Remarks on the steps of the Capitol in Boise/May 1, 2020Show Outline with Links
It is a great privilege to be here, and a high honor to be able to address you all, and so I thank the organizers of this event. In the kindness of God, I have spoken to many assemblies, congregations, and conferences. I have spoken to small groups and to large ones. I have spoken in numerous states, and in many different countries. But I do have to say, in all honesty, that I have never spoken to a group as large as this, where the people were in so great a need of getting their hair cut. Or at least I haven’t since the seventies.
That said, allow me to turn to some more serious matters, presumably the sort of matters that brought you here.
Our Presenting Problem
The goal of this event is not to exhibit the rebellion of subjects, but rather the obedience of citizens. We honor the governor, and the legislature, and our local officials because Scripture commands us to do so (Rom. 13:7;1 Pet. 2:13-17). But for the same reason, we are constrained to remind our civil representatives of their duties according to those same passages of Scripture. We have gathered here in order to do so.
In Romans 13, Paul says twice that the existing authorities are God’s deacons (diakonos), God’s servants. Not only is their status as servants affirmed, but the terms and boundaries of their assigned service is also described. They are established and installed by God in order to reward the righteous, and punish the wrongdoer (vv. 3-4), not the other way around.
The apostle Peter gives us exactly the same job description for them in 1 Pet. 2:14. They are installed by God for the “punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.”
But where are we today? Idahoans are subject to fines and imprisonment for seeking to feed their families. We are subject to fines and imprisonment for trying to keep our small businesses out of bankruptcy. We are subject to fines and imprisonment for gathering together in order to worship God.
This is not rewarding the righteous and punishing the wrongdoer. If God told His appointed servants all to head north, this is them heading south. This is not what Scripture sets down for them to do. And while we may be grateful that phasing out this gross overreach is starting to happen, that is not sufficient for us. Tyranny is not something that should be tapered off.
But a reply to this critique of ours will not be long in coming. We will be told that the Idaho Code gives the governor “sweeping powers” when a state of “extreme emergency” is declared [IC 46-601(1)]. But actually, it comes at this in a noticeably different way. It does not simply say that the governor has sweeping powers when a state of emergency is declared. It says he has this power in the event of a state of extreme emergency, which must then be “duly proclaimed.”
You don’t create an emergency by declaration, you must respond to an actual emergency with a declaration. The difference there is not a trifle.
And then the Code, presupposing a literate populace, goes on to define what such an extreme emergency would have to look like. It defines for us what an extreme emergency actually is.
I hope you are wondering what that definition is because I am about to read it to you.
“State of extreme emergency” means: (a) the duly proclaimed existence of conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property within the state, or any part thereof, caused by an enemy attack or threatened attack; or (b) the duly proclaimed existence of conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property within the state, or any part thereof, caused by such conditions as air pollution, fire, flood, storm, epidemic, riot or earthquake, insurrection, breach of the peace, which conditions by reason of their magnitude are or are likely to be beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment and facilities of any county, any city, or any city and county.”IC 46-601(1)
Now look around you. Is there anything like that going on anywhere in the great state of Idaho? I think we all have a good notion of what an extreme emergency would look like. It would look like the Black Death of the Middle Ages. It would look like the Spanish Flu of the early twentieth century. It would look like a Klingon invasion. It would look like hailstones the size of cantaloupes. It would not look like a peaceful springtime rally on the capitol steps in Boise, with birds chirping in the background. Extreme peril does not look like this.
Now I know that the word epidemic was used in that definition, which for some people means that all careful thinking can cease. But an epidemic is not a state of extreme emergency. It has to be an epidemic that presents “extreme peril” which “by reason of . . . magnitude [is] likely to be beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment and facilities of any county, any city, or any city and county.”
So answer me this. If this were an extreme emergency epidemic, then why are hospitals laying people off because they are so empty? We drove down from Moscow yesterday, and the only crisis we could see was a long series of government-mandated ghost towns.
The Idaho Code also defines the terms isolation [IC 56-1001(4)] and the term quarantine [IC 56-1001(8)]. Isolation means the “separation of infected persons, or of persons suspected to be infected.” Quarantine means restriction “placed on the entrance to and exit from the place . . . where an infectious agent . . . exists.” Locking down a healthy population is utterly out of keeping with the procedures assumed by the Idaho Code.
But this is not to say that we aren’t facing a very serious threat to the health of our commonwealth. It is just not the threat we initially thought it was. Idaho is not seriously threatened by the virus, but Idaho is being seriously threatened by Idaho. In the immortal words of that old cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
One of the questions that COVID-19 researchers are trying to answer is why the disease is so mild for so many people, to the extent of not even being noticeable, and why it is so deadly for other people. Why are some barely touched while others die? One of the things they are looking at is the possibility that it has something to do with what is called a cytokine storm. In short, this happens when a person’s immune system gets deranged, and starts attacking its own tissues and cells instead of fighting off the virus. Now whether or not this research turns up anything valuable in the fight against the coronavirus, it does provide us with a marvelous micro-parable for what we are doing to the health of our state.
Our emergency measures are the state’s immune system. And this immune system is now officially deranged, and is attacking healthy parts of the body, destroying them, instead of attacking the disease itself. And if you carry the meaning of my parable out, that is how patients die.
The Meaning of Words in the Law
Perhaps you were unsettled by what I read from the Idaho Code earlier. But wait—there’s this:
“During the continuance of any proclaimed state of extreme emergency, insurrection or martial law, neither the governor nor any agency of any governmental entity or political subdivision of the state shall impose additional restrictions on the lawful possession, transfer, sale, transport, storage, display or use of firearms or ammunition.”IC 46-601(3)
Good old Idaho. Even if there were an bona fide extreme emergency going down—even if we were dealing with a Martian invasion—our governor with all his sweeping powers is prohibited from taking your guns away. It says so, right there in the Code.
But here is the problem, and right now I hope you see it. It is great and growing problem. We have already seen that what the Code actually says can simply be ignored, and the people ignoring it are not held to account. They have already ignored what extreme emergency means. They have ignored what isolation means. They have ignored what quarantine means. What is to prevent them from ignoring what this measure says? If isolate the infected can mean isolate the uninfected, then maybe you can keep your gun means that you can’t keep your gun. What is to prevent that kind of postmodern reading? Vigilance and integrity.
And what would allow that kind of false reading? Nothing but our own ignorance, nothing but our own complacency, and nothing but our own complicity.
There is also a very practical problem related to this, which we might want to require the legislature to fix once this foolishness is all over. He can’t take my gun away, but he can take my paycheck, my livelihood, my business, my associations, and my worship of the living God? What kind of sense does that make?
A Word for Nervous Christians
Now many Christians have a warped view of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. They take them out of context, absolutize them, and then say that it is our Christian duty to simply comply with whatever the magistrate tells us to do. These kinds of passages are often cherry-picked in way to represent them as saying that our submission to the civil magistrate is to be absolute. God put them there, so shut your mouth.
The problem with this is that we have forgotten a basic interpretive principle. We are to interpret any particular passage of Scripture in the light of all Scripture. And so I would remind you that the apostle Peter, who wrote the exhortation in 1 Peter 2, was soon to be executed by the magistrate as someone who was a grave threat to their civil order (John 21:18-19). This was the same man who was broken out of jail by an angel, and who disappeared from the book of Acts as a wanted man (Acts 12:10, 17). The guards who lost him were executed because of his disappearance (Acts 12:19), meaning that the angel there was playing hard ball. This was the man who was in jail in the first place because he was a leader of the Christians (Acts 12:3), and who earlier had told the Sanhedrin that he wouldn’t quit preaching (Acts 5:29), no matter what they said. And he was the man who was writing this letter to prepare law-abiding Christians for the time of persecution that was coming, in which time they would be accused of being scofflaws (1 Pet. 4:7, 13-16). So whatever his words in chapter 2 mean, they have to be consistent with the life of the one who wrote them.
And what about Paul? The man who wrote Romans 13 did more prison time than most of us have done, and he escaped from King Aretas by being lowered in a basket from the city wall (2 Cor. 11:32-33). In modern parlance we would call that running a road block or evading arrest.
So don’t be selective in how you read the biblical passages that relate to all of this.
Every thinking person ought to be nervous about the sweeping powers that the governor has, even when there is an extreme emergency in actual fact. Now if we really were dealing with an overwhelming disaster, not one of us here would begrudge it if the state government moved swiftly and decisively. But even so, we have hedges and fences built around the use of such power even when the external threats are manifest and obvious.
How much more wary should we be when the threat is not obvious, not manifest, and not overwhelming? How much more wary should we be if the threat appears to have been a function of people back east panicking and getting the wind up? And what are we to do when the promised crisis starts to shrink and vanish away, while the preventative measures are still in force? What do we do when the emergency is not at all extreme, but the measures being taken continue to be extreme?
The reason we have drifted into allowing our government to do this sort of thing is that we have drifted away from a biblical understanding of divided governments.
Among the governments that exist among men, only three of them were created directly by God. Now none of these can function smoothly without the foundational government of self-government, or self-control. Men who cannot control themselves are incapable of living within the context of free institutions of any kind. That said, these three governments are family government, created by God in the Garden (Gen. 2:22; Matt. 19:6), civil government, also established directly by God (Rom. 13:1-5), and the government of the church, which was a gift to us directly from Christ (Eph. 4:10-12).
Other governments that exist are merely creations of men—political parties, service organizations, chess clubs, and so on. The three above however were all three created by God directly, and so He wrote the by-laws for all of them.
A Melancholy Fact as the Foundation of Good News
I wish to conclude my remarks by acknowledging a melancholy fact, and that is the fact that in the long run, because God is just, a people will get the kind of leadership they deserve. However easy it might be to simply blame the governor, or the legislature, or your local officials, we need to remember that in the long run our representatives actually represent us well. If they represent us poorly, and we say and do nothing, or what we say and do is ineffectual, and the poor representation continues, then this means that it is not really poor representation.
And this means that we are not here to accuse and point fingers. We are here to say that we want to repent of being the kind of people who could possibly have one set of words in our paper law and a contrary set of words that we actually have to live by in our real law. It is not really possible for an honest populace to be successfully governed by dishonest men.
This leads to the only possible solution for all problems, including apparently intractable problems like this one. There is no knot that the Lord Jesus Christ cannot untie. There is no snarl that He cannot untangle. There is no accumulation of filth that He cannot simply wash away.
He can do this because of who He is, and because of what He has done. The Lord Jesus is the eternal Logos of God, who took on human flesh so that He could be crucified for sin. He lived a perfect sinless life, ran afoul of the authorities, was crucified by them, was buried for three days and nights, rose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of God His Father.
So as we look around this world, not excluding our own hearts, we see folly, lust, malice, caprice, sheer stupidity, and incompetence. But all these things shall pass away, because this is a world in which a man has come back from the dead.
This means that on this basis you may surrender yourself to Him. When you do, He establishes the government of self-control in your life. When that happens, you start to realize what contribution you might be able to make in the governments of your family, your church, and your state. As you do, you will learn to interpret the Scriptures honestly, which in turn will mean that you come to interpret all words with integrity. You will see what lines are drawn straight and what lines crooked.
And last you will be given the gift of being able to interpret the world rightly, whether you are in extreme peril or not.