The Crucifixion of Coercion

“Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other the good things in a society no longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless” (Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 153).

Girard calls this social condition a time of sacrificial crisis. Nothing coheres, nothing tastes. One of the reasons societies in this state (as we very much are) start to disintegrate is that while drumbeat demands for deeper and greater sacrifice come more rapidly, and are insistently louder, the law of diminishing returns has kicked in.

And generally the resultant hue and cry that is set up calling for shared sacrifice, or increased sacrifice, or deeper sacrifice, is a cry that is lifted up by someone clever enough to want to get in front of the mob. When crowds are calling for sacrifice, you can depend upon it, they are looking for the sacrifice of somebody else. Get in the right position early, man.

And this is why, for Christians, all coercion is such a big deal. Simple coercion, absent direct instruction from Scripture, is a big sin, and manipulative coercion, absent clear instruction from Scripture, is also a big sin. The way of vicarious substitution, what Jesus did on the cross, is how He overthrew the coercive principalities and powers. That way is doomed forever, and the sooner Christians learn to be done with it the better.

But the carnal heart turns naturally to making other people do things. This is why we must see the levy, or the referendum, or the law, or the conscription, or whatever it is, and follow it all the way out to the end of the process. When you don’t do what they say, men with guns show up at your house. Now this is quite proper when it is the house of a murderer, or rapist, or an IRS man from Cincinnati. But suppose it is just a regular guy trying to make a living who had a duck land in a puddle enough times for his land to be declared a wetlands? They still show up with guns.

This conclusion has to be developed more, but this is why the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ is so important. If Christ died in our place, then this central fact of human history is sheer gift. If we follow the folly of Abelard, and say that the death of Christ was mere example, what we have is a way of the cross with no power of grace. And when grace is not center stage, coercion is always standing in the wings.

This is not to deny that Christ died as an example — the apostle Peter absolutely affirms this. But I said mere example. Do you see? If Christ died as a substitute, that is our example to follow. If He did not, then it isn’t. This why Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and gave Himself up for her. Without this glorious principle of substitution, the way of the cross turns into scolding and hectoring people — and the end of the story is always men with guns.

But we should want the men who come to your house to be men with good news of a staggering substitution, and lives that match.