Legalism and Evangelism

JMJ

ONE OF THE more pernicious lies of American thought is that “legal” equals “moral”. Under the influence of this error folks look at what is legal (allowed if not encouraged) and say “it’s not against the law, why does the Church say I cannot do this?” In like manner many in the Church are distressed when their understanding of Christian morality is not enforced by the laws of society. They feel oppressed or persecuted.

There are some Christians who believed in a sort of theocracy. They believe that if you pass the right sort of laws everyone – Christian or not – will be forced to live in a Christian Society. They believe that with the right sort of laws Christian values will be enforced. Their hearts are in the right place: they want a certain climate, a culture founded on Christian values, and a return to tradition. They want just wages, an end to the death penalty, free medical care for all, housing, food, and peace. They believe that by enforcing these Christian values on everyone that we can finally build a just society, more to the point they believe that in passing these laws they will be building a just society on a Christian model. To this end, they believe in electing leaders whose politics, albeit secular, mirror these values in the hopes that they will pass these laws to build (unwittingly) a Christian society.

There are, of course, other Christians who also believe in a sort of theocracy. They believe if you passed the right sort of laws everyone – Christian or not – will be forced to live in a Christian Society. They believe that with the right sort of laws Christian values will be enforced. Their hearts are in the right place: they want a certain climate, a culture founded on Christian values, and a return to tradition. They want an end to abortion, a return to traditional family structures, and sexual morality. They believe by enforcing these Christian values on everyone that we can finally build a just Society, more to the point they believe that in passing these laws they will be building a just Society on a Christian model. To this end, they believe in electing leaders whose politics, albeit secular, mirror these values in the hopes that they will pass these laws to build (unwittingly) a Christian society.

In the end these Christians seem to imagine that by passing laws or having these laws passed they can make the world to be Christian. To that end they align themselves with politicians who may not be Christians at all, in the hopes that the alignment of political ends will result in a glorious goal. They seem to believe that with an appropriate veneer of Christianity applied, society will be fine.

At the beginning, though, society was unjust and immoral. Christians, somehow, found the courage not only to live just and moral lives but also to die for doing so. After 300 years or so their courage grew the Church from a few hundred to several million. They found the ability to change society entirely. The Church plays the long game for ultimately the purpose is not to change society but to change men’s souls. She seeks to wed earth to heaven – which cannot but change earth. But to do so she must wed men to God in their hearts, one by one. Heaven must first live within your soul before you can bring it to birth in your life and the lives of those around you.

“The one who starts with heaven is sensitive to those who live in the hell of this earth; whereas the one who begins with earth is blind to the situation of exploitation upon which the earth is built… For an authentic, deep sense of God is not only not opposed to a sensitivity to the poor and their social world, but is ultimately lived only in those persons and that world. ” (Fr Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP, quoted in Divine Economy: Theology and the Market by D. Stephen Long.)

This is why Jesus said go into the all the world and make Disciples of all people, and never once mentioned political endings. Laws do not make people good, laws do not save people, laws which cannot be enforced are of no value save to make some people feel good about themselves. We failed in evangelism and resorted to politics instead.

Theocracy is not the answer. People cannot be legislated into the kingdom of God. Rather, people must be wooed, enticed, evangelized. People must be shown a beauty so intense that to stay outside of it hurts. This requires relationships. Legislation does not require relationships it only requires power. But the kingdom of God is love: love and acted, most practiced, love embodied, love communicated in relationships between persons.

Theocracy can be legislated. We will damn people to do so. And we will damn ourselves. Legislation is easy, all it requires is a simple majority within a small group. Evangelism is hard it requires unanimity within the smallest group possible: you and me. It requires love, it requires patience, it requires humility, and self-emptying. It requires that one be Jesus to another, and that one see Christ in the other. It requires that both follow in a dance led by the Holy Spirit. And it requires education – properly understood from the Latin educare, meaning to draw out: to draw out of oneself a human person in full communion with God and with others. Only from this human person, formed in God’s image and living in communion, can arise actions which are performative Grace, salvation happening in their soul. Laws will not matter then.

Laws should not matter now. For forcing you to act according to my religious will will not save your soul. We know that’s from Saint Paul” the law does not save you. Yet if I win your heart for Christ you will eventually, through cooperation with his grace, build the new man in the shell of the old. It will not matter what is legal or permitted: you will do the just thing, you will be merciful, you will walk humbly with your God.

We must do the hard work of winning souls for Christ. We must start with heaven. When the society is filled with Christian love, the laws will be just, Christian values will be practiced, and the kingdom of God will be lived out.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.