Last month I heard a group of candidates for our rural county's Board of Supervisors give brief campaign speeches at a public forum. One candidate, in appealing to the environmentalist opposition to logging, said that we should not let timber companies think they can cut down trees "just because they own the land." More recently, I heard a radio show's discussion of a recent court trend to make a parent's child visitation privileges dependent on the parent's giving up smoking. It would not be difficult to list many other instances where self-righteousness resorts to a forced imposition of a particular opinion on others.
We live in a culture that is in conflict. Our conflicts arise because we have lost the common Christian faith that once defined truth, morals, and their application to individuals and society. Because we cannot agree on a single source of truth that is authoritative because it is transcendent, we are left with a society of men who all seek to be as gods, determining good and evil for themselves (Gen. 3:5). Every man who so plays god has his own concept of truth and a moral ethic which flows from it.
The conflict over truth that we see between men may also be detected within most men's thinking. Few are as consistent in their thinking as they would like to believe. In a world in rebellion against God, we must not expect a coherent alternative. Rebellion against God's reality produces confusion, if not schizophrenia.
Man is by God's decree inclined to both work and dominion. Man needs to see his efforts, however, as purposeful; he needs a basis for his activity. Man thus needs to extend his concept of truth as the basis and justification of his activity. Many men will, of course, react to this conflict of ideas by withdrawal. They are, perhaps, also playing god, but they are more content to limit their divine realm to their own lives or personal circumstances. They may withdraw into more introspective Eastern philosophies, renounce religion altogether, or make it a purely private aspect of their existences. They may become self-absorbed in materialism or the pursuit of pleasure.
Alternatively, men try to extend their ideas of truth and morality. This is done by either persuasion or force. Persuasion may be referenced to love, peace, or tolerance. Force is the way of judicial action, the political process, and war; it is the trend towards statist answers.
When there is a conflict of ideologies, persuasion has its limitations. There will never be agreement among disharmonious ideas. At best, some ideas will gain a relatively wider following than others. Even among such a following, ideas change and consensus shifts. Many popular ideas and large, well-funded, political and religious organizations have come and gone in the last half-century alone.
With the inherent limitations of persuasion, love, and toleration come a strong tendency toward force. This can be subtle or even well intentioned. Men who play god obviously believe they have something to offer all lesser deities. Thus education becomes indoctrination, peaceful demonstration turns to intimidation by threat of violence, legitimate mouth pieces become propaganda machines, statesmanship becomes a vicious effort to gain and hold the seat of power, and political correctness is enacted as legislation. With the failure of persuasion, force becomes legitimate. If some idea must prevail, if some idea must be the unifying force of an institution or a political system, there will be those who rush to legislate their ideology, their master plan, as foundational and binding. When it comes right down to it, force is easier than persuasion. It should not surprise us, then, that in a culture without religious unity, the power of government is steadily on the rise.
Since the War on Terrorism began, we have heard numerous references to the "Peace of Islam." This peace is said to come to a culture that has submitted, or been submitted, to Islam. It is victorious Islam that then denies all other faiths their freedom. Force has not been a last resort to Islam; it has always been its primary means of expanding and maintaining its domain. Being largely an external rather than a faith-based religion, Islam can use external means (i.e., force) without doing injustice to its nature. While there have been instances of forced conversions in Christian history (the brief period of the Latin American Conquistadors, for instance), they have been, unlike Islam, atypical.
The peace of God is the conversion (not coercion) of men to Christianity. Unlike Islam, this is an inward submission, a ceasing from moral rebellion. As converted men recognize God as their Creator, Lord, Sustainer, and Judge, they see Him as their Lawgiver and Source of Truth. They see all of life in moral terms.
There is force involved in the Christian gospel. That powerful force is not, however, one under man's control. The force behind the Christian Faith is the power of the Holy Spirit and the absoluteness of God's eternal will. If man under God will cease his desire to play-act at being his own god, he can see his role as being faithful in obedience. Force is something that Scripture reserves for suppressing evildoers; it cannot be used to spread His kingdom. This is not to say that lawful avenues of influence, such as legislation, are forbidden to Christians; we ought to use every lawful and moral means to speak the truth of God.
When it comes to conflicting ideologies, we must see the problem as essentially religious, not political. Our answer must, therefore, be centered on conversion rather than compulsion.