Watching Out for the Watchers

Earlier this year a former intelligence defense contractor named Edward Snowden made some stunning disclosures. His revelations pertained to federal government surveillance via two programs. One, pursuant to the Patriot Act, involves collecting vast amounts of telephone-call information from everyday citizens, detailing numbers called from what location, on what date, to what receiving number, and how long the call lasted. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can access that information when investigating terrorism. Both the FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) then can intercept and record actual calls linked to suspicious numbers.

The second program, dubbed PRISM, gathers e-mails and other Internet activity of foreign-based people who use Web-based devices and communication platforms of companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo through specific requests from federal officials as authorized by our secret FISA Court—the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—a judicial body whose proceedings are rarely made public. Some of the gathered data could involve innocent e-mails and Web postings from people overseas (think about the foreign missionaries you support) who connect with people inside the United States.

There is no question these programs are rooted in a national security need to stop terrorists before they strike. Christians need to analyze this situation, not merely from a political or legal standpoint, but from a biblical one as well.

Historically, these programs take us back to the Bill of Rights and the origins of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Legal historian Leonard W. Levy, in his Original Intent and the Framers’ Constitution, made a persuasive argument that these issues may go back to a young John Adams who listened to arguments before the high court of Massachusetts prior to America’s birth. The issue was whether a “general writ of assistance” was all agents of the British crown needed to ransack colonists’ homes in search of goods for which custom fees had not been paid.

Such writs were never specific and gave frightening powers to break into homes and businesses and terrorize the occupants. As the story goes, Adams was electrified by the need to remedy this abuse, and he later drafted Article XIV of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights of 1780, which influenced James Madison to write the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and require search warrants based on “probable cause.”

The Founding Fathers wanted to protect the lives, homes, and private papers of innocent citizens from the whim of government officials to forage for information that could be used for evil, rather than good.

The Bible provides a few spiritual insights on the subject. In the Old Testament, homes were considered gifts from God and were formally dedicated to Him (Dt. 20:5). A break-in was considered so serious that deadly force could be used to thwart it, at least at night (Ex. 22:2–3).

In the New Testament, when Jesus spoke of spiritual preparedness, He referred to a homeowner’s natural right to protect himself from intrusions. He said His followers should be like the homeowner who is alert enough to know when a break-in is about to take place (Lk. 12:39).

However, it used to be that personal property and personal information were found only on one’s person or in one’s physical surroundings, like the home. Today things are different. Our identities, as well as our most intimate communications, telephone records, financial data, relationships, contacts with groups we associate with, travel plans, and family and church activities, are all online. So we have a legitimate interest in knowing who is accessing our information without our knowledge or consent and how that information will be used.

Yet Americans face dangers from terrorists. National defense, homeland security, and gathering intelligence data are all top priorities. So how do we balance national security with personal liberty?

It is naive to believe the government will never use personal communications against people whose viewpoints are “politically incorrect.” The scandal earlier this year involving the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative organizations, including some Christian ministries, proves that point.

So let us be both wise as serpents and harmless as doves. The apostle Paul spoke of people who were “secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage)” (Gal. 2:4).

In the current political context, we need to advocate for proper limits against those who would “spy out our liberty”—in this case our civil liberty—so our freedoms are not reduced to a different type of “bondage.”

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