Image

Religious Liberty, the Center of Human Dignity

R&L: You have written that “the confession, ‘Caesar is not God,’ sticks in the craw of every authoritarian regime and draws an angry and bloody response.” What is it about this confession that stands Christianity athwart totalitarianism?

Marshall: Historically, Christianity has sharply distinguished between political and spiritual authority, so one could never identify sacerdotium, the ecclesiastical order, with regnum, the political order. People may have been confused about the distinction and argued about it and had wars because of it, but the idea that there are “two swords” has never been lost. As long as one maintains this principle, one maintains that areas of human life exist properly beyond the authority of the state. The power of Caesar, therefore, must always be limited.

Totalitarian regimes, however, insist that the power of Caesar is absolute and primary. For example, to be a legal church in China, one has to accept the overarching authority of the Communist party. In other words, as long as one confesses that the state is primary, the state will permit one to do other things. Christianity refuses that confession, and that angers and scares totalitarian regimes.

R&L: In your view, how should we respond to religious persecution?

Marshall: The first thing to do is to pray. When I talk to persecuted Christians around the world, the first thing they ask for is prayer, which also includes, “Don’t forget us.” And this needs to be both a personal and a congregational commitment. The second thing is to meet people. Short-term missions, for example, are flourishing and are very important. They do some good for those overseas, but they do much good for those who go. We must remember that the church is an international body. The third thing is to publicize persecution inside and outside the Christian community. I spend a lot of time speaking about the persecution of the church around the world, and it is still a subject that is largely unknown to most Christians.

R&L: What is the connection between religious freedom and other kinds of freedom?

Marshall: The Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House titles its newsletter First Freedom to emphasize that the first freedom for which people fought was religious freedom. It is the first part of the First Amendment in the United States Bill of Rights. The right to follow our conscience lies at the center of human dignity and is the core of every other human right. Furthermore, other rights are particular means of expressing this inner one. Freedom of the press is the ability to express what one believes. Freedom of assembly is the ability to gather with other people who share your beliefs. And, practically, the establishment of religious freedom has fostered other kinds of freedom. For example, there is a strong correlation between the spread of religious freedom and the spread of political freedom.

R&L: Is the reverse true? Does political or economic freedom lead to greater religious freedom?

Marshall: As a general rule, yes. For example, one aspect of economic freedom is the freedom to have property–which I regard specifically not as an economic but simply as a human right. If one has no property, he has no base from which to act. Freedom of the press is absolutely meaningless if one cannot own a press. Economic freedom is necessary for people to have the material means to be able to secure other forms of human rights.

But also remember that Germany and Italy in the 1930s were very wealthy states. Communism is not the only form of totalitarianism; historically, fascist powers have usually allowed the economy some independence but have tried to organize it through nationalism. There can be quite wealthy, highly industrialized powers that are evil regimes. There is no iron law that says rich countries are going to be nice.

R&L: Earlier you noted that one consequence of the confession that “Caesar is not God” is that government should be limited. In your view, what resources in the Christian tradition best help us determine the just scope of the state?

Marshall: In the modern age, Christian social teaching has explained the limitations of the state in a few ways: the Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, the reformed views of sphere sovereignty, and, in a less-developed way, the Lutheran theology of the two kingdoms. These principles differ in important ways, but it is quite clear to me that they are all trying to apprehend the same set of realities–essentially, that social institutions do not derive their sovereignty from the state. The church, the family, educational institutions, economic enterprises, and the like necessarily possess their own authority structure and independence. The state has not given it to them, and it cannot take it away from them.

R&L: What does the application of these principles look like in practice?

Marshall: First, remember that no theoretical structure will, by itself, give a direct answer to a practical problem. Theory shows how to approach things, but the approach will always have an open-ended quality to it. This is necessarily so; otherwise there would be no need for practical reason. One is always looking at the world with some theoretical approach in mind and, if one is wise, revising that theoretical approach where it does not fit reality.

The idea of sphere sovereignty did not drop from the heavens but is empirically derived. For example, let me take you to a university setting. Why should there be such a thing as academic freedom? Because it is impossible to compel someone to believe something. Our beliefs are not subject to our will. One could put a gun to the head of a mathematician and compel him to say that 2 + 2 = 3, but he is not going to believe it. If he does believe it, he is no longer a mathematician. Mathematics is not subject to external compulsion; therefore, academic inquiry in general is not. As a university is an institution formed around academic inquiry, the institution must be free.

That is an empirical fact, and it is from these sorts of observations that one can conclude that there are areas of human life with their own autonomy and authority. There is a theoretical side, but there is also a practical side because one is thinking about the nature of particular practices. That is what I mean by inquiring into what kind of independence, what kind of sovereignty, things have.

R&L: You have done a great deal of thinking about work and vocation, and you have argued that, through the Christian concept of vocation, everyday work acquires religious significance. I would like for us to trace briefly the history of this change. First, how did the early Christian view of work compare to that of the ancients?

Marshall: The classical writers generally denigrate physical labor–being a craftsman as opposed to being a philosopher–as a slavish activity. Work deals with necessities, so it binds one to the earth. Work is the kind of thing animals do, not a distinctively human activity, and, so, should be avoided if at all possible. Those who do not have to work live a higher kind of life.

By comparison, it is striking that the Bible is immersed in the world of everyday work. Even in Genesis 1, God is portrayed as a worker, ordering and forming creation. In other religions, either God was so ineffable that the metaphor would not work, or work was so denigrated that the metaphor would be demeaning to God. In the Gospels, Jesus takes his examples of the Kingdom of God from the work of everyday life. And in the Epistles, one way Paul establishes his credibility as an apostle is by stating that he works with his hands for a living. So, with the arrival of Christianity, one finds a very positive appraisal of everyday work.

R&L: Next, how did the medieval perception of work contrast with that of the Reformation?

Marshall: Though I object to some parts of his thesis, by and large I think Max Weber is correct when he argues that, with the advent of Protestantism, one finds a new understanding of work that had a positive impact on the development of economic activities. Now, in medieval views, there was a positive appraisal of work. One finds that strongly in the monastic orders, most of which were not only given to prayer but also to all sorts of other activities–running gardens and orchards and the like. Such work was understood to be an important part of human life, but still you find, I think, some reverence for the classical view. Work, though positive, was still a second-class activity. There was a higher kind of life, the “religious” life, and a lower kind of life, the life of labor.

R&L: And how did the understanding of vocation that came out of the Reformation modify this view?

Marshall: The modern English usage of calling or vocation–as when we speak of vocational counseling–is derived directly from the English Protestant use of the word. One’s role as a father or mother and one’s work as a bricklayer or shoemaker or doctor is one’s vocation for God. And one serves both his fellow human beings and God through this vocation. One’s work, then, is a religious activity. It is what God calls us to. In this way, work itself becomes a particular form of piety. Too much so, I think.

R&L: Too much so?

Marshall: Yes. This emphasis within Protestantism on vocation was–and is–good, but it can go overboard. In the past, what tended to happen was that one equated his vocation, how he served God, with his job to the exclusion of things like family duties. In this way, work, particularly paid work, started to be given priority over other parts of life. We see these distortions even by the late-sixteenth century.

R&L: How, then, should Christians today approach their work?

Marshall: First, there are two obvious things to avoid: workaholism and laziness. Between those two extremes, the answer depends so much on circumstance. Some people who have had very successful careers may decide to become a priest. It does not mean that they thought their old work was bad, only that they now have a different calling. Others may decide to work in the inner city. They will be paid less, but they think it needs to be done, and so they do it. Still others may decide that they can earn quite a bit, which also means they can donate quite a bit. Rather than working in the inner city themselves, they can support several others to do it. In other cases, it is important that there are Christians who excel in particular careers, both because excellence is good for its own sake and also because it is helpful for other people to have role models. Finally, there are particular careers in which Christians are vastly underrepresented–I am thinking particularly of the media. Now, I have listed a number of choices, and each is defendable. I could not say on principled grounds that Christians should do one or the other, only that in making such choices one needs to consider his particular life circumstances and also the circumstances of the people around him.

R&L: Finally, how should Christians approach their rest?

Marshall: This is something I am still learning. I am coming to see that rest is tied very closely to grace. When one rests, he is saying that the world is not in his hands but in God’s hands. Another way to put it is that one no longer tries to earn but to receive. One no longer tries to justify himself but to accept that he is justified. To do that, one needs to truly believe that the world is in God’s hands.

We find it hard to rest because we have messianic complexes. We have the sneaking suspicion that the world will grind to a halt and fall apart without us. So, to learn that other people can manage without us and that God can manage without us, we rest. In other words, rest is accepting the gifts that come from God’s hands. The Sabbath is structured this way; one is to have a day of rest on which he is focused on God in a particular way.