Christian Ethics and Law and Order

1977 Church of the Brethren Statement

Because in the year 1973 there were 125 American policemen assassinated by lawbreakers . . .
Because since 1960 the rate of crime has more than tripled in the United States . . .
Because in the last two years a new and violent wave of terrorism has swept across the United States . . .
Because there has been a general widespread breakdown of respect for law and order among all segments of the population including Christians . . .
And because the Apostle Peter said: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13), indicating that God himself wants men to be law-abiding citizens . . .

We, the Church of the Brethren, Spindale, North Carolina, through the District Conference of the Southeastern District, meeting on August 9-11, 1974, petition Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren meeting in Dayton, Ohio, June 24-29, 1975, the following:

To request the General Board of the Church of the Brethren to establish a task force to study, compile information on and report to the Annual Conference in 1976 the modern relation between Christian ethics and principles and the established system of laws and order, and give concrete suggestions how today’s Christians might improve law and order by applying Christian teachings.
Loyd C. Pote, Moderator; Dorothy Hendrix, Church Clerk

Action of 1974 District Conference

Passed to Annual Conference.

Charles F. Rinehart, Moderator; Mrs. Harry (Louise) Ferguson, Writing Clerk

Action of 1975 Annual Conference

William Copenhaver presented the recommendation of Standing Committee and the query was adopted and assigned to the General Board.

1976 Report from the General Board

At its September 1975 meeting, the General Board Executive Committee appointed a task force to study this issue and report back to the General Board. Persons appointed to this task force are: G. Wayne Glick, Augusta Good, Henry Kenderdine, Joseph M. Long, Alice Martin, Timothy D. Rieman, Robert Rodriguez; Charles Boyer and Sylvia Eller, staff consultants; S. Loren Bowman, ex officio.

After two meetings, the task force reported to the General Board in February 1976 that more time was needed to make the study and prepare its report. The General Board requests Annual Conference to grant another year of study and allow the report to be made at the 1977 Annual Conference.

Clyde R. Shallenberger, Chairman
S. Loren Bowman, General Secretary

Action of 1976 Annual Conference

The report was presented by Clyde R. Shallenberger. The report was accepted.

1977 Report of the General Board

The General Board received and refined the report of the Task Force named in the 1976 report to Conference and present the following statement as the response of the General Board to the query assigned in 1975:

The Christian must respond to any problem, first of all, as Christian. It is God, revealed in Jesus Christ, who sounds the drum to which we march. Our position on law and order is informed by faith rather than by culture or denomination. Obedience to God distinguishes the Christian perspective from any other way in which law and order can be viewed. It is this fixed point, the revelation of God in Christ, that judges all lesser loyalties and actions, sets our agenda in the world, defines our terms, and identifies our way. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, “God’s commandment, revealed in Jesus Christ, is always concrete speech to somebody . . . it leaves no freedom for interpretation or application, but only the freedom to obey or to disobey.”

It is from the Christian community and the Scriptures that we learn most about God’s revelation in Christ. In the community of those who confess Jesus as the Christ we find our lives nurtured, fulfilled, challenged, and strengthened. The church, the community which shares a belief in and commitment to Jesus Christ, becomes the support for the individual who must make a decision. The love and concern of the Christian community can provide the security, amid the chaos of human existence, that will nurture the individual in the life of faith.

The Scriptures also provide a source of direction for our struggles with law and order decisions. The life of Jesus, as revealed in the Gospels, shows a respect for law, but there are also situations of disobedience when human need is paramount. The Epistles provide insight into the struggles the early church confronted, with Paul concluding that for those who know Christ and strive to live according to faith, that faith works itself out through love.

The Christian knows that love is more powerful as motive than law. The Christian knows that love can heal where law can only restrict unless it is enlivened by true regard for each other’s welfare. The Christian knows that unless love is present, law can offer little more than prevention, oftentimes through enforced conformity.

The Christian knows that where love is present as motive, community can exist. Our motive then, as Christians, must be love in its life-giving freedom. That love is outgoing, suffering perhaps, always affirmative, creative, greater than the law, and indeed, fulfilling the law.

In focusing upon their need for order, Christians should determine what forms of disorder most violate the kind of social order exemplified by Christ’s life—the positive and loving relationships between people. “Order” can be defined as a safe and secure environment in which all persons are free from the arbitrary imposition of one person’s or group’s will upon another. Order, from a Christian perspective, however, is more than the absence of overt violence and crime. A Christian concept of order presupposes the importance of justice and the fulfillment of human needs. Justice implies conditions of human existence which allow a loving relationship with God and which assist persons to develop their true potential, where community and the unity of the human family are realized, and where legitimate aspirations can be attained.

The lawlessness within our society, as manifested by acts of terrorism, violence toward police officials, and soaring crime rates, is profoundly troubling to a majority of citizens. The desire for structure and safety, for law and justice, for order and security, is powerful and undeniable; and that desire must be informed by a Christian understanding.

Disorder within the society, however, is not exhausted by the listing of lawless acts; rather the acts themselves, as deplorable as they are, are symptomatic, visible portions of a deeper and interlocking series of causes. Among these are the following:

  1. The disparity of wealth and opportunity between persons. Widespread poverty, malnutrition, hunger, and unemployment exist side-by-side with ostentatious affluence. Justice, at the very least, implies a situation where gross economic inequalities do not exist between persons, and where basic physical needs such as food, shelter, and clothing, are satisfied for all.
  2. The institutionalization of greed in economic structures. This is a type of legalized disorder by which people and institutions are obeying the secular laws, but violating the Christian concept of justice. This “unjust order” is created and sustained by respectable persons and institutions whose behavior is not considered criminal according to secular laws. Examples of legal injustice include governmental policy which sustains unemployment, industrial pollution and disregard for the public health, companies manufacturing unsafe products, industrial misuse of non-renewable resources, and companies making massive profits while paying wages too low to provide a basic standard of living.
  3. Widespread discrimination based on race, sex, or class. Much of this discrimination results from prejudice and a desire for economic benefit. In spite of some recent changes in the law, discrimination is still prevalent in American society. The practice of “red-lining” in ghetto areas, the fact that the median income for women is still lower than that for men, and numerous tax loopholes for the wealthy, all point to continuing discrimination.
  4. Alienation from the institutions of society. Where political, social, and economic institutions consistently ignore human needs, alienation is a frequent response. Persons who feel excluded from the decision-making process or helplessly dependent on the discretion of social and governmental structures, do not feel that they have a real stake in what goes on. It is this lack of identification with institutional structure which is responsible for much of the crime and violence in America.
  5. The breakdown of the family as a strong and integral unit. Many families are no longer accepting responsibility for moral guidance. Moral decisions in such cases are left to individual judgment, as shaped by peer pressure, the media, etc. Family decisions are often made on the basis of economic improvement and priorities which do little to strengthen the family or the quality of life of its members. If parents fail to maintain orderly behavior through loving associations in the home, discipline in the schools will fail.
  6. The shattering of a shared and sharing community of belief. Though the reasons for the loss of Christian community may be hard to identify, the fact of this loss is inescapable. The increasing brokenness of the church as a nurturing community has left a vacuum for many, fostering rootlessness, loss of identity, and personal disorganization. The appropriation of God’s forgiveness and love, through which the church learns to forgive and love, is not always the church’s first priority; and where the source of love is not regarded, the practice of love will atrophy.

There is a place for law within the community (local, state, federal) since none of us lives fully within God’s law. Law is used within a society to control the relationships of persons and structures and to create a certain order regarding these relationships. Christians are called to order their lives in ways that help free law to serve human welfare. Christians also must define their response to specific laws on the basis of whether the law creates or sustains a relationship of love or hate, equality or inequality, justice or injustice, between persons and groups within society.

It is deceptive to assume that laws alone will protect a person’s rights. Our laws can be only as equitable and well-intentioned as the character and intentions of those who enact, interpret, and enforce them. Law as used in the concept of “law and order” is limited in its design to the prohibition of certain behavior. That kind of law cannot be used as a means to attain justice within a Christian perspective of order.

The realization of justice, as opposed to mere order, requires the Christian to live God’s law of love as a means of bringing about change in the way persons and social institutions treat and value other human beings.

Summary and Recommendations

The Bible gives us few specific directives for responding to the dilemma of law and order. It does, however, give us a basic perspective. Jesus reached out to lawbreakers, rich and poor. Christians need to reach out to those who have committed crimes. In so doing, Christians are not expected to commit crimes, but they are expected to love those who break laws so that evil may be overcome with good.

Fear for personal safety and protection of property is increasing in most communities. All persons, Christians and non-Christians alike, need to use common sense in dealing with personal safety. Cooperation with social agencies and consultation with experts in crime prevention are short-term, partial solutions in many communities. But, we must recognize that there is relatively little the police can do about eliminating street crime. Those persons who commit such crimes are, for the most part, the products of poverty, unemployment, broken homes, drug addiction, alcoholism, and inferior schools. These are social ills about which the police can do little. More police on duty, better lighted streets and increasingly sophisticated weapons may increase the number of persons apprehended, but will not reduce crime. Yet, most of us Brethren allow politicians and friends to deluge us with law and order rhetoric which mistakenly insists that more police with more weapons can control crime.

We reaffirm our support for secular laws which are in harmony with God’s law. Secular law can be and should be made more harmonious with God’s law. To that end, we need to work with our government to create and enforce just laws and to alter laws which tend to promote injustice.

From Annual Conference and General Board statements on racial justice, the theological basis for personal ethics, economic problems and the church, obedience to God and civil disobedience, and criminal justice reform, it appears that we intellectually know what to do to encourage more loving relationships between persons and groups in our society. Spiritually, we are too weak to act prophetically to build these relationships. We must take seriously the admonition found in 1 John 3:18, “. . . . let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.”

Brethren are strongly encouraged to study the 1975 Annual Conference statement on criminal justice reform. That document clearly enumerates ways individuals and congregations can be involved in dealing with individual offenders. By relating to these offenders, we will enable some of them to see and choose options for non-criminal behavior.

Involvement is a key word for those who truly care about crimes and the individuals who commit those crimes. As individuals working alone, we can relate to a few other individuals and a small part of our communities’ rising crime problems. As congregations, we have a far greater impact for good. And if we join with other Christians to carry out community-wide attacks on the causes of crime, our impact can be tremendous. This document lists six causes of disorder within our society. Few persons or groups can respond to all six. We encourage concerned individuals and congregations to identify one or more causes for special attention and action.

Clyde R. Shallenberger, Chairman
S. Loren Bowman, General Secretary

Action of 1977 Annual Conference

The paper was presented by Clyde Shallenberger and Charles Boyer. The paper was adopted.