By Tom Mullen
“Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on do not sin anymore.” (John 8: 3-11)
As we approach the new year with conservatism again ascendant in the political sphere, this story of Jesus’ uncompromising libertarianism seems even more timely than stories of his birth, despite the approach of his celebrated birthday. Nowhere does Jesus admonish “social conservatives” more harshly.
There is an important distinction here. By “social conservative,” I do not mean anyone who disapproves of certain human behavior. The freedom to follow the dictates of one’s conscience was the first inalienable right recognized by the founders of our nation. If one truly believes that homosexuality, adultery, or other “non-conservative” behavior violates the laws of God, it is that person’s inalienable right to disapprove of it, even to voice his disapproval of it, regardless of the anguished cries of the political correctness lobby on the left.
However, no one has a right to use violence against those who engage in behavior that does not harm another person, regardless of whether or not that behavior violates the laws of God. Since all laws are enforced under the threat of violence (as this story illustrates wonderfully), Jesus makes it clear in this passage that it is not for men to enforce the laws of God. With the exception of cases in which one human being has done injury to another, the right to punish human behavior is reserved for God.
It is important to recognize that Jesus does not condone the sin that the anonymous woman has committed. When he has shamed away the mob who would have stoned her, Jesus commands her to sin no more. Neither does he insinuate that her behavior might not have consequences for her soul. With flawless libertarian reasoning, Jesus teaches us the true meaning of freedom: that God grants us the liberty to do as we wish, even to reject him and his laws, but that we also bear the full consequences of our actions. If we harm another person, then we are subject to the laws of men. However, it is otherwise left to each individual to determine the will of God according to his conscience and to choose whether to act accordingly or not. There never has been nor can there ever be any body of corruptible men who can save an individual’s soul.
This is by no means the only place in the gospels that Jesus teaches us this lesson. His entire public ministry was one condemnation after another of the hypocritical, socially conservative theocracy. Indeed, it is the Jewish state that is Jesus’ chief antagonist throughout the gospels. He is noticeably disinterested in the more secular Roman government, despite its tyranny over his people. While he certainly doesn’t approve of the Romans, he has no interest in political revolution. As Jesus tells Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36). However, his own government does not merely commit secular, political oppression against its people. It usurps the authority of God and attempts to judge in his place. For this, Jesus constantly lets loose his most venomous reproaches.
Throughout the gospels, “the chief priests and Pharisees” are constantly shown up for what they are. They do not seek to punish sins to defend the honor of God, but for their own selfish political motives. Their persecution and eventual murder of Jesus himself is quite obviously perpetrated out of fear of his influence over the people. And what is this subversive influence that warrants torture and death? “Love one another as I have loved you. Love your enemies. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Of course the state would hate such a message. It runs afoul of every depravity that the state tries to exhort its citizens to, including its wars, its persecution of non-conformists, and its rampant looting of the citizenry dressed up as “public works.”
When Jesus encounters man-made laws masquerading as the laws of God, he openly condones breaking those laws. When his disciples pick fruit on the Sabbath and are caught in the act by the Pharisees, Jesus beats the Pharisees at their own game by citing Jewish scripture, which describes David actually eating sacred bread out of the temple, reserved for the priests by Jewish law.
Demonstrating how perverse any theocratic state eventually becomes, the Pharisees then bring a man forward with a “withered hand,” daring Jesus to cure him and break the law himself. They are willing to see this man miss his one chance to be cured in the hopes that they can use their distorted interpretation of God’s command to “keep holy the Sabbath” to ensnare Jesus for political ends. Jesus breaks the law without hesitation, saying that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Caring little for the wisdom of the lesson and interested only in maintaining their own autocratic power, the Pharisees withdraw to begin planning Jesus’ murder. (Matthew 12: 1-14)
By attempting to use the law to enforce their morality, social conservatives violate the very principles that they say that they cherish most. Social conservatives decry Islam because it attempts to “propagate the faith by the sword.” However, there is only a cosmetic difference between promoting your religious views through acts of terrorism and doing likewise through passing unjust laws against minorities who have no recourse but to obey or suffer violence. In both cases, it is the sword that compels the victim rather than the mind or the heart. Neither can social conservatives rely on the argument that their laws are passed by an elected body representing the people. If that justifies socially conservative laws, then what is their objection to the welfare state?
No part of this argument should be misconstrued as an endorsement of political correctness or the left’s agenda to grant positive rights to their own special interest groups for political purposes. If we are truly a free country and we meant what we said in the first amendment to our Constitution, then every individual, whether the most fundamentalist Christian or the most libertine atheist, should have the right to speak freely, even if what they say offends another person. For many devout Christians, it is their sacred duty to try to persuade their fellow man to repent of his sins and embrace Jesus as his savior.
However, there is an ocean of difference between persuasion and coercion. The minute that we say, “there ought to be a law,” we are picking up the sword. If we do so in defense of the inalienable human rights of life, liberty, and property, we are within our rightful authority. If we do so to supplant the authority of God, we become the very type of people that Jesus spent his life fighting against. To truly be Christian, we must recognize the need for “a wall of separation between church and state.”
Jesus was very clear about his views on what would lead to salvation and what would not. Jesus condemned many behaviors, like adultery, that social conservatives likewise condemn. He also said that “no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) However, he does not go on to say, “Therefore, if your brother does not come to me willingly, then draw your sword and force him.” Salvation must be chosen; God did not create a race of slaves.
As we celebrate the birth of this great libertarian, let us not forget the lesson of his life and death. Jesus was murdered by the theocratic state for exposing their hypocrisy and resisting their unjust, blasphemous laws. Let us follow his example of speaking our minds according to our consciences but never raising our hand to save our brothers’ souls. Each one of us will ultimately find that our understanding of the will of God is imperfect, as we are imperfect. Therefore, we must follow Jesus’ example of tolerance and forgiveness, lest we find that we ourselves have mistakenly punished the innocent. Our laws should keep us from harming each other, and leave each person’s soul to the judgment of God.