Recent church and state struggles have caused me to reflect on a time in my life when I was forced to wrestle with the reality of faith and citizenship. News of a County Court Clerk, Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses based on her religious beliefs is the most recent case. I appreciate Ms. Davis’ commitment to her faith but believe that she either needs to step down from her post or face the reality of legal punishment. After all, she took an oath to apply the laws as they have been passed. She either needs to issue licenses, be charged with contempt of court or step down and become a political activist to change the laws. I don’t say this because of her beliefs on marriage, I say this based on what it means to be a Christian with convictions and also a person who has chosen to subject her own will to both Christ and U.S. law.
Let me share how I personally have struggled with this very hard dynamic of faith.
The year was 1995 and I had just entered seminary and was about to be commissioned as an Ensign in the Navy Reserves so I could begin my time as a Chaplain Candidate. It was an exciting time and I was seeing many of the goals I had set come to fruition. The very dawn of my call began at my brother Kris’ graduation from military police school after seeing an Army Chaplain at work. I saw an opportunity to serve God and country in a very needed and meaningful place. For many years leading up to my commission it had just been a natural idea. This was almost a “best of both worlds” opportunity.
Just before my commissioning I was forced to confront the fact that while this was an exciting opportunity it was one that shouldn’t entered into lightly. Someone asked me if I was ready to raise my right and swear to “support and defend the constitution of the United States of America.” It was a simple and easy answer, “of course.” Then this person asked, “what if doing so puts you at odds with your commitment to follow Christ?”
This question wasn’t a great epiphany, I knew that following Christ and being a citizen of the U.S. at times gets messy. Yet, the idea that I was going to raise my right hand and essentially say that I would perhaps have to put one over the other was a deeper reality. What does it mean to follow Christ and be a good citizen? Mark 12:17 is a passage that came to mind, ”And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The problem is that my allegiance is always first and foremost to God. My faith leads me to believe that all things in my life are from and belong to God.
I mulled this over and prayed for quite some time before the day of my commissioning. I had to struggle with the fact that if I was to indeed make an oath, which some Christians don’t even support, I needed to do so with a full understanding of the implications. What would I do if my call to be a Christian Pastor and a Navy Chaplain came to odds with each other? Was I able to keep Christ first and bear the consequences if an order I received was in consistent with my beliefs?
Ultimately, I did raise my right hand and swore to support and defend the constitution. I did so knowing that there could be a chance that one day I might be in a situation where I would have to choose between my allegiances.
I never “superseded” my commission to become a full Chaplain with the Navy. During my mandatory two year “Parish Call” I found a passion and calling to serve in the local congregation. Still this very real faith struggle has informed my ministry and preaching ever since. I must live my faith as one who is always ready to join the Apostle Paul, Dietrich Bonheoffer and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in prison for my beliefs. This isn’t just a struggle for those who are in government service. Everyone who holds religious beliefs find himself or herself in the same situation every day. If we are truly living out our faith we must be willing to make hard choices. Isn’t that what sets us apart from others.
It is easy in today’s social media world to make villains or heroes out of people plucked from obscurity. Some see Ms. Davis as religious nut case and bigot while others hail her as a modern day martyr. I don’t see her either way. I see her as one who is in the very struggle of the dual citizenship we all have as Christ Disciples. I can’t say I agree with they way she is carrying out this struggle but I hope others can learn from it.