But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

— First letter of Peter 2.10

And more than all other men are we your helpers and allies in promoting peace.

— Justin Martyr, The First Apology (2nd century, written to government in defense of Christians as the best of citizens)

They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. They share their food but not their wives. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life.

— Epistle to Diognetus, 2nd century AD, describing Christians

As a Christian, I think there are significant distinctions between how I and others see the issue of Civil Rights. As a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, God calls me to have a loose hold on my citizenship in any earthly nation.

Are we losing our rights?

Why do I bring this up? Because culture is changing.((I borrow this from Greg Lukianoff and the folks at FIRE who insist that culture and law work together to uphold Constitutional rights.)) A case can be made that we have come to the end of American history, at least America as we have known it. Small “l” liberalism is dying. Cultural observers on all sides see this. Moreover, it is not just true in the USA.

Without question, a growing number of people believe that certain ideas or opinions should be silenced. “Some people do not deserve a place at the table,” they insist. Where does this show up? The titans of tech are exercising their muscle by censoring what their leaders do not approve. Banning of books or film (a decision later reversed) has nothing to do with evidence.It is solely ideological. Sadly, many agree with their exercise of power. They simply want to control the debate.

Their target is not just the Right. Long before they banished the President into outer darkness, Twitter banned a non-partisan group, formed by a progressive academic, because he was, during the 2020 election season, seeking to create an alternative unity ticket with reds and blues.1

Coercion and cancellation

Politics is no different. Both Congress and state legislatures are pursuing the enforcement of certain rights at the expense of infringing on the guarantees of the 1st amendment. Think Little Sisters of the Poor being required, contrary to their beliefs, to offer abortion services in their health insurance. Those in power wish to compel citizens to speak, act, and believe a certain way or face the consequences!

There is nothing new here. For many years universities have fired or censored faculty and students for stating views not acceptable to their colleagues. So severe is this shaming, that it has led to the suicide of one of its targets. Cancel culture has an obvious foothold in the USA and Europe. Rod Dreher, in his thoughtful book Live Not by Lies, warns of the likelihood of soft totalitarianism. Dr John McWhorter (black scholar at Columbia) calls the “woke ideology” a new religion that demands absolute loyalty and seeks to silence any who disagree. He and others on the blue side are fighting this trend.((I could give many more examples of this as well. It is heartening.))

The trend is not good

Christian leaders have reason to be concerned. It appears that the people in cultural power believe that freedom to speak and to hold opinions out of the mainstream is a great evil. They will deny us the promise of freedom of religious practice. But the concerns are for more than the church; they are for all people who for whatever reason do not align with the newest ideology. Without these protections, debate ends, lies will prevail, and the powerless will be silenced. As a result, synagogues, churches, schools, academics, and our daily lives as citizens will be restricted or penalized if we refuse to tow the line.  If we cross that line, we may lose jobs, college acceptance, our tax status, or access to government scholarships.

How should I respond? These rights are good. They should be protected. Our national heritage is grounded in them. Yes, I have to look with a Christian mind at these constitutionally guaranteed rights. How do they serve the common good? For the church, how do they relate to the purposes of God in Christ? Can I properly value these rights and freedoms as a citizen of Christ’s eternal kingdom.

Yet the true story is not the American story

We must interpret these developments from Scripture’s drama of redemption and not according to the story of American history. Are they different? In general, white American evangelical tend to think of the story of Christ and the story of America as 90% the same. This is wrong.

America is a secular republic. It is absolutely not Christian.

Why do I say that? It’s simple: there is no mention of the death and resurrection of Jesus in any of our founding documents (nor should there be). Perhaps our founders were heirs to the moral principles of Catholic Europe. But Christianity is not morality. It is redemption by blood. Period.

Limited but of genuine value

This does not mean we do not place some value on the principles of individual freedoms and rights. Our country may be one of the best attempts at forming a pluralistic, individual-rights-protecting, secular republic in history. Those principles did not form a perfect nation but they created a context for addressing our evils such as racism.  This is good.

The framers were a gifted collection of wise leaders. After the near collapse of the nation under the articles of confederation, Madison led the way by forming a central government with divided powers. Codifying individual rights as a curb against the Almighty State was foundational. Allowing open debate made room for change.

Infringing on these rights is, therefore, a massive change in the American political landscape. It threatens the very fabric of our society.

Even though that is true, and these rights are good, ultimately for the Christian it is a change in a principle that is peripheral to the kingdom of God. Yes, I said peripheral. If the entire order of our government is changed it will have no negative effect on the purpose of God in the Gospel. It is peripheral because the story I inhabit is not the story of democracy and freedom but the story of redemption from sin through death and the new creation in Christ.

Remembering who we are

It is all about my identity. God’s purpose is to rescue people out of their lives of sin and death through the work of Jesus. Christ died for people of all nations and languages. His death crushes the power of evil and death. His triumph is certain. He will form a new human race made up of people from all nations living in a new creation. He will build his church and the gates of hell will not stop him.

The church has no national identity. Look at the quote at the top from the 2nd century, from a letter written to Diognetus.  Christians are strangers in a foreign land. The church is an embassy from Christ the King. This means that God’s people are sojourners, never at home in the world as it stands against God. We live in the true story and inhabit the eternal kingdom.

“having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” (Heb 11:13 ESV)

Expecting the life of an alien

Being an alien informs our expectations. Jesus tells us about our “rights” as foreigners in this world: We have the right to be hated.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. ” (John 15:18-19 ESV)

What did Jesus mean by this? What he offers is an MRI of the deep character of the sons and daughters of darkness. Those in the darkness hate the light. Those in Christ have become children of the light in Christ. Darkness hates the light, beginning with Jesus.

Civil rights do not change the heart

As good as the Bill of Rights is, it is not redemptive. The principles of freedom and rights has no power to change anyone. Christian, the freedoms you and I have enjoyed in the USA are not freedoms God has promised. They are temporal gifts of God’s kindness to all. Government under those principles has brought some restraint to human strife. But they are not ultimate, nor should we ever have expected them to last.

Why do I say that? Because either Jesus lied about the hatred of the world toward him or we have found another means of changing the heart. While societies may, for a time, create a safe space for diverse religious and ideological convictions, in the end they will act out their hostility to Jesus crucified and risen. All our culture ever did was push this deep hatred of Jesus underground. And when we stuff things under the surface they can only stay there a while. They have been looking to erupt for almost two hundred years. They have been bubbling up for a very long time and have now exploded.((I highly recommend Carl Trueman’s masterful discussion of the 18th century roots of our recent tidal wave of change: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.))

Taking my place in the true story

I am primarily in Christ. Being in the USA is only of secondary importance. This does not mean we despise the good gift of our national order. But I cannot baptize it or make it of ultimate importance. To do so is to make a god of the constitution and to be an idolater. And that leads to the evil of things like Christian nationalism. God calls me to align with what he is doing in the world. He calls the church to be a representation of life under his good rule, and to be an ambassador for the message of Christ crucified.

Faithful and good lives

So how do I live, as a Christian, as a citizen of Christs kingdom, as an alien in this country? There are two things I can do in response to this cultural trend. First, above all and over all, I am to live a certain way. As God has treated me, so I am to treat those around me. Being people without rights or power has been the experience of the majority of Christians in history. God speaks directly to how we are to live in a society that hates Jesus:

“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” (Titus 3:1–2 ESV)

Notice: we are not to protest and demand our rights, but to submit and obey. God wants our tongues to be restrained from speaking ill of others, even if they are politicians. Quarreling is out, courtesy is in. In short, do not render evil for evil. Why? because God did not render evil for evil to you. Remember what you were and how he responded to you:

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us,” (Titus 3:3–5 ESV)

We want them to see Jesus

What about our words? God sends his alien people into a hostile world to tell others about the Redeemer, Christ. Period. We may certainly be good citizens by addressing a variety of other concerns. But we are never to do so if it involves eclipsing or perverting the pure message of God’s grace to all through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

We must chose to make Jesus clear even if it means not speaking on other issues. Can I ask, is that what people around you have observed and heard from you in the last 12 months? Have your FB posts and tweets and conversations been saturated with the kindness of God to sinners like us? or have you been sucked into the angry, demanding, protesting idolatry of Christian nationalism? We cannot impress people with our cause and with the Gospel at the same time.

Lawful means and Good citizens

So what does this mean? Are Christians to roll over and play dead? Not at all. I can act to preserve a relative good. The First Amendment is a wonderful gift.  It is a wise principle that guards a nation from strife and squabbles over ideas. Protecting the individual’s right to their beliefs and opinions is far better than living under the coercive power of the state or civil war. Freedom of speech is the best means to refute bad ideas.

We are to be patient, not angry. Let me say that again — we are to be patient, quiet, not noisy, not fighting.

It is entirely appropriate for us to pursue legal means to argue for our rights as citizens. We are to do so without defiance or grandstanding (such as we have sadly seen in so many in the last year).

Voting is our right. Vote.

We have access to our representatives. Write.

And remember, no matter what legislators do, their laws will be tested in courts.

We can advocate for those who are not treated properly or are denied their rights.

We can support groups and leaders who are alarmed at the loss of liberty. Remember, these freedoms gave a platform for the voice to the oppressed.

In the last years I have come across the initiatives of many citizens and public intellectuals on the right and the left who say we must reject the woke mob. Polarization and denial of freedom of speech is evil. More than a hundred such organizations have been formed.  I support an organization that fights for First Amendment rights on public university campuses. They defend freedom of speech for people of all ideologies.

Faithfulness and the Common Good

This is about more than living comfortably.

But what if lawful means fail? churches lose their tax exempt status? Christian schools be forced to close their doors? Christian professionals lose their livelihood? Shall we be be angry, storm the capitol, demand our rights? No, a thousand times no, to such perverse and idolatrous ways.

Perhaps God will take away the protections Christians have enjoyed for 2 centuries. If he does, he will continue to do his work. He calls me to be faithful to him at any cost. No government can stop you or me from doing that. We will obey God not men. That does not give us an excuse for violating government directives as we please. We may do so only when we have an explicit command of God that must be kept even if it means disobeying the government.

Above all, God also calls me to serve others. If my interest in rights is primarily a concern with my own safety, I am living beneath the call to seek the good of others. I am to watch as much for the rights of others as my own. Early Christians cared for the poor, and took in the baby girls left to die, even at great cost. The State cannot take away our freedom to love and serve those around us.

Let us obey our Lord at all costs. Let us do so while blessing those who treat us with hostility, and praying for those who malign us. Why? because that is what God did for you and me when we were once his enemies.

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us,” (Titus 3:3–5 ESV)

  1. These actions by the tech giants are NOT first amendment issues as they are private businesses, but it is indicative of the change in culture. []