Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part VII of VII)

26 Nov
Flacius, at Madgeburg, 1550 (essentially): Give us the liberty to preach the Gospel in its purity or give us death!

Matthias Flacius Illyricus, at Madgeburg, 1550 (essentially): Give us the liberty to preach the Gospel in its purity or give us death!  Read more here.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

Again, this series is wrapping up with tough questions about Romans 13 – I asked yesterday: “So if what Bonhoeffer did was not righteous, was it really the ‘lesser of the two evils’”? 

Pastor Holger Sonntag, writing in the afterward of “Christians Can be Soldiers”, a modern translation of “Whether or not soldiers to, can be saved”, says that Luther

“points out in historical detail that God has many tools at his disposal to bring a tyrant’s life to a quick end. Christian subjects therefore can confidently leave all such things to God’s direction, not because they do not care about injustice committed by their superiors, but because they believe in Him who is the living Author and eternal Guardian of all law and justice. Without this transcendent, metaphysical anchor and reference of the legal order – which, it needs to be said, in Luther is by no means a dead philosophical abstraction but the living God himself who is actively present in his creation – Luther indeed must be misunderstood as a naïve political amateur and puppet in the hands of the mighty.” (Sonntag, Afterward, Christians Can be Soldiers)

...but not rebels.  Click on book to read more.

…but not rebels. Click on book to read more.

In other words, such killing of tyrants is to be left to unbelievers – or to those who oppose them in war.  Whatever is not done in faith is mortal sin (Rom. 14:23) and taking out one’s authority – established by God (Romans 13) – is sin.*

OK then.  And so what should we think of the American Revolution and what should we think about resisting government today? 

I’ll try to keep this simple, starting with the Revolution: even as I admire representative democracy as much as the next man, I do not think I would have fought for the American Revolution in the first place – every time I read or hear about details of the war, it seems to me that it was not justifiable.  It is one thing for a country to justly take up arms vs those who would invade them, taking their life, liberty, and possessions (there was a reason they were called, and called themselves, colonies and “colonists).  As a matter of fact, I would even hope that in the event of a foreign invasion, persons in my country would be willing and eager to fight to the death in order to preserve religious freedom – that we might worship in our chosen houses of worship, our homes, and in appropriate public venues (and that if, hypothetically, giving up these were terms of surrender we Americans would steadfastly resist – I must admit that this seems highly unlikely though, seeing as how we are gradually giving it up willingly).**  That said, again, it is another thing to rebel against those who have some legitimate claim to rule us.

Jonathan Mayhew's famous 1750 sermon.  See full text here.

Jonathan Mayhew’s famous 1750 sermon, veering towards rebellion.  See full text here.

As an old Australian theology professor of mine once said: “it began in blood and it will end in blood”. 

But what if one suspects, as a few evidently did leading up to the American Revolution, that the governing authorities were trying gradually, through baby steps, to silence the preaching of what is believed to be the true(r) faith?  Leading up to the American Revolution, there was talk about getting Anglican bishops into all of the colonies, and of course, as many of the colonists probably believed (remember Mayhew from part V), Roman Catholicism could not be far behind!  (of course, George Washington was officially an Anglican to)***

Well, if the government is trying to gradually take freedom away, it seems to me that this means that there indeed remains freedom to explicitly preach the Gospel now, privately and publicly, so that would-be persecutors would be turned into friends of Christ.  Luther said that before one attempts to rule in a Christian manner – something I would argue has, relatively speaking, prevailed in America throughout its history (I would say that the fact that many Christians believe this is a “Christian nation” implies this) – one should first make sure one’s land is filled with Christians – or at least those who want to be identified as such.  There is a corollary here that would apply to those trying to create overtly non-Christian nations as well.  It would not make sense to legally crack down on Christians too early, removing too many of their freedoms, when their numbers are still sufficiently strong.

No Bill, but I understand what you are saying.

No Bill, but I understand what you are saying.

No doubt, for the Christian it seems strange to think this way at all – and, attempting to be ever dove-like, it should.  But then again, perhaps if we viewed children more as a blessing (see here) and truly embraced our freedom to proclaim the Gospel in this land via the avenues available to us, such thoughts would not even enter our minds. 

In my mind, it is difficult to envision another situation like Magdeburg in 1550, where the Emperor’s Roman Catholic armies, in concert with the Pope’s wishes, attempted to stifle Lutheran resistance to Roman Catholic impositions on their worship (the life-giving doctrine of Luther was next!).  This was surely an unjust invasion, and this was a just war of resistance by any measure.****  And yet, might the explicitly religious nature of this conflict have something to teach us today?  What if the governing authorities attempt to remove not just any freedom, but the freedom to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  Or, more generally, what if they were to try and take our Christian Scriptures as was done in Rome in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries?  And what might it mean, for example, that the laws outlawing homeschooling in Germany today were first established during the Nazi regime?  If this is taken away from us here, what might be next?

The Magdeburg siege, 1550

The Magdeburg siege, 1550

When it comes to those who have some legitimate claim to rule us – which yes, was not even the case in Magdeburg  – should we ever take up arms to fight?  Again, peaceful resistance is always an option.  But what about something beyond this?  Perhaps if there were sufficient numbers in one place to make a go of it?

I suspect that individual consciences may vary here.  My initial reaction is to think that I should instead be willing to be imprisoned or die.  But then I think of my young children – the young children – and ponder what is most valuable: their bodies or their souls?  And so I think: of course one should be willing to fight to make sure the Gospel is able to be proclaimed – especially for the sake of the little ones!  As Jesus said, “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36).  That said, we are not Magdeburgers, but Magdeburgers are still spread throughout this great nation – in our individual vocations, we are “God’s masks” here and abroad, always prepared to share the hope within us, speaking the “oracles of God” (see I Peter).  Here is where we are, contra Mangalwadi (see part IV), the “poor, meek, and righteous” who also reign and administer a Kingdom!  So perhaps we can thank God that we are not all in one place, and pray for strength to glorify and proclaim Him boldly.

At least that is the way I think today.  Nevertheless…. all uncertainty gives way to certainty about God’s current reign in the world through the gifts He gives His Church – the forgiveness, life and salvation we have with Christ!  And not only this, but also in the knowledge that God will use all evil for good for the sake of His children!

All this said, if you find yourself asking “then now what?” (or thinking more caustically: “those Lutherans are so defeatest….”) after all this, I direct you back to my series about “How God becomes King in man”.  If you would be so kind, wrestle with that and let us soberly discuss these matters.


*One wonders if Bonhoeffer would disagree with any of this.

Here is a thought-experiment (imagined scenario) developed in order to look closely at Luther’s view: government agent reveals evil intentions and tries to kill your innocent neighbor, and you, defending him, are forced to kill government agent.  Here is the twist: you have a fairly innocuous view of the government. As with Luther’s experiences with agents representing the Pope – you think the agent may not have been properly representing the government, but rather been a rogue of sorts.  Eventually, you find out the truth, but even at this point you do not advocate violent overthrow of the government, for as an old school Lutheran, you believe that that can only compound sin and make things worse.  The analogy that Bonhoeffer used about needing to kill a crazy man driving a vehicle in an out-of-control fashion who is killing others is therefore deeply flawed in that it ignores the consequences created by rebellion.

Try this one: “Recognized or not recognized, a man has his superiors, a regular hierarchy above him; extending up, degree above degree; to Heaven itself and God the Maker, who made His world not for anarchy but for rule and order! It is not a light matter when the just man can recognise in the powers set over him no longer anything that is divine; when resistance against such becomes a deeper law of order than obedience to them; when the just man sees himself in the tragical position of a stirrer up of strife! Rebel without due and most due cause, is the ugliest of words; the first rebel was Satan.” (Thomas Carlye, Chartism, 1840)

** How eager am I to defend this nation today?  I do sometimes think in the following way: what sense does it make to fight for the political liberty of a nation that not only does not respect religion, but basic morality in general?  We are a nation that certainly does oppress others, as we are ever profligate with our destructive “freedom” in so many ways (today, I think of this: we print as much money as we want, secure that our standing in the world and ability will remain).  And yet we also do so much good as well, still leading this or that battle informed, in part, by notions of justice and human dignity (note the outrage over the supposed “warrior culture” of the NFL or the fight to overcome sex slavery – even by many on the left).  America seems to be a nation of the bests and the worsts.   But I see a day, increasingly seeming inevitable, when not much positive will remain at all – unless God leads us in bold preaching that somehow, in His time, will lead many to Christ and the kind of virtue only He makes possible.  Even then, note that this does not mean all we might call virtuous on earth will tolerate Christian preaching.

***As I said in a footnote in part V: “That said, to say that the American Revolution was largely about religious freedom would seem to be an absurd argument.

Perhaps one can argue that for many colonists who fought, they could not separate these notions of Church and State in their mind, and fighting for religious liberty had to go hand in hand with political liberty.  I grant that that may have been the case – even as I doubt that many thought this way – and yet I think that would have been wrong in their judgment.”

**** Specifically, those defending the city only had to agree to worship in the Roman manner, while being able to presumably keep their doctrine, but they firmly believed that to do so would be to compromise the Lutheran faith, which they believed was in strict accordance with the true Christian faith on earth

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