Locke: Burn Bad Christians

I’ve lately been reading John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, which – if you’ve seen the last few articles, this scattered, jumpy sort of reading is indicative of how I normally read, outside of any major project that I’m working through. We’ve gone from Bonaventure to Victorian theologians to female mystics, and now – well, now we’re looking at Locke. His Letter Concerning Toleration deals with the right to religious freedom, and in doing so it makes claims about the boundaries of freedom, how the government should work, and even about the nature of faith itself. There are some points where I’m not sure I agree with him, though. For example, early on in his letter, he attacks the hypocrisy of being willing to burn a heretic, but not taking the same hardline approach to corruption and debauchery within your religion:

“Now I appeal to the consciences of those that persecute, torment, destroy, and kill other men upon pretence of religion, whether they do it out of friendship or kindness towards them, or no: And I shall then indeed, and not till then, believe they do so, when I shall see those fiery zealots correcting, in the same manner, their friends and familiar acquaintances for the manifest sins they commit against the precepts of the Gospel, when I shall see them prosecute with fire and sword the members of their own communion that are tainted with enormous vices.”

And there’s a legitimate point here. If you’re concerned with the souls of non-Christians to the point of harassing and killing them, why aren’t you concerned with the souls of Christians in the same way? Why aren’t you using the same tactics on your own ranks as you do on the outsider? This is an argument we still see today, which is part of why I wanted to talk about it. For example, if you know anything about Australian politics, you probably know about Barnaby Joyce, a conservative Australian politician who campaigned heavily against gay marriage. Almost inevitably, it came out that he’d left his wife and four kids because he’d been having sex with one of his staffers, who was now pregnant. People criticised him heavily for defending the value of so-called traditional marriage while also cheating on his wife. Again, these criticisms gravitated towards the hypocrisy. How can you defend traditional marriage while also demonstrating that you don’t care about it? How can you campaign against gay marriage while disrespecting the institution that you’re supposedly trying to maintain? To take Locke’s argument, if gay marriage should be illegal because it undermines the sanctity of traditional marriage, shouldn’t adultery and divorce also be illegal? Shouldn’t we use the same tactics within the ranks as outside them?

And I get that argument, right, I understand where it’s coming from. The elevator pitch is definitely very funny: Man claims gays are destroying traditional marriage, cheats on wife. That’s funny. But I do have to disagree with the consensus on this one – or at the very least, I have to draw out what I see as a gap between those two scenarios. I’m not certain that they’re entirely comparable. The gap that I see here lies between action and belief. You can believe something to be morally good, and yet in your actions fall short of that standard. That shouldn’t invalidate what you believe – it just means that you struggle to live up to your own moral standards. I think we can all appreciate what that feels like. We’ve all done things that we regret, things that don’t live up to our principles. In the case of Barnaby Joyce, I think it’s funny to give him a hard time, but I also don’t think what he’s saying is logically inconsistent. He can believe that traditional marriage is important and also fail in upholding that marriage in his own life. Failing to live up to your own standards doesn’t invalidate your beliefs about right and wrong.

And the same goes for Locke’s original argument. In his case, he’s talking about religious zealots, who go around torturing and killing people for holding to the wrong faith. He suggests that those zealots should equally be torturing and killing Christians for doing bad things, for failing to live up to the precepts of their alleged faith – but again, failing to live up to your principles doesn’t mean that those principles are unimportant to you. A zealot wouldn’t see a sinning Christian as vulnerable to damnation in the same way as they would a good and decent non-Christian. They were burning people for having the wrong beliefs, not for having the right beliefs and sometimes failing to act on them.

Of course, Locke does try and suggest that these immoral actions might somehow threaten a Christian’s salvation. He writes that such enormous vices “without amendment are in danger of eternal perdition.” It’s not really good enough to just make that assertion, though – it relies too much on a difficult and fidgety piece of doctrine. There are some references scattered throughout the Gospels about an unforgiveable or eternal sin – for instance, Matthew 12:31 says that “Blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” But it’s not totally clear what that means – and even if it was clear, Locke would still have to prove how the vices that he’s complaining about fall into this category of blasphemy against the Spirit. Otherwise, there’s no real threat of damnation – and if there’s no threat, then there’s no need to send in the zealots.

Obviously none of this is to say that killing people for having the wrong beliefs is a good idea. It’s not a way we should organise our society – and that’s part of the broader point that Locke is making. He’s right – I just don’t think he’s correct in this subordinate claim that the zealots should be harassing people within their own ranks. I don’t think that claim understands why the zealots are doing what they’re doing. They don’t care so much about your actions – it’s more about your beliefs. Sometimes those things can be at odds with each other without necessarily creating a contradiction. Similarly, with the Barnaby Joyce example, his actions are at odds with his professed beliefs, but that doesn’t invalidate his beliefs. It just means he doesn’t always live up to them.

I’ll offer one more read on the situation. I can imagine some people saying that I’m being way too nice to Barnaby Joyce – you could argue, for instance, that he doesn’t really genuinely care about quote-unquote traditional marriage, and that it’s just a buzzword cynically deployed to stop gay people getting married. You could argue, in other words, that his actions reveal his beliefs – that they show that he’s a big faker, and that he doesn’t actually care about the value of marriage. You can see how Locke might be making a similar argument – that the immoral actions of these Christians prove the inauthenticity of their faith, and that the zealots should therefore purge the people pretending to be believers just as they’d purge any other non-believer. I get those approaches, but I think I’m antsy about blurring action and belief into each other. Biblically, we are told that we’ll recognise a tree by its fruits (Luke 6). I think I’d just want to preserve a space where people can fail to meet their principles and still be committed to those principles. I think that’s a very human space, and something that we all need. At the same time, it is also worth recognising that such a space shouldn’t be a way for powerful people to avoid accountability. Joyce isn’t just some guy – he was Australia’s deputy prime minister. There is a valid concern here about the way that power is exercised equally for all people, and not just for the people who agree with the religion of the guy who’s in charge. That’s Locke’s core concern – and it is valid. We just have to figure out the language we use to discuss it.

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