Involuntary Obedience

“Imagine what it does to our culture’s perception of Christ’s gospel when Christians are among the loudest of those disapproving of people being released from their debts. Lord, have mercy.”

This was the Tweet (originally posted by Rev. Benjamin Cremer) that I shared on social media yesterday, genuinely (and naively) thinking that it was clear I was not defending a particular political action regarding the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness program. The author’s intent (and my own) was purely to defend the Christian witness to Christ’s gospel of grace.

After being helpfully informed of the political ins and outs of this decision by some and dismissively accused of being a socialist by others, I thought it might be helpful (if only for myself) to clarify some thoughts on this topic in greater depth.

Disclaimer: the sole focus of this post will be on the gospel and my best personal effort to assess its implications for our lives. Please do not expect advice from me on which way to vote.

I do not believe Rev. Cremer’s post was intended to provide commentary on the political ramifications of the student loan relief program – although we obviously recognize that there are many! Admittedly, Cremer appears to be (and I myself am) biased towards the pastoral perspective of this issue, at risk of excluding other factors. However, I believe that remains the heart of his message.

This Tweet has in mind the person with little to no understanding of the Christian faith (and perhaps similarly little understanding of the political ramifications of this decision). To such a person, the loudest and most widespread evangelical Christian response to the decision – which, remember, this person may understand only as “the forgiveness of debt” – is scorn and anger. Regardless of the legality of the decision, the reality is that many who profess Christ to be their primary source of identity are vocally complaining about the idea of forgiving debts, caring for the poor,1 and paying a price that someone else deserves to pay.

Obviously, God and the earthly government don’t work the same way, so we shouldn’t expect them to. One relevant difference between gospel and government here is that Christ’s sacrifice was voluntary, and this law may essentially make it involuntary for taxpayers to care for the poor by relieving their debts.

This is a great point, raised by someone I had a conversation with after my initial post. This is a consistent tension we encounter when engaging in American politics as Christians. Within the logical system of our nation’s government, political freedom is held up as the highest good. Therefore, the political freedom of religion requires that any particular religious ideals do not interfere with that ultimate good. So, by the same logic that says we must not legislate the taking on of student debts by the entire body of taxpayers, because it removes the voluntary choice to provide relief for the poor – by that same logic, Christians also must not legislate against issues like abortion or gay marriage. It’s the inverse application of the same logic: denying people the choice to obey God’s commandment to care for the poor by merely legislating obedience, or denying people the choice to obey God’s design for creation by legislating it. (To be clear: I’m not saying that abortion and same-sex marriage are defensible according to Scripture. I’m pointing out that their legality is the logical end of a system that holds political freedom up as the highest good. Romans 1:28 suggests that God is willing to give individuals and nations over to such ways of thinking when they fail to worship Him only.)

Based on Scripture, of course Christianity holds that we must care for the poor and oppressed among us and strive to live according to God’s intended order for creation and marriage. To followers of Christ, Scripture is the revelation of Jesus, the Word of God who is truth; however, within the logic of the American system, the Bible is merely one of many religious texts to be followed only insofar as it doesn’t infringe on anyone else. There will always be a breakdown when we try to make the Christian life apply wholly to American life (or to life under any other worldly government). It’s impossible to legislate a religious ideal into a logical system from which religion is supposed to be kept separate. (Additionally, it makes no sense that any non-Christian would want to obey a law rooted in Christianity, since they don’t know the person of Jesus whose love motivates such obedience.)

So now back to the topic of student debt relief. The apparent concern is that this decision might make the sharing of financial burden involuntary, possibly infringing upon the comfort and political freedom of taxpayers who have no student debt themselves.

At this point, I have nothing more to say regarding to the American political system. We’ve established that, by the American logic, programs and legislation should not pass purely on the basis of morality as defined by any religion. My perspective and opinions are focused on the Church, which exists in a Kingdom categorically and ontologically different than the power structures of the world. Those who live in this Kingdom and have given their lives to Christ, however, I would remind of Romans 6:

Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness.

…When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness… But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Brothers and sisters, we are not “free from the control of righteousness,” but slaves of God. We have chosen to give our lives to Him, and as such our obedience to Him is now involuntary. His commandments (including the care of the poor) need not be reconsidered at every turn, with every new issue worldly kingdoms present to us. We are literally freed from the world’s categories, kingdoms, and parties! The gospel, like the Kingdom, is simple. Do your best to love your neighbor through politics as much as politics will allow, by all means, but do not forget where your allegiance now lies. Be devoted to the fellowship of believers, sharing everything in common; rejoice with those who rejoice; sell everything you have and give to the poor; look after orphans and widows in their distress, keeping yourself from being polluted by the world; act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly; worship the Lord your God and serve Him only. Do all these things so that the love of Jesus is evident and available to everyone you meet, so that they might know the one whose love inspires our obedience.

What does obedience to God’s Word look like for you today?

1 – Those who owe thousands of dollars in loans, though easier to overlook as “poor” than people in more obvious states of poverty, still fit the description of people Christ commands his followers to care for.

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