. To some degree, the charge has been true. Both groups are inclined to reject the policies of the other violently and sometimes resort to actions that border on disloyalty. Amidst all this, the question remains, “How should Christians act as we bring our faith to bear on our decisions as citizens and public servants?”

A Text to Guide Our Meditation

Here is a text from First Peter:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good, you should silence the ignorance of foolish people.  Live as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the ruler God as placed over you (I Peter 2:13-17)

Introduction: Two Visions

A critical aspect of reading the Bible, and history for that matter, is that it gives us a perspective on our lives. There is no more accurate saying than the one that goes, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” Because most people do forget history, the fact is we do repeat it. And, because it is also true that “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” the same kinds of problems occur in generation after generation. So, although Peter’s times and culture were very different from our own, the message of today’s text is as important today as it was in 64 A.D.

The Bible gives two very different and complementary teachings concerning the relationship between people of faith and their governments. I will call these two teachings the “prophetic stance” and the “accommodative stance.” The difference between these two stances is best revealed in the difference between Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple (Luke 20:1-8; Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; John 2:13-22) and his saying, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s” (Luke 20:19-26; Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:13-17).

In the Old Testament, we see both of these stances at work. The prophets of Israel often spoke against the evils of the kings of Israel and Judah and predicted the nation’s downfall as a result of unfaithfulness to God. We see this prophetic voice in the ministries of Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and some of the Minor Prophets.

The lineal descendants of these prophets are seen on the right and the left as we experience harsh critiques from Christian groups on hot-button issues like war, abortion, the definition of marriage, and the like. Many of our younger members do not remember Francis Schaeffer, who wrote books like Pollution and the Human Race, How Shall We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? [1] Schaeffer is widely credited with providing the intellectual “heft” for what has become the “religious right. On the left, prominent Christians have written critiques of American culture and government. I think of William Stringfellow’s book, A Public and Private Faith. [2] And, on the right and the left, ordinary people have participated in abortion and anti-war protests. This is the prophetic stance at work in our time.

On the other hand, in the Old Testament, we also see figures such as Daniel, who serves evil and demented kings for most of his life, trying to make the best of a bad situation. We also see this approach in the Book of Esther as Queen Esther seeks to rescue her people, not by a critique of Persian civilization, but by working within the system for the betterment of the Jewish people.

I call this the “accommodationist approach,” not because it “accommodates” bad ideas or evil actions but because it works within the system as it exists to achieve the common good. Daniel, for instance, worked under Nebuchadnezzar to achieve good government for all the citizens of Babylon. In our own time, we think of the hundreds of active Christians in government and politics.

A problem with this approach today is that we are media-crazy. Protestors on college campuses, in public places, or outside the White House can be seen on television, making good media copy and increasing advertising sales. Hundreds of local, state, and national officials and employees of our governments who go to work each day and quietly labor for the public good just don’t make sensational copy. Quietly working to make things better doesn’t make headlines.

In this blog, I want to focus on the accommodationist approach. [3] During a lot of human history, Christians have had to function in the face of some kind of hostility to their faith and its consequences for public life. This was especially true of the very first Christians. When First Peter was written, there was tension between the church and the Roman establishment. The emperor Nero was hostile to the new Christian faith. He was engaging in periodic persecution, a persecution that would end with Peter’s death. [4]

I Peter was not the only book that noticed the capacity of religious faith to cause some people to take revolutionary positions against those in public authority. Paul relates the same message as Peter in Romans:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. There is no authority except from God, who has instituted those existing authorities. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be in subjection to avoid God’s wrath and for the sake of conscience. Because of this, you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God who attend to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13:1-7).

There is no question but that America is in a post-Christian phase. Christians must learn to relate to our governmental structures in new ways. Robert George, a professor at Princeton University and a world-renowned scholar in the natural law tradition, speaks of a growing tendency of elites to consider themselves the “Brights” and those who continue to defend tradition and religious faith as the “Dims.” [5] This morning’s sermon is about how we can best learn to relate to those in power in this new Post-modern, post-Christian environment.

Mr. Jesus Goes to Washington: Submitting to Reality

Peter begins his teaching by urging his readers to “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instated among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (I Peter 2:13). In modern parlance we might put it, “Submit to national, state and local authorities.”

Submission is not something we Americans are fond of doing, and submission is something that the rebellious ethos of the modern and post-modern world intensely dislikes. The word “submit” means “willing to stand under.” It means to submit oneself to someone else or to subordinate one’s desires and will to someone else or some institutional order. In Latin, the term might be parsed as “submission,” in other words, to regard my personal mission as less important than the public good. [6] In this case, it means to be willing to submit to the institutions of the state as they happen to exist at the time.

We submit not only because social order is in the common interest but because we have a deep faith that God will work in and through all authorities – even those we dislike. As Calvin says in his Commentary on First Peter, we submit to authorities not because we believe them to be infallibly good or acting in our or the national best interest, but because we believe that God is in control of history – “obedience is due to all who rule because they have been raised to that honour not by chance but by God’s providence.” [7] In a democracy, this applies to leaders elected by both political parties.

Doing Good Silences Opposition

Peter goes on to say that as we submit to authorities and do good deeds, we silence those who foolishly oppose God and the Christian faith. “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence ignorant and foolish men” (I Peter 3:15).

No aspect of modern culture so disturbs me as the tendency of the secular elites to make a straw man of some religious celebrity, like Jimmy Bakker or Jerry Falwell, and then discount the views of serious Christian thinkers. There is a lot of hostility to Christianity among certain folks, and a number of those folks are in the media, on college campuses, and active as public servants. Although there is a place to oppose this with strong words, there is also a place for us to respond by being good citizens, quietly active in government and politics, and doing as much good as we can toward others. When we do this, we silence those who oppose the Christian faith.

Respecting Others Silences a Lot of Opposition

 A second way we can silence critics of faith and impact the tenor of public debate in America is by respecting others. Peter goes on to say, “Show proper respect for everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (I Peter 2:17). We have seen growing disrespect for our national and other leaders during the last two Presidencies. I think this culture of disrespect towards authority began in the 1960s with the opposition to Vietnam and the scandal of Watergate. As important as it is to be vigilant in protecting our nation against unscrupulous leaders, we must also respect the leaders God has given to us. When Presidents and Cabinet members are shouted down by college students while giving speeches, when Christians throw things at public officials and publicly disrespect their office, we are participating in the decline of civility in our culture.

On the other hand, as we respect authorities and show courtesy towards leaders, we begin the process of restoring a sense of decency in our public life. A sense of civility and decency towards those who lead us will go a long way toward encouraging a better atmosphere in our national debates over good government.

Conclusion

We Americans have a deeply felt sense that things can be better and that we have a divine mission to fix everything wrong in the world. There is nothing wrong with this optimistic view of life and government. However, it needs to be tempered by a realization that leaders are fallen creatures just as we are; they are finite creatures who make mistakes just as we do. There is no perfect government or perfect leader. We need to remember the insight of the Prophets that only when Messiah comes will there be ideal leadership. In Isaiah 11, we are given a glimpse of this leadership:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. … Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11:1-6).

It does not take too much intelligence to understand that this is not a vision of the world as it is in history but as it will be in the New Heaven and New Earth at the end of history. This is a lovely vision; Christians should always let it guide us as we act in history.

The search for a truthful, just, and life-enhancing community finds its ultimate symbol in the notion of a “Beloved Community.” There is no question but which Josiah Royce, who coined the term, saw in the church, and perhaps in John’s vision of the Heavenly City,” the root and ground of a transcendental vision of a “Beloved Community” as an eschatological realization of the hopes and dreams of all lesser communities. The Christian community looks back through the Scriptures to the beginning of the world. As a community of hope, it looks forward to the end of history and the renewal of all things. Thus, members of the Beloved Community look infinitely backward and forward in time, in both tradition and hope, to a future that encompasses all of humanity and human history. This is why Royce sometimes calls the “Beloved Community” the “Universal Community”—all people are invited to pledge their loyalty to and find meaning and purpose in the Beloved Community. [8]

Throughout history, Christians have worked for progress with wisdom and love.  We seek the vision of the Kingdom of God while remembering that it cannot be fully and finally achieved in this world’s history. We await the return of the Savior. In the meantime, we are called to act in Love to make the best of a fallen world.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] These books are collected in Volume 5 of the Francis Schaeffer, The Collected Works of Francis Shaeffer. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1982. Each of these books was originally published separately.

[2] William Stringfellow, A Private and Public Faith. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962).

[3] What I have called the accommodationist approach could with equal accuracy be called the transformative approach, since it seeks to accommodate social realities while at the same time bringing about transformation for the better in society and government.

[4] Archibald Hunter “Introduction to First Peter” in The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 12 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1957.

[5] Robert P. George, “The Phone Book Test,” an interview in Christianity Today. (June 2006):44-47.

[6] Geoffrey Bromily, ed, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (abridged volume (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 1159

[7] John Calvin, Commentary on the First Epistle of Peter. Tr. Rev. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 81.

[8] See, Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 125