Honoring Freedom of Conscience: Beyond separating church and state to integrate conscience and civil authority
Pursuing themes advanced in the recent National Assembly to Honor Freedom of Conscience has the power to revolutionize any haunting perplexity about the role of government in society. Implementing concepts evoked by contemplating the correlation of faith and wisdom within the human spirit introduces a way to integrate conscience and civil authority now inhibited by the conventional formula which strives to disassociate church and state.
Two formative precepts related to this potential transformation apply directly to inform themes promoted by the assembly. The first is the initial message of John the Baptizer in the New Testament accounts of Mark and Luke, confirmed by Jesus in his last instructions to the disciples in Luke 24:47. John blazed onto the desert scene with the profound assertion, “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins.” With this radical statement the prophet exhumed the capacity for living in relationship with God embedded in the institutionalized religious practices of sacrifice, ritual, and belonging. Jesus embraced this same message, announcing that hearing his teachings and acting on them is the fundamental criteria for honoring how God intends to fashion human relationship with the creation.
The second percept at work in this reformation of the alliance of church and the state resides in the discourse in the book of Romans, chapter 13. Discerning the ordained responsibility of government as well as assessing its practice of using violence to manage conflict pivots on this text. The content of this passage generates the historical debate about the appropriate use of force that has come to us as the just war theory or the theory of justified violence. The direction given by the apostle Paul implies that interactions among the human family will create certain conditions to demand that government use violence to solve subsequent problems.
This biblical teaching from Romans addresses the subject of appropriate relationship between the church and the state. Believers–persons who deliberately embrace a lifestyle that honors the intention of God for the creation–these persons must obey the authority of the state. Divine authority has been invested in the state. God establishes this supervision for the benefit of community. Therefore persons who desire to walk with God must respect the state and observe its laws. The church will not compose civil law and the state will not instruct citizens about issues of faith.
The discussion Paul initiates about conditions associated with the function of government relies solely on his assessment that God chooses to provide this structure for society. The apostle seems interested in discussing the authority of the state for the benefit of persons living under the rule of government and not from the perspective of those actually performing the service of ordering human behaviors. In a context of entrenched Roman rule, participation in government was an impossible consideration for almost all Paul’s audience. Paul is about instructing the faithful in a pattern of living that will enable them to survive in the prevailing imposed power structure.
When the apostle concludes his directive for how believers may live faithfully in association with the state, however, he makes this general and conclusive summarizing remark, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love works no evil to the neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of law” (cf Roman 13:9-10, 3rd edition, from /The Greek New Testament/). Paul believes by performing loving behaviors citizens have fulfilled their full responsibility to the state.
In this sweeping observation, whether by design or not, Paul succinctly discloses his understanding of the intention of God for the function of civil government: to ensure the law of love is preserved. God grants authority to the state to defend this foundational measure for fashioning relationship among the human family. If in obeying the directives of government citizens cannot maintain a response to the neighbor, including enemies, characterized by love then by the council of Paul citizens are incited to civil disobedience.
Latent in the directive to “love the neighbor as you love yourself” resides an appeal to a deposit of wisdom within the human spirit that allows individuals to determine what love of neighbors looks like. We know this deposit of wisdom as the human conscience. Freedom of conscience means fashioning a civil constitution that frees persons to honor this wisdom. This specific regulation encompasses the vision of Paul for how God ordains civil authority to function. And love requires the absence of violence.
Yet for thousands of years civilized persons have resorted to use violence to accomplish their objectives, just as Paul predicted. Even though persons have formerly suffered the disrupting consequences of violence, they did not hesitate to impose violence upon others. There seems to be no connection with their experience of pain and loss with the pain and loss that will be experienced by their enemies. Where is love for the neighbor in this scenario? Certainly the prophets who urge individuals to “do unto others as you would have others do to you” believe humans can achieve this behavioral standard. Yet organized groups with power as their advantage have never chosen this behavior.
We do not hear much about managing conflict without the use of violence today either. People still do not have confidence in this strategy. Because of the prevailing belief that fear of punishment is necessary to regulate human behaviors, violence naturally becomes the preferred agent of change in the world. Therefore persons spontaneously choose violence as the logical way to manage conflict. Cleaning up after violent assaults is something we plan for; it is a necessary part of the way we live. However, persons of conscience continue to believe that relationship and not fear moves conflict to resolution, restoring relationship and rebuilding community.
The popular attitude, “Conviction is a luxury of those on the sidelines” pushes the concept of living by the witness of conscience to the periphery. However, freedom of conscience is the foundational principle in the vision that established the republic of the United States. Regretfully many of the earliest settlers soon developed their own brand of intolerance and segregation, a practice which always produces fear and insecurity. In contrast, persons of conscience generate contributions which nourish and strengthen community. Those who persist in this practice are the true patriots.
People who choose to honor the content of conscience perform a commendable, courageous service to the community. They demonstrate the capacity to look beyond the immediate impact of their actions and to consider the implications of their behaviors for all others who share life on this planet with them. They are the purest heroes, worthy of international recognition and acclaim. They are exemplary role models who display a pattern of living especially worthy of the energy and passion of young people searching for a way to perform fulfilling service to their communities.
And considering the perverted practice of national leadership to misrepresent information and to deceive citizens in order to gain approval for selfish maneuvers in the international community, appealing to wisdom in the human conscience establishes an independent, more considerate source of authority for dictating effective ways of living in the present age.
Traditional discussions about the appropriate alliance of church and state ignore the role of conscience in forming relationship and structuring society. Conscience transcends the boundaries of both church and state (and for future reference all other boundaries as well) since humans create these organizations–human behaviors determine the character of the church and of the state. Human conscience labors at the center of this formative operation and provides a place of intersection not only having the capacity to compose these establishments into mutually complementary institutions but also having the power to transform separated societies into one inclusive community.
Conscience embodies a persistent and universal authority for composing human actions. No amount of effort can successfully eradicate the wisdom innately contained within the human spirit. Individuals and groups perform behaviors that contradict those dictated by conscience only by intentionally ignoring these promptings. Beneath the impact of anything employed to reform and refashion conscience to make it ineffective, the substance of conscience survives. It does not demand attention; it does not require allegiance. Yet human behaviors inconsistent with those prompted by the wisdom of conscience always create physiological distress.
Although artificial agents that distract, entertain, and refocus can manage distress, distress cannot be eliminated or completely repressed. All human creatures by nature know the meaning of justice and mercy and respect because of their common origin and destiny and limitation. Experience reinforces this knowledge whenever individuals encounter injustice, arrogance, and disrespect. Only by returning to practice activity that coincides with the internal pattern of relationship naturally known by conscience can a person recover from this dis-ease.
Promoting freedom of conscience requires conversations about the role of faith be moved outside established parameters that focus on the separation of church and state. The interaction of conscience and civil authority provides a practical and more relevant context for discussing the implications of the practice of faith in society.
When the community affirms the role of civil authority as regulation to ensure the law of love is protected–that citizens perform actions which respect the neighbor, the stranger and the enemy, with equal consideration–then the community preserves the prophetic formula of ensuring justice and practicing mercy. Out of compassion the human conscience naturally composes these kinds of actions. Consequentially, honoring freedom of conscience has the power to create peace across all boundaries.
The first National Assembly to Honor Freedom of Conscience has initiated a dialogue that will help citizens of faith learn better ways to discuss the practical implications of honoring the content of conscience. Citizens will begin to understand in these discussions how this commitment impacts the structure and character of community. The human family is still in process of discovering the effects of embracing the wisdom inherent in the human spirit and acknowledging its capacity to nurture community and cultivate peaceful relationships. The temptation to abandon this process is unusually strong. It takes courage and vision to follow this pathway to its conclusion. Desire to honor the intention of God for the creation makes it possible and determination to honor the content of conscience makes it real.