Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Gentile Lepers and Religious Freedom

The Kim Davis issue seems to be dying down. Kim is out of jail. The same-sex couple has their wedding license. The media is slowly pulling away from the story. So I guess it's time for me to weigh in.

Sure, I've been weighing in on friends' meme posts who don't seem to be getting things technically correct (and getting little jabs here and there since they just thought something was funny). I am not a quick thinker and sometimes I fall behind in an instant media world. But I have thought a bit about the situation... a government official refusing to do something that is part of her job because of religious commitments... and I am somewhat surprised that I have not seen anything regarding Naaman, the gentile general who suffered from leprosy.

Why Naaman? It has less to do with Naaman being healed than his response following the healing. Naaman confesses the God of Elisha to be his only God.

So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.  Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant."  But he said, "As the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!" He urged him to accept, but he refused.  (2Kings 5:14-16 NRSV)



Naaman is converted by the experience of God's healing power in the mere act of washing. The healing required practically nothing of Naaman, no heroic tasks or sacrificial endeavors, just the simple task of trusting that what was told him would happen (not that this was necessarily a small task, it was almost harder for Naaman to undertake than the difficult task).

And after his confession, and Elisha's refusal to take the present of gold, Naaman then requests to take loads of dirt home so that he might always worship God on the land in which God dwells. Naaman also vows to never offer sacrifice to any other god. But here is the rub... there is always a rub. He begs one concession:

But may the LORD pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the LORD pardon your servant on this one count." (2Kings 5:18 NRSV)

Naaman knows his official duties in the government of Aram will include assisting the king in an official capacity during the king's worship. Religion and worship were far more intertwined. Naaman would have to do so. And in this case, given his high position, resignation was exceedingly unlikely. He lives a life of divided loyalties.

In his commentary on First and Second Kings, Rich Nelson writes,

Does his new faith automatically mean his death, either as a result of the jealous rage of Yahweh or at the hand of an outraged king? Naaman is a man threatened by his faith....
Which compromises are possible, which are betrayals of the faith by which we live? Every faithful person who does not simply abandon the world is confronted by the wrenching issue of divided loyalties. There is no easy answer that works every time

The situation is only complex because Elisha... ELISHA... does not castigate Naaman for his certain albeit future idolatry. He simply replies "Go in peace." It is certainly not an unshakable pardon but it is not a damnation either. Elisha's response allows space for a grace toward those living in the midst of divided loyalties. But that is daily life for all of us. The brokenness of the world infects every part of our lives. Most of the divisions we either ignore or explain away. Only every once in a while some issue comes along that humans want to exclude and divide, continuing the brokenness of the world.

Kim Davis and her supporters have created exactly one of those moments. They have created a vision of the Christian life that leaves no space for dealing with divided loyalties. Everything must be black or white. Gray does not exist... at least for their understanding of the one issue.

In the Lutheran confessional document, The Smalcald Articles, there is a section dealing being justified and good works. Luther and the other signers were clear that good works follow faith. And there is an interesting phrase written in that article... The article states "And what there is still sinful or imperfect also in them (that is the good works) shall not be accounted as sin or defect, even [and that, too] for Christ's sake; but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ." (my parenthetical gloss) So while we are certainly called in our following of Jesus to be righteous and holy, it flows from grace. None of our works will be perfect. They will always be imperfect. No matter how deeply we desire to follow Jesus without fault or blemish, we will have the righteous with the unrighteous. The entirety of the law is not ours to keep. Christ has fulfilled the law. 

Should we be engaged as an arm of the state, we must keep in mind the purpose of the law given to us. The first use of the law, that is what God grants to all nations and communities regardless of their faith, is to maintain order. God gives authority to all governments so that the people might be kept safe through the the creation, enforcement and judging of laws. As a Christian in the government, there must be a reminder of what their primary role and duty is. As long as order is being kept, they are fulfilling their duty.

This line of thought does not mean that anything goes. We will always have roles where we must discern what is meet, right and salutary. The Christian who serves in a role of civil authority, an agent of the state, lives very clearly in a place where loyalties are easily divided. In fact, I might argue that no Christian can exist in such a role free of any divisions.

There are always options. We have heard two major options lifted up as perhaps the only options. Kim Davis either holds on to her position or resigns. Other Christians might think that we have only those options. Resignation sounds admirable, and in some issues, it might be. If resignation were the only option though, the state could purge (with great difficulty, I'm sure) all Christians of a certain tendency from the ranks by enacting laws that the state knows is objectionable.

Governments are so vast and byzantine, there will always be obstacles that need to be navigated, but following the story of Naaman, it appears that there is some grace for maneuvering, where extreme actions might be avoided while order is kept and peace and justice remain.


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