Sentence Diagrams & Civic Duty

This will be the first year I’m old enough to vote in a presidential election, and it’s shaping up to be an interesting one. (To be fair, though, are they ever not?) The last few days have involved different preparations for the upcoming election. I double-checked that I was registered to vote, for example, through an embedded prompt in an Instagram Story. I read up on how to do everything through the mail, since I’ll be moving to Kentucky for a church residency before it’s time to cast my vote. I’ve received several emails from Vote.org that I’ve left largely unopened in the hopes that I remember to peruse them at some point. In many ways, it seems like I’ve done everything except decide who I’m going to vote for!

As the wise Obi-Wan Kenobi once said, “I’m not brave enough for politics.” Frankly, I’m not interested enough, either. But I want to be a responsible citizen, to contribute in the best ways I am able. At the same time, it all seems so… messy. So unnecessary. “So uncivilized,” as Kenobi might also say, when all our conversations seem to focus on the governing authorities. My efforts to grow into a productive member of society, despite the mess of a two-party system George Washington himself warned against, have led me to consider my identity.

For several years growing up, I was homeschooled – and no, that is not the identity I am claiming. During those years, however, my mom taught my sisters and I a lot about grammar and language. (She taught us a lot about a lot of things, but I think grammar was her favorite, as well as mine.) We went through a long series of old-school English curriculum. One of the things ingrained into me by these books (and my mother) was the art of sentence diagramming. I do not consider my identity to be “Sentence Diagrammer,” either, but I think a diagram will help me here.

I am an American Christian.

I (subject) am (verb) an (article) American (adjective) Christian (predicate nominative).

In a diagram, this identity statement looks like this.

Screen Shot 2020-06-13 at 11.44.04 AM(After all this time, this is about the extent of my diagramming abilities. Sorry, Mom.)

I wonder if part of the reason I’m inclined towards disinterest in American politics is this reminder: I am only adjectivally American. My predicate nominative is my identity.

After checking registration and absentee information, I read articles. Articles on Twitter, articles on Facebook, articles in the actual News app (which is a first) – any articles that might inform my vote. I quickly grew exhausted, not to mention depressed at the options and the general state of the world. Questions began to race through my mind.

Must I choose to either sacrifice my moral conscience or compromise on ‘Christian’ policies? Should I even expect government policies to be ‘Christian’ at all? Wouldn’t it be easier to not vote? But then isn’t that irresponsible? But is it somehow a sin to abstain? What if there are no good options?

I realized I was reading the wrong things. No one at Fox News or CNN can tell me with great reliability how to recognize sin. I found a better question to guide my first-time voting experience: How does Christianity inform my citizenship? So I turned to Scripture.

 

It’s amazing how much of an influence your reading material has on your perspective. Very quickly, I found reassurance in a strange place. The prophet Isaiah shows how God can use even the most corrupt government for His purposes. In Isaiah 10:5-11, God announces his plans to bring about the righteous punishment of idolatry through the nation of Assyria. Assyria was a thoroughly pagan nation renowned for their horrific methods of torture, and yet they were a tool in God’s hand. Although Assyria itself had no intention of serving the Lord, God in His sovereignty still used them to advance His greater plan. And after punishment for idolatry has been achieved, “When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, ‘I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes’.” This corrupt nation, although used for His purposes, will not escape the judgment deserved for pride, either. The understanding of God’s sovereignty must be the foundation for our dealing with earthly governments.[1]

Jumping to the New Testament (and revisiting a class I just finished in my last semester at OCC), Paul teaches in Romans 13 that as Christians, one of the ways we exemplify love to the world is by submitting to governing authorities. For some of us, this even means taking up official roles in them! Paul reminds his audience that the governments of earth have been established only by God’s power. They are adjectivally authoritative. We submit to these authorities out of obedience to the one, true Authority. When a government is operating rightly under God, things are generally better. Paul, after earlier denying the Christian’s right to seek vengeance for himself, even says that a properly functioning government will exact vengeance and wrath for those who are wronged![2]

However, submission does not mean disobeying the teachings of Scripture or compromising our conscience. We should hope that our governing authorities will honor God, of course, even as we are prepared to be at odds with political powers when it comes time to stand for truth. Many of Paul’s teachings here, I think, are reflected in the book of Daniel. After interpreting a dream for the king about future nations, Daniel is given a high position in the Babylonian government ­– a man of God serving in the government of his exile! When Babylon’s control is overthrown by another, as often happens, Daniel continues to be useful in the new administration. He was so useful that his opponents in leadership couldn’t find any corruption to use against him. Plotting his demise, they said in Dan. 6:5 “‘We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.’” They convinced the king to write a decree against prayer to any other god, but of course, Daniel did not stop his habit of praying and giving thanks to the Lord. Daniel was arrested and thrown in a den of lions because his submission did not dictate his obedience, but the other way around.

I am reminded of another man who was civilly disobedient enough to invite government opposition.

When he was investigated and his allegiance was under question, Jesus saw through the duplicity. The teachers of the law sought reason to arrest him, but, brilliant as ever, Jesus replied diplomatically (and perhaps almost dismissively) “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The building tension reaches its climax only a couple chapters later. Like Daniel, Jesus submits to his arrest. He submits to quite a lot worse, actually. However, he will not remain silent concerning the truth of his identity as the Son of God. While the chief priests of the Jewish nation cry out “We have no king but Caesar!”, Jesus obeys his Father and submits to the cost of his obedience.

So how does all this help me decide between elephants and donkeys here in the U.S. of A.?

It’s fitting that “American” is submitted to “Christian” – literally, “put under” it in the sentence diagram. It reminds me that my civic duty is not equivalent to Christian service, especially when it comes to giving voice to the voiceless, looking after orphans and widows, or advocating for those suffering injustices. It reminds me that even if it looks like the government has granted me freedoms, they’re actually established by God, and taken away just as easily – not that that influences my obedience to His law. It reminds me that I have not been called to defend my constitutional rights, but to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow the one who set the example of submission.

 


[1] Other examples include God’s use of Cyrus in Isaiah 44:28-45:5 and the king’s dream in Daniel 2:37-49.

[2] Romans 13:4; 12:17-19

11 comments

  1. Let me add another layer of complexity to this for you with the issue of Jesus answering the question regarding paying taxes to Caesar. when asked whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus immediately asks for a denarius, and he inquires as to whose image and inscription is on the coin. Based on that, he asserts the ownership of the coin. And therefore, give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. In doing so, Jesus gives a principle that if you want to know who owns a thing, then you simply inquire as to whose image is on the thing. So Caesar’s image is on the coin. But whose image is on Caesar? That adds a greater depth of meaning to: “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which is God’s.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yowza — the wisdom of the ages and of sages in one so young. Joel 2:28 comes to mind when reading your post. Also — you had me at “sentence diagramming” — a tragically lost art, which I did however, try to teach both my homeschooled children and my students in classrooms. Please give my kudos to your mother for teaching you so well and many thanks to you for showing that 1. diagramming can teach us how to look at a lot of things (like big ideas) besides grammar, and 2. so can the stories and ideas of the Bible teach us to look at a lot things with cleared eyes, and a heart that longs most for God’s Kingdom above all. Grammar as theology — I think you have a doctoral thesis in there somewhere (but then I’m a grammar-nerd). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Grammar as theology” – you’re speaking my language! I love that! I’ve passed along your kudos, and my mom says “Thank you very much.” 😊 Thank you for the kind words as well (and for passing on the lost art of diagramming)!

      Like

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