Who's in Control?

Davis is a devout Baptist and father of two.  He told investigators he witnessed prisoners ‘being made to do various things that I would question morally’ (Sgt. Javal S. Davis, facing court-martial, Time, 5/17/04, p. 40).

2. “Jesus Christ has been made wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us by God.” 1 Cor. 1:30

As Jesus Christ is God’s comforting pronouncement of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, with equal seriousness, he is also God's vigorous announcement of his claim upon our whole life.  Through him there comes to us joyful liberation from the godless ties of this world for free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him. (The Barmen Declaration, point # 2,1934).

In Nazi Germany in 1934 some within the church became frightened by the “nazification” of the church.  Some church leaders viewed Adolph Hitler as a prophetic voice for German nationalism and racial superiority.  Those who came to be called the “confessing church,” however, thought it necessary to take a theological stand against the infringement of the government upon the church’s responsibility to follow only Christ.  Two theologians, Karl Barth and Hans Asmussen, composed a manifesto called The Barmen Declaration, the purpose of which was to provide a basis for theological discussion and for the resistance of Nazi infringement upon the commitments of the church to one Lord, Jesus Christ.  The act of signing The Barmen Declaration by the confessing church proved a dangerous act of resistance that risked the life and liberty of those who endorsed the Barmen principles.

The genius of Barmen was to call into question the assumption that any other authority could ascend the throne reserved only for Jesus within the life of his people.  That is to say, could Adolph Hitler—or anyone else for that matter—lay claim to an area of a Christian’s life that superseded one’s commitment to Christ?  More to the point: can the government ever say, “We know you’re a Christian, but we reserve the right to demand of you things that supersede or even contradict the teachings of your faith?”  And if the government should exceed its authority as an earthly power subject ultimately to the sovereignty of God by asking a Christian to do that which Christians cannot do, how should the Christian to respond?

The question of how we adjudicate between the competing claims for loyalty between Jesus and the earthly powers over which Jesus has dominion crystallizes in the horrifying images emerging from Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq.  Torture.  Sexual abuse.  Dehumanization.  After the initial wave of nausea, the question strikes us: “How could American soldiers do this?” or perhaps better, “How could these seemingly normal people do these awful things?”  What about Javal Davis?  He’s a Christian!  He ultimately pled guilty to charges that he stomped on the hands and feet of detainees.  How could he participate in this savagery given his Christian commitments?

Psychological studies about power over the powerless and stressful situations without clear boundaries and accountability popped up on every radio talk show.  I don’t pretend to know why Javal Davis or anyone else did what they did at Abu-Ghraib prison.  But I will say that the question raised by The Barmen Declaration is exactly the right question to ask.  Is there any area within a Christian’s life where an authority higher than Jesus can rightfully be said to reign?  Should Christians follow orders that they “question morally?”

I don’t know about chain of command or who told whom to do what.  My interest in this has nothing to so with establishing blame.  Rather, I want to point out that if you happen to subscribe to the notion that the goals of the American government and the kingdom of God are never at odds when it comes to your faith, you’d better be very clear who’s sitting on the throne.