Obedience had always seemed like a cut and dry thing to me. If someone is in authority, you obey them because they said so. It's just the way it is. But as a parent, the anger which wells up inside me when my children disobey indicates to me that there is a lot more to obedience than some simple mathematical equation. When my kids straight-up look me in the eyes and disobey, I am infuriated. I have done a lot of soul searching on that, because the way I feel anger inside me is very clearly not good. It's not a righteous anger. It's a selfish anger. I recognize that in disobedience, my kids didn't merely fail a moral math equation, they offended me. Obedience is personal. Why is that?
Let's leave the obedience discussion for a little and bring in another term now. Freedom. By freedom, I think it's important to recognize that we don't usually mean "freedom" as some (like Augustine) I think would view it. Freedom to thinkers like Augustine was not in direct opposition to obligations and natures. In fact, to him, we would actually be most free when we are most constrained to our natures. Just as we wouldn't call "free" someone who snapped and jumped out a fifth story window because he thought he could fly, defying normal human nature as well as the nature of physics, so we are not free when we fail to be constrained by our intended natures. However, I think when we use the word "freedom," we don't usually mean what philosophers or theologians may mean. By freedom, we generally mean "independence." Nevertheless, I'll use the word "freedom" since that's how our culture uses it, especially when used in the political context. Freedom isn't the opposite of obedience, though it is usually viewed as diminishing with obligation. The more authorities I have to obey or the greater extent to which I'm obliged to obey diminishes my freedom. Conversely, the more freedom I have, the more I am able to act as an individual agent or extend my agency through others. Whereas obedience is submitting to and extending another's agency, freedom is the lack of restraint by another's agency and the ability to pursue and accomplish my own agenda.
With those two concepts in mind, I want to broach the topic of the current pandemic. I don't care to get into how serious the pandemic is or is not, whether this administration has succeeded or failed, or even whether we should be required to shelter in place or whether businesses and individuals should be free to do what they will. Instead, I want to evaluate what I believe are two conflicting ideas which are coming out of my group of Christians (white, conservative, evangelicals).
Within the past week my Facebook feed has blown up with friends, acquaintances, and friends of acquaintances who attended or strongly supported large group protests to call for freedom to choose to quarantine or not (even using the typical pro-abortion mantra, "my body my choice"). There have also been many large crowds protesting with arms and militias, defying state orders of sheltering in place. I've seen quotes floating around from some Founding Fathers and others about the need to protect freedom at all costs, and not to give up our freedom for security. I can respect that. The twentieth century was a horribly atrocious and bloody one, with dictatorial and warmongering nations being the cause of much of the bloodshed. We've seen what countries like China, Russia, and North Korea can do to a subdued and subjugated populace. So if one wants to argue that my freedom - a.k.a. my individual choices and agency - is not something the government should mess with, I can understand it. I am more cynical about government than most. So while I may believe that the current situation warrants the actions the government is taking, I really can respect the opposing view here.
When I reflect back over the past four years, however, I am a bit confused. My group which has strong leanings towards protecting individual freedoms, not sacrificing our agency for security, and not living in fear, has spent the last four years doing just that. I was told that the 2016 election was vital and I must vote, because our Christian liberties were on the line. God's judgment was coming nigh upon us for abortion (though He overlooked centuries of our slavery and genocide as well as our continued racism, greed, gluttony, and other pet sins). If we didn't vote Republican, our nation would be enveloped in socialism and all hope would be lost on the slippery slope towards national demise which would then ensue. There was little but rage and fear in my community, all over a desire to maintain and build our security. Then, over the past four years, we've seen truth attacked, discarded, manipulated, and demolished by the party with which we identify. We've propped up, dismissed, or ignored personal infidelity, misogyny, and assault. We've cultivated and ignored dismissive attitudes towards racism and xenophobia when it rears its head (which it does frequently). We've used, laughed at, and circulated cruel language towards opponents. And we've justified or explained away deception and illegal/uncouth tactics used by our officials. The list could go on and on. Growing up, I was told that, if nothing else, Bill Clinton's extramarital affair should have disqualified him from leadership. Abortion was also a one issue disqualification for any Democrat. Moral integrity was important for my group because we recognized, if only subconsciously, that integrity to morals and obedience were the way we lived out God's agenda in the world. They were how we bring in the Kingdom as God's ambassadors. But something changed. All of a sudden, we have become willing to compromise our obedience and integrity to God's morals - God's agency through his ambassadors - for our security.
It seems integrity and morals are passe now. Relativism isn't just for the irreligious, as we religious folk have found it an extremely useful tool. But it is necessary. We've had to put objective morality and obedience to God's standards on the shelf for effectiveness. Failing to do the right thing for a time is acceptable for a time, since we believe the right things. But you're hard-pressed to find the Bible (and especially Jesus) leaving a Christian's job at believing the right things alone. Whether it's James telling us that faith without works is dead, Jesus telling us that if we fail to abide in him we'll be thrown into the fire, Paul telling us to finish the race, or Jesus's conclusion at the end of his Sermon on the Mount (a sermon which is almost exclusively centered around actions, not beliefs) saying that the one who is wisely building his house on the rock is the one who hears and does what Christ taught. Even my favorite verses to use when I did street evangelism in high school, Ephesians 2:8-9, follows up the declaration of our salvation by grace through faith with verse 10, proclaiming that upon this salvation, we are created in Jesus unto good works. We know that the demons believe in Jesus, yet they are far from him. Jesus himself recognizes that a faith without compliance is dead, as we see him tell those who did mighty works in his name (e.g. drive out demons, prophesy, and do miracles) to depart from him at the judgment, while telling those who didn't think they made the cut that they had served him through their lowly adherence to loving and serving others, even and especially the outcasts (e.g. the hungry, thirsty, stranger, and prisoner). We even see Jesus not entrusting himself to some who believed at the end of John 2 because he knew all men and what was in them. Christ's ambassadors are not those who merely say "Lord, Lord," and believe without doing. They're also not those who assert their own agenda as God's and claim to do "great" things "for God." In reality, doing things apart from God's agenda is doing them apart from him and against him, no matter how great the work may seem. We can cast out demons all day, and that might seem like an effective thing to do. But if we're not humbly bowing the knee and serving as Christ has commanded us to, our "great works" will come to naught. Because obedience is an extension of agency, it is our actions which betray where our true faith lies, and to whom we truly bow the knee. Actions declare, both to us and to the world, who is our true authority.
While you won't find Jesus or the Bible letting anyone go at faith without works, you also won't find Jesus getting onto anyone who pragmatically tries to accomplish what they believe are God's ends apart from the use of his means. Jesus mercifully loves Peter and lifts him out of the water when Peter stepped out of the boat in faith with eyes fixed on the Messiah. But when Peter declared that he would prevent the Messiah from suffering - the very foolish means God intended to use - Jesus held nothing back, calling Peter, Satan. The disciples were often found trying to do very practical things with ends in mind, while Jesus never sought the ends without also seeing the means. The disciples dismissed children and some who tried to get to Jesus for healing because they didn't want his teaching interrupted and they wanted him to get to his destination. But Jesus saw the children and those in need of healing. Martha wanted everything to be perfect for Jesus, but Mary wanted the better thing - Jesus himself. James and John wanted to call down fire to judge a city who rejected Christ, but Christ told them that they did not know what spirit they were of (though it obviously wasn't Christ's spirit). Over and over again we see Jesus's ultimate concern is not the ends, for that is God's concern and out of our control. Our job is to follow in the means to which God calls us, trusting God with the ends. This is perhaps exemplified best in Jesus' prayer in the Garden, as he sees the foolish and torturous nature of the cross and begs God to find another way. Yet Jesus submits in obedience.
How has it become, then, that me and my group can demand our individual agendas be respected regardless of what good ends the government thinks those freedoms may lead to, while at the same time, believing that because we think God would like the ends we identify, we can sacrifice his agency in the world by our direct disobedience? We seek our agency, no matter the potential cost, but sacrifice God's agency so we can get him what we know he must really want, which always so conveniently includes our security. That, to me, is very reminiscent of the Garden. Someone has been whispering in our ears that we can become like God. We can define good and evil. And so we are enraged at the idea of some know-it-all government trying to subjugate our will, while forcing God to bend his knee to us because we know what's best for him. We're willing to sacrifice agency for security, so long as it's God's agency and not ours.
It seems to me we've got it backwards. We're not the masters and God's not the dog. Our job as Christians is not to figure out what ends God would want us to sacrifice which morals for, or how to be omnipotent and bring about the Kingdom by subjugating our enemies. No, our job is to obey, whether we see the ends clearly or not, and whether or not we understand how God is going to accomplish such lofty and exquisite ends through such foolish means and foolish vessels. Ahhh, that's it, isn't it? We have forgotten that we are foolish vessels. Me and my group have spent the last four years (at least, and probably much more) yelling back at the potter. We've been telling him the way we think things should be and how to best get there. That's got to stop. If obedience is, as I've described it, the extension of agency, then we've got a problem on our hands. We can't serve two masters. We may, as a wise book once said, need to die to ourselves. We may need to build on a rock by actually doing the words of Christ, not merely hoping that we can build a world where one day we can finally stop compromising on all the moral hurdles God gave us. We may, until Glory, need to accept some seeming foolishness. If we do all that - if we can bow the knee - I think we'll find, as Augustine would say, that the highest and best love has become our first love, and we have become passionately constrained to serving that love. When we stop sacrificing God, and begin submitting our selves, that's the day the world will be as it should, and the truth of our lives will align with the reign of the Truth. Then, and only then, will we be free.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.