May 26, 2005

Does Compassion Require Theocracy?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:33 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot about separation of church and state lately. Among the Christian right, pluralism, tolerance and diversity are bad words, but for the rest of us they are to be embraced. But why? Isn’t this abandoning our religious convictions?

I read an essay a few years back by David Vessey in a book called The Simpsons and Philosophy: the D’oh of Homer. The essay revisited the Simpsons episode where Bart, Lisa and Maggie become foster children of Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ next-door neighbor and an evangelical Christian. Ned discovers that the Simpson kids haven’t been baptized, so as a good Christian, he sets out to baptize them with or without Homer’s and Marge’s permission.

The essay asks whether Ned, a Christian, instructed to love his neighbor as himself, is “morally required to baptize everyone out of love, for the sake of saving their eternal life”, even if it requires the use of force or fraud. The essay goes on to answer the question via Kant, which was much less interesting to me than the question itself.

I believe the answer is clearly “no”. But if a Christian believes that only baptized Christians are saved from eternal damnation, it’s not so easy. If this is true, then it could be perceived that compassion requires a Christian to act to save someone from an eternity in hell, Kant notwithstanding. Prayer in schools, Christian symbols in public spaces and turning the US into a “Christian nation” are ways to show our Christian love to unbelievers by saving their souls. Dominionism becomes a Christian obligation.

Think of another situation – depression leading someone to contemplate suicide. Of course you would try to prevent them from acting on their suicidal impulse, even if it took physical force. You would get them treatment, even if it required their involuntary confinement to protect them from themselves. Would you save someone’s physical life, only to allow them to throw away their eternal life? For a conservative Christian, this reasoning would lead you to believe that embracing diversity is tantamount to throwing everyone’s souls into the hellfire.

The problem is with the belief that the unbaptized will all be condemned. This turns God’s grace into law. Jesus provides a way to become reconciled with God where before there was none — this is God’s grace. If we flip this around to say that those that haven’t been baptized, or “made a decision for Christ”, or been “born again”, or received the gift of tongues are condemned, we have turned this into a new law, a new works righteousness. It’s grasping defeat from the jaws of victory.

Jesus said that no one reaches the father but through him, that he is the truth, the way and the life. So let’s leave Jesus in charge of who’s in and who’s out, and follow his example by being a servant to others. Part of this is by making disciples of all nations, but we are to do this by proclaiming the good news (aka God’s grace), not by negating the good news by turning it into law.

This is why freedom, both political and religious, is an important part of God’s plan. God has given us free will; who are we to take it away?


  1. Very insightful.

    Comment by Dr. Mike Kear — May 26, 2005 @ 6:21 pm

  2. I was listening to an interview with Helen Prejean, the nun who wrote Dead Man Walking. She was asked if God could forgive all of the people she had ministered to on death row, murderers and rapists etc. She said something quite wonderful along the lines of: Of course he could, not that there wouldn’t be a very serious conversation first.

    Not only are we not the final arbiters of who is in and who is out (and how could you tell anyway?) but who are we to say that omn that last day, amid the kneeling and confessing there won’t also be a fair bit of forehead slapping when Christ is revealed? I’d like to hope for a last day when we are encouraged to go “Oh! That’s what that meant, thanks for the tip, and the forgiveness Lord.”

    who are we to say that this world exists only as a test?

    ha’penny worth of a Lutheran’s thoughts

    Comment by sermonatorAK — May 27, 2005 @ 12:32 pm

  3. amen. i’ve only seen a tiny bit of one simpson’s and ned flanders was talking about just getting back from christian camp where they learn to be more judgemental…

    the story about the wheat and the tares always comes to mind in this kind of thing – that jesus says it’s the job of the angels to do that, not ours. who are we to ever assume the job and work of the holy spirit??

    great post!

    Comment by bobbie — May 27, 2005 @ 2:34 pm

  4. I’d also argue that “pluralism, tolerance and diversity” are important to the degree that we are convinced that God is able to speak to us, convict us through the other, through difference. Otherwise our ways of acting, thinking, etc. which has been shaped by our history, prejudices becomes absolutized…we need folks who are different to expand our world, perspective, and the sense of God’s doings, in our lives. So we can still be surprised by God.

    Comment by Dwight — May 28, 2005 @ 7:54 am

  5. Great post. And thanks for all your other postings, I am learning a great deal about myself and where I am in regard to God.
    Baptism, I have always felt had a lot more to do with the intent and actions of the participants that it had to do with water. To me it
    is about the promise that we are making and a very solomn acknowledgement of God in our lives.

    Comment by Leif Hatlen — May 29, 2005 @ 7:54 am

  6. Leif,

    Why do you think you have to promise anything? Isn’t the will of God, who blessed you with belief in the first place (who ever chose to believe?) powerul enough to save you without your promise? Living the Christian life, it seems to me, is as much found in the promises we make to each other, since the other person is ALWAYS Christ (Matthew 25) as it is in the promises we make to God. We, as sinful beings, cannot keep all of the promises we make, but God can keep the promise that has been made TO you, to love you and cherish you and to deliver you at the last, trust in that promise and don’t put too much stock in the promise you make in Baptism.
    Being a Lutheran, I baptised my daughter at nine days old, trusting in God’s promise far more than anything else.

    ‘nother ha’penny

    Comment by sermonatorAK — May 29, 2005 @ 12:33 pm

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