SOME pertinent questions which have arisen in the discussion of this subject are considered in the Christian Work, of January 16, by President Merrill Gates, of Amherst College. The attitude of “a few very earnest and well-meaning persons,” who affirm “that in proportion as a man is interested in the building up of the Church of Christ, in just that proportion he will hold aloof as far as possible from all civic and political relations” is discussed, together with the oft-quoted words, of our Saviour, “Render therefore unto Cesar the things which are Cesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s;” and the conclusion if drawn that “the whole spirit of the teaching of Christ is directly against the ignoring or the evasion of this responsibility divinely laid upon each citizen to see to it, so far as in him lies, that in proportion as the Spirit of Christ dwells in him, the life of the community in which he lives shall be cleaner, more law-abiding and nobler.”
This conclusion touches a point which needs to be carefully considered in the light of both reason and revelation, if we would avoid confusion and error.
The vital question is, By what means is the Christian to discharge this responsibility to elevate the community in which he lives? There can be no doubt that the responsibility exists; but the methods advocated by some for accomplishing the desired result are open to serious question.
In the first place, it should be noted that no one who really possesses the Spirit of Christ will be inclined to ignore or evade this responsibility. The whole tendency of the life of Christ on earth was to elevate, ennoble, make more law-abiding and peaceful, the community which was favored with his presence. No person ever accomplished more in this direction than did he; and as he did, so also his professed disciples may and should do. “He that believeth on me,” said Jesus, “the works that I do shall he do also.” John 14:12. The Spirit of Christ never lies dormant in any person. If it is possessed at all, it will control the life of its possessor in harmony with the will of God. And he who walks not as Christ walked, gives evidence by his life that the Spirit of Christ is not in him.
It is not law, nor the enforcement of law, that preserves order and peace in this world, so much as it is the love of order and peace which is implanted in the minds of the vast majority of the people. In other words, the people generally, in this country at least, prefer to live peaceably and orderly rather than to lead the lives of criminals. And this natural preference is due to the restraining influences of the Spirit of Christ, which are felt more or less fully in every heart. Were the Spirit of Christ withdrawn from the earth, law would be a mockery, and enforcement of law a meaningless phrase.
Yet civil government, with its legislative, judicial, and executive departments, is a necessity in this world, and Christians are bound to conduct themselves consistently with its proper maintenance. “The powers that be are ordained of God,” and all earthly power that is exercised to secure justice and preserve human right, should have the support of every lover of justice and humanity. They should refuse to support only such exercise of civil power as is contrary to right, and a perversion of the power ordained of God.
No universal rule can, however, be laid down defining the duty of individuals in this respect. What course of action will, in any particular case, meet the requirements of truth and justice, is to be determined by an enlightened and conscientious judgment from the circumstances of the situation. The Christian has before him not only his own rights and those of others like himself, but the rights of God,—His right to be properly represented before his creatures here, and to have their loving service throughout all ages. The Christian’s outlook is a vastly wider one than that of her men, and considerations drawn from it must often oblige him to refuse support to things which seem quite proper from a narrower point of view.
The danger of the prevailing idea of Christian citizenship lies in the common tendency to exercise power, when it is secured, not simply for the maintenance of human rights, but for the advancement—as it is deemed—of Christian customs and institutions. The plea that such institutions should have the support of legislation is a very plausible one, and appeals strongly to the uninstructed mind. The project of making Christianity, in fact as well as in name, the “common law of the land,” seems most laudable to very many who do not know or do not stop to consider that Christianity is a life, and not a form of words. We would that all our legislators, judges, and executives were Christians both in name and in truth. But were they such, it would not follow that we would have laws upholding and enforcing religious doctrines. On the contrary, this is just what we would not have; but every person would be left free to be religious or irreligious, as his own judgment might determine; for the Christian spirit is the spirit of love, and Christian teaching is that all persons must be drawn to God and Christianity by love, or not at all.
In no way can we do more for the good of the community in which we may live than by setting before it the example of a life in which is manifested the power of God unto salvation. This we should do, and we should advocate and support such exercise of the civil power as God has ordained for the preservation of God-given rights.