When I got home from work, the unopened envelope was sitting there on the desk. I knew what it was before I even read it. It was a jury duty summons to the Tehama County Superior Court. Though I had never registered to vote, California is one of the many places that uses driver’s licenses to fill their juries instead.
On the day that I was summoned, I showed up early hoping to speak to someone ahead of time, because as the letter had read, I could not apply for an exemption from serving unless I had a hardship or medical reason. The court clerk was organizing potential jurors as they arrived, having each of us sign in before we entered the big wooden double doors to the courtroom. When my turn came to sign in, I naively asked her if I could speak to the judge to ask for an exemption, but she curtly told me to sit down and that I may not get that opportunity. Confused by what she meant, I walked in wondering what this day had in store. As I sat there waiting, the courtroom began to fill, and I became surprised at how many potential jurors were in the room, guessing close to a hundred or more, since all the seats in the courtroom were filled. Then the first round of potential jurors was called to the jury box, and of course I was one of them.
Beforehand, I had imagined approaching the bench and talking to the judge one-on-one, telling him why I could not serve because of conscience. But instead, despite my request to speak to him directly, I had to enter a rather lengthy and intentionally humiliating discussion with him so that everyone in the courtroom could hear. The judge made several snide remarks reminding me that I still lived in this world, and also to speak loudly so that everyone could hear. Looking back, I realize now his intention was to make a statement to keep others from thinking that they could get out of jury duty by just saying they go to church. At the time I remember wondering why he was going to such efforts to try to make a fool of me.
My courtroom scene from nearly eight years ago flashed back into my memory while reading some history recently. A friend of mine had forwarded me a copy of the Schleitheim Confession, and it looked familiar, so I looked it up again to remember where I had seen it. A quick Google search reminded me that I had read it in the context of Martyrs Mirror, and also from a movie my wife and I had watched a few months ago called The Radicals about Michael Sattler, one of the early Anabaptists. In 1527, driven by persecution, Sattler led a meeting of the Swiss Brethren at Schleitheim, Switzerland, to determine which of their beliefs were worth being persecuted over. From this meeting, the brothers adopted a confession of faith known as the Schleitheim Confession. One thing I noticed while reading the confession again was this particular line:
Secondly, it will be asked concerning the sword, whether a Christian shall pass sentence in worldly dispute and strife such as unbelievers have with one another. This is our united answer: Christ did not wish to decide or pass judgment between brother and brother in the case of the inheritance, but refused to do so. Therefore we should do likewise.
This was an example, found in Luke 12:13-14, that I had not given to the judge at the Tehama County Superior Court, which is why my mind went back to the events from eight years ago. If only. . .
Though I stand in solidarity with Sattler and the Swiss Brethren, I realize many Christians do not share this belief about serving in the court system. For me, there is a clear passage that the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth:
“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
What follows is a rather startling possibility. Might my obedience in not judging those outside the church be in conflict with my involvement in the judicial and political systems? For how can I only judge those inside the church AND promote or enforce a law requiring a particular moral code for those outside?
It seems to me that because of the freedoms that exist in this country, we Christians who live here often feel obliged to “judge outsiders” in the name of democracy by forcing our ethics, morals and law on the rest of society. We do this by what issues we choose to be most vocal about, by how we vote, and even by passing judgement while sitting on juries. All the while we have an equally strong tendency to ignore those among us in the church who need corrective discipline, which is clearly within our authority. Have you noticed the increase in church corruption? From emotional and sexual abuse, to fraud and money grabbing, to violence justified by religion.
If you don’t agree with my application of Paul’s letter, what do you make of it? How do you understand what he is saying to the church?
Ryan McKelvey lies in Salisbury, Md., and attends a Biblical Mennonite Alliance congregation. He blogs at They Were Strangers, where this post first appeared.