Tuesday, May 5, 2015

From Prohibition to Persecution

What goes around comes around, and now it’s coming around. Christian florists, photographers, and caterers are being put out of business and fined because they refuse to do business with gay couples getting “married.”1 I’ve even heard rumors of homosexuals deliberately seeking out businesses that might refuse to serve them hoping that the businesses will refuse to serve them so that they can then sic the government anti–hate crime establishment on the businesses.
While this is indeed persecution of Christians by worldlings, God warns us twice to think carefully before we tear our clothes, fall on our faces, sprinkle dust on our heads, and bawl our eyes out at the turn of events (Jos 7:6-9). The first comes directly from Jesus:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt 7:3-5)
Though Jesus is talking here about the sins of other believers, we would do well to apply it to our non-Christian neighbors as well.
The second comes from the apostle Peter: “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler” (1 Peter 4:15).
Taken together, these make it clear that we need to make sure that we have given the world no cause to persecute us before we bewail our misfortunes. I would suggest that this round of persecution is in large measure simply the guns we have turned on others now being turned on us. We Christians in the US have our own set of sins to repent of.
Let’s begin with alcohol prohibition. While the Bible makes it plain that God abhors intoxication in any form, nowhere does he allow me to dictate or even desire to know what my neighbor consumes in the privacy of his own home. This seems to be a case of “‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord, ‘I will repay’” and “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
Yet Christians violated their neighbors’ property rights en masse, most famously in Carrie Nation’s raids on saloons, but also by proxy through the agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Not only did they violate property rights by closing down saloons and speakeasies, they also violated the right of people peaceably to assemble.
When Prohibition ended, it was not ended to restore the people’s rights to property and assembly; it was ended to take the wind out of the sails of the crime wave that had struck the country as a direct result of Prohibition. The right of the people to own property was specifically violated within months when the war on (some) drugs was launched, again with no protest by Christians. Christians are not even known for protesting Roosevelt’s confiscation of gold. How could they, at that point, have based their argument on God’s prohibition of theft when they had so gladly violated it themselves since Prohibition and were gung ho to violate it in the drug war?
I also never recall hearing of any Christian protests against labor unionization. This is not surprising, as there are doubtless more Christians who can aspire only to be employees than there are who aspire to be entrepreneurs; union jobs tend to pay more than non-union jobs, so a Christian is likely to consider a union job a Godsend. Yet the moral system on which labor unions rest holds that those who start businesses lose their right to hire whom they will and pay what they will whenever they become large enough for the employees to vote in a union. That is, when a company becomes large enough to be taken over by a union, the rights of the owner to his property and to free assembly disappear. Where is the Christian outcry against this?
Similarly, Social Security was the plundering of future generations to fund the retirement of those who voted in the New Deal. Because of the provision that allowed a man to designate a wife as beneficiary after he died but not a homosexual lover, it was also de facto plundering of homosexuals. While I hear much just condemnation of homosexuality, I never hear homosexuals’ rights to property defended.
By the 1960s, with Social Security and the war on drugs, public schools and transportation, and dozens of other violations of property established as legitimate in the minds of US citizens, the Civil Rights movement had no trouble pushing government to further expropriate the private property of businesses by forcing them to serve customers they would otherwise not have served. The reasoning was simple: just as municipal bus systems should not discriminate against black riders, private restaurants should not discriminate against black customers. The difference between a tax-funded bus system (funded coercively through taxes and ruled by political power) and a private restaurant (voluntary, peaceable assembly on private property) was ignored. And again, Christians – including yours truly at that point – went along with the crowd.
I should say here that property and assembly are innate human rights, but they are not positive rights. I don’t have any positive right to food, clothing, or shelter. Instead, I have the right to die and go to hell (Rom 3:23; 6:23). But if I am able to accumulate property through peaceable exchange with others, I have the right to keep that property because no one has the right to take it from me. In the same way, I have the right to peaceable assembly on my property only because no one has the right to take it away from me.
So foreign is the idea of property rights to US Christians that they couched their objection to the persecution when these bizarre cases first started coming down in terms of religious freedom. “You can’t make civil rights laws that force people to violate their religious freedoms.” Instead of couching the argument in terms of the common human right to property, they put themselves in a special class of people whose religion needed to be protected.
I suppose that could be defended as a strategic move: a culture that acknowledges no objective standard of right and wrong will likely not be impressed by an appeal to the innate rights to property and assembly. But it seems counterproductive to try to fight violations of innate rights that are spelled out in Scripture by formulating a new “right” that is not found in Scripture. After all, Jesus said, “‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20), and the apostle Paul said, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 ); to say we have the right not to have our religious freedom violated seems to have little basis in Scripture.
It seems to me that it would have been simpler – and I know of no Scripture that contradicts this – to say to the Prohibitionists “God nowhere gives me the right to snoop on people’s private lives. If drunks wreck others’ property or assault people on their own property, then that’s a separate issue we can deal with.” And unless one is going to lead off with calling for homosexuals to be executed (and thorough domestic spying to make sure no one can stay in the closet), what would be wrong with saying, “Who lives with whom under what circumstances is none of my concern”?
Would minding our own business have overcome the deep need homosexuals have to be accepted as completely normal? Probably not. But we would more likely have been able to let our gentleness be known to all (Phil 4:5) and as much as it lies with us live at peace with everyone (Rom 12:18) – thereby opening doors for the gospel, or at least not shutting them – if we had defended their property rights as well as ours by working to end plunder that especially affected them even as we refused to profit from their “marriage” ceremonies. As it is, of course, now that the powers that be, ordained of God, have determined that gay marriage is the law of the land, we are now subsidizing it with our Social Security taxes, being castigated for being intolerant, and being persecuted for not willingly being part of it.
The road out of this mess begins with acknowledging the image of God in all people – boozers, druggies, and queers as much as anyone – and defending the rights to life, property, reputation, and truth we all share. It is hard enough for the world to get its head around the idea that we who belong to Christ have been chosen from before the foundation of the world. If we truly believe that God’s election has nothing to do with our inherent goodness, we need to treat those yet uncalled as our equals, especially in ways that can be objectively measured.
1For the purposes of this essay, marriage (without scare quotes) will be restricted to arrangements found in the Bible: a husband, who must be male, and at least one wife, who must be female. I will acknowledge common modern usages of the word by putting them in scare quotes.

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