Sins and Crimes

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Before I go on to the next chapter of Crunchy Cons, let me address a question that has been implicit in what I have written thus far, and which has come up in the comments. One of my fundamental assumptions when it comes to public policy issues is the profound difference between a sin and crime.

In the blogospheric chatter that has come up over my review of Dreher’s book, one of the funniest comments was the caution that I am “a theonomist.” This is funny because my commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in the public sphere requires me to argue that we need to remove a bunch of coercive and restrictive laws. Some people are afraid of tyranny, but many more are afraid of liberty. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty, and biblical law is the perfect law of liberty.

That said, there are still reasonable questions. We can see the implicit trust that we have come to place in the state as savior whenever we try to make this distinction between sins and crimes. The civil magistrate is commissioned by God to maintain and keep public order and decency. The job of the state is to keep people from getting mugged or murdered, and not to ensure that their children’s teeth are checked regularly.

But when the state refuses to outlaw certain things — like greed, or lust, or parental negligence of a child’s dental health — it is false to say that the advocate of keeping such sins legal is someone who approves of those sinful things. In my case, not only do I not approve, but one of the reasons I think they should be legal is that by refusing to apply false remedies, we leave room for the only true remedy — which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whenever the state tries to eradicate sin, the only thing they do is multiply sin. Their efforts at salvation are like taking a mallet to a puddle of mercury. False saviors getting underfoot don’t make anything better, and to oppose the interventions of false saviors is not the same thing as applauding the sin.

Theft is a crime; greed is a sin. I want the police to track down thieves. I want the question of greed to be absolutely none of their business. Rape is a crime; lust is not. I don’t want any lust police. In these examples, there really is sin to be dealt with. Only the grace of God can deal with it, and so we shouldn’t murk the situation up with political slogans than presuppose we can deal with the heart of man by means of legislation.

But this is also crucial because in a political setting it is perilously easy to assign the guilt of sin to others on the basis of something other than the Word of God. This usually happens on the basis of whose ox is being gored. In other words, we can easily advocate restrictions on a global corporation because they “obviously” want cheap labor overseas because they want to fill their Greedy Coffers. But why does this question of greed not arise with regard to the American workers who don’t want people overseas, living in grinding poverty, to have a shot at getting out of it? Why do the workers and the corporate execs, who both want that extra $3.25 an hour, have radically different motives assigned to them? They are fighting over the same money. Why don’t they have the same problem? The answer is that they may or may not have the same problem, and whether they do or not has nothing whatever to do with what the law ought to be.

Before I tell someone — whether a man, a woman, a business, a corporation — that they must submit to a particular act of legislative coercion, I want to make doubly sure that this is something that God requires of us. I know that God requires us to apply coercive measures to murderers and rapists. When it comes to the manufacture of micro-chips outside the territorial borders of these United States, I don’t know anything of the kind. I believe that in the context of a robust Christian worldview, coercion should always be a big deal. We should never advocate it lightly, and we most certainly should never advocate it because the solons of Congress have detected impure motives in my competitor’s heart.

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