Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Submission to Authority and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

July 4th Post

Suppose you were compelled by law to take some action you deemed immoral, or face incarceration and fines? While we seem to be trending that way with Orwellian crimespeak in some quarters, this has happened before.

If you thought you would have to decide whether you thought owning slaves was right or wrong, if you lived in the 1850s, and opt out of participating in it yourself, you thought wrong. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 not only required law enforcement in Northern states to apprehend escaped slaves (and paid them a hefty bonus for it), but:
"In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine" (Article on Wikipedia)
If you let a runaway stay on your property, or if you gave them a cup of water, without reporting them to the authorities, you could be fined the equivalent of $30,000 in today's dollars AND thrown in jail. 

So here's the question:

Is it right or wrong to give food and shelter to a runaway slave in this situation?
Is it right or wrong to decline to report a runaway slave if you know of one?

For some, one might be easier than the other, and for others, the reverse. I could see how one person might feel ethically compelled to provide food, feeling that it is a violation of James 2:15-16 to refuse their neighbor in need. I can also see how someone else might feel justified not telling the authorities so long as they provided no aid, because at least then they wouldn't be in violation of the law, so they might think. I could see how some might provide aid, and tell the authorities afterward. I could see how some would delay to tell the authorities. And I could see how some might defy the law on both points, utterly.

But I would like to point out that regardless of which way you're convicted, the difference between a Christian and a Republican (you know, the anti-slavery party) lies in how you would respond when you get caught.

Do you: flee? Go down guns blazing? Have your friends bust you out of prison? Lie when questioned? No.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Romans 13:1-7

So what does the Christian do? He exercises his discernment in helping those he can practically help who are indeed in need. He exercises his conscience in deciding to report himself to the authorities. And if he is caught, he submits to the arrest without unlawfully resisting the government's right to detain. In all of this, he obeys God's law, choosing to ignore human government when it compels him to do evil, but submitting to it when it acts in accordance with God's law. 

And that means that even though the crime is no crime, for which he is arrested, the government is still legitimately authorized TO arrest, and the Christian rejoices that he is counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus.  Acts 5:41

The Christian obeys the government's authority. This includes the authority to imprison, fine, and execute you, even under false pretenses. But he does not recognize the government's authority to compel him to commit evil. At this point, the Christian takes a stand and lets everyone know that his fidelity to God is what compels him, so that even in his persecution, he might witness to unbelievers whose hard hearts God has determined to soften by means of the unjust spectacle.

In other words, you could say that, while you're not obligated to obey the government if it tries to make you do evil, you're obligated to obey the government even if the government's actions are evil. The fact that it's perpetrating injustice doesn't render our submission to its authority voluntary. If this were true, then we would never be in submission to government, because government is composed of men and men are sinful, so government will always be acting sinfully to some degree. We simply can't justify rebellion based on how bad our government is. We justify disobedience to the government when our obedience to the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) requires us to refuse a command to the contrary. This is the Christian ethic of civic responsibility.

I'm posting this on July 4th because there is a tendency toward uncritical patriotism of country, among Christians, pseudochristians and conservatives in America. Too often, in practice, the country itself is held up as the highest ideal and that which most richly deserves our honor and commitment. But this ignores the fact that in both the present, future, and past of this country have included laws which punish good and require evil, which Christians cannot gloss over. The highest ideal is the Law of God. The fact that no one, and no country, can aspire to that naturally brings up the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria. You can't do it, and that's precisely why you need God. His glory is the highest good, and thwarting those who seek any other glory is His specialty. Submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:6

May this country indeed return, or this somewhat abstract exercise is due to become painfully practical as it ceases to be a thought-experiment and becomes our daily reality.

The practical reason why we must respond Biblically, not politically, to unjust government -- a far distant second to the primary reason that we should obey God because we love Him and desire to obey because it is right to obey, and His Spirit in us compels us to do right -- is that while God doesn't guarantee national blessing, He only promises to bless nations that follow His precepts, so when things don't work out when your primary objective is political victory, don't be surprised.

Consider this, instead.

“Although slavery is not uniformly condemned in either the Old or New Testaments, the sincere application of New Testament truths has repeatedly led to the elimination of its abusive tendencies. Where Christ’s love is lived in the power of His Spirit, unjust barriers and relationships are inevitably broken down. As the Roman empire disintegrated and eventually collapsed, the brutal, abused system of slavery collapsed with it—due in great measure to the influence of Christianity. ... New Testament teaching does not focus on reforming and re structuring human systems, which are never the root cause of human problems. The issue is always the heart of man—which when wicked will corrupt the best of systems and when righteous will improve the worst. If men’s sinful hearts are not changed, they will find ways to oppress others regardless of whether or not there is actual slavery.”~ John MacArthur


I credit Todd Friel, John MacArthur, and the endless parade of Christian martyrs for persuading me of the correctness of this Biblical approach to government law and order.

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