ChristianGovernance eletter – July 3, 2012
How to defeat a vigilante government
Watch this story: “City fights tribunal’s jurisdiction.” The headline and the first sentence jumped out at me: “In what’s being billed as a landmark case, the City of Toronto is out to prove the province’s human rights body has no authority over municipal bylaws.” The case is already two years old but the lawyers were in court last week.
What we see here is a lesser magistrate battling against a higher magistrate.
Christians should be incredibly interested in such a case. Most modern Christians have become de facto state-ists because we have never experienced anything else and we are not taught Biblical political theory. Generic humanistic democracy seems to suit us well enough for now.
Many of us affirm belief in a realm or sphere for the family and parental rights. Many of us believe in what is often called religious freedom, where the Church has a right to exercise authority without encroachment by the state. But most of us have no model of resistance against the state other than passive civil disobedience when it usurps its lawful jurisdiction. In other words, our model of human society is hierarchical and centralist with the state sitting over every other aspect of human society. This may not be our verbalized political theory, but this is our operational view if we have no sanctions to impose on a vigilante state.
A vigilante state?
How many Christians even have a theological category for the notion of a vigilante state? How can the state be vigilante when it has the right to make and enforce the law? But Biblically God – not the state – is the law-maker. The state should only administer the law that belongs in its sphere, just as parents should administer the law appropriate to their sphere. The law begins with God, not the state, unless the state is tyrannical and totalitarian.
Christian traditions that reject the role of God’s law – and therefore the law-making role of God – in this age do not have a theological framework for resisting tyranny. Passive civil disobedience may sometimes be of benefit depending on other social and spiritual conditions.
Lesser magistrates vs. greater magistrates
But what about this concept of the lesser magistrate resisting the greater magistrate?
Another characteristic of centralist thinking today is the assumption that, in societies with more than one level of government, the higher, and typically more centralized, levels of government should have the most power. The United States, with more serious Biblical thinking at the time of their founding, established a division of authority which gave the states absolute human power in certain areas, so all political power did not channel up to the central government. In Canada, however, almost 100 years later, some people feared such decentralization, including our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, and pushed for a stronger central government.
Canada also has a division of powers, though it’s not as robust as America’s. We don’t have provincial supreme courts, for example. Our division of powers is in tatters in both countries due to the growth of socialist, humanist sentiment in recent decades. In Canada, the current Conservative government actually seems to be trying to restore this historic framework. In Canada, though, you do not see any self-consciously Christian resistance to this tyrannical trend and, in the U.S., very little. The Biblical theology to inform such a movement simply no longer exists for most of us.
Reconsidering our presumption towards centralization
When we read Scriptures about submitting to civil government, we read it through our preconceived grid which elevates more centralized levels of government over lower levels – provincial or state over local, and national or central government over state or provincial.
So, what if there is disagreement – as is the case between Toronto City Council and the Ontario provincial government? How should Christians respond? Should we even care?
Because a lesser civil magistrate is still a civil magistrate, and a civil magistrate has the Biblical right to oppose and resist another civil magistrate, even a higher civil magistrate. If Toronto wins this battle, it will set a current precedent that visionary Christians can use to combat wickedness imposed by the provincial government, for example. The fact that Toronto’s battle is to limit the jurisdiction of human rights is a bonus. Actually that substantive point is also a very important aspect of this case – challenging the fanaticism of Ontario’s most dangerous woman, human rights czar Barbara Hall.
Imagine if local politicians obstructed attempts by the police and regulators to harass property owners in their jurisdiction! In the U.S., where such local authority is constitutionally protected, there are already examples of national police agents standing down when threatened with prosecution by local sheriffs.
What about a city council that ruled that no abortions would be permitted any longer within their jurisdiction? “We have just rezoned your abortion mill as agricultural land and abortions are not permitted on agricultural land!”
It’s one thing for a protestor like Linda Gibbons or Mary Wagner to violate bubble zone legislation and get thrown in jail for protesting in front of abortion mills. The conflict is raised to a whole new level if two civil magistrates with shared jurisdiction do battle.
A lot of other things can and should be said about this doctrine and how to make a real-world case for it in 21st Century Canada, but this column is long enough already. Christians should be very interested in this case and any others like it where lesser magistrates are challenging the authority and jurisdiction of greater magistrates.
Go, Rob Ford! Go!