by Micah Lovell
Christianity and politics are strange bedfellows at this current juncture in history. The relationship between them is one of two things; they are either disillusioned by politics and think of it as a whole as worth little or worthless, or they think it’s our only hope for survival.
Hopefully over the next two weeks there will be some homogenization between these two extremes. I will argue the idea that Christians must recognize that politics has great influence over justice, prosperity and peace. Today it’s about justice.
Political opinion within Christianity seems lost. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find any Christians who even care about politics and from the ones who do, it’s only in the context of taking back the country (and other countries for that matter) for Jesus. Or it’s the opposite of that: Jesus never took anything, he just loved people (especially the disadvantaged) so we must follow his example and love everyone and give lots of hugs and talk with our inside voices. Neither side really has Scriptural support, mind you. The former have nothing in the Bible to promote their view, but their numbers within Christianity have shrunk considerably and are continuing to do so. The latter proponents however, have some Scripture, but it must be taken out of context in order to prove the point they try to make. This view can be summed up better by Mark Steyn in his book, America Alone:
“Most mainline Protestant churches are, to one degree or another, post-Christian. If they no longer seem disposed to converting the unbelieving to Christ, they can at least convert them to the boggiest of soft left political cliches, on the grounds that if Jesus were alive today he’d most likely be a gay Anglican bishop in a committed relationship driving around in an environmentally friendly car with an “Arms Are for Hugging” sticker on the way to an interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan and a couple of Wahhabi immams.”
In other words, the growing sentiment within the modern church is that the Christian view of politics (that is, if one even exists) is one that looks a lot like political liberalism. It’s the social gospel. The proof text for this position can be found in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically Matthew 5:38-42.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
This however, is a passage that speaks nothing about government whatsoever. It is a passage that esteems the virtues of showing mercy and grace to one’s enemies, but it should be noted that this passage lacks any real political application, just as Matthew 25:31-46 lacks it – another oft quoted passage of social gospel proponents. We will not examine those passages further. We should however draw our attention to the one passage of Scripture where there is clear direction to Christians concerning the relationship between their faith and politics.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Romans 13:1-7
Paul clearly states that governments are given the duty of administering justice, not mercy and grace. Mercy and grace are of great importance to the residents of a fallen world. We need more of them in our own lives. We need to practice them more. But we need justice too.
Christians must recognize that governments do not act on issues simply because Jesus says they should. Though government is ordained by God and is responsible for upholding civil order, it does not exist to transform society for the purposes of God, and Christians should not expect them to do so, whether you support the Republicans version of society or the Democrats variety. The Sermon on the Mount is a lesson from Jesus to his followers: how they should forgive in his name and how they should show mercy and grace to their enemies. It is not about a government showing mercy and grace to theirs. His words here say absolutely nothing about how a government should act: only how individual people should act, and more specifically, his people. The people of God. We must get this right. We must be able to reconcile the God who commands his people to forgive one another in the Sermon on the Mount with the one who commands them to hold each other accountable in the Pentateuch.
That said, we must keep in mind the fact that governments themselves are made up of mostly flawed people, and such, we cannot expect them to be the sole judges of the human condition. We must not heed to them the sole power to judge morality, or else we allow them the possibility to determine it. Too much government control is as bad as too little. C.S. Lewis decries this as the road to tyranny in his essay, “Is Progress Possible: Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.” In it, he says:
“For every Government consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a makeshift; if it adds to its commands ‘Thus saith the Lord’, it lies, and lies dangerously.”
With this in mind, we cannot rely on our government to appropriate all elements of divine justice. Though there are elements of the moral law which governments deem necessary to defend, there are many others which they do not and should not. For instance, is it appropriate for lust to be punishable by civil authorities and if so, is it even possible? Practicality comes into play here, but also the idea that government is not God’s direct form of the punishment of sin. God’s direct punishment for our sin is revealed in his plan for the afterlife. Sin itself is not correctable on the civil level. Punishment is not correction. Punishment is not a cure. Punishment is at its core, a declaration of wrongdoing. It may reveal that as humans, we are indeed not right inside; that we do bad and we need a public recognition of such to prove it to ourselves again and again. But punishment for wrongdoing doesn’t make right. As we see during examples of capital punishment, the murderer who is killed by the state for crimes committed against his fellow man does not have his crimes undone in the moment he takes his final breath. Family members of the criminal’s victim do not experience the resurrection of their lost loved ones. Yet, often they find comfort in the fact that evil doesn’t have free reign over society, that some semblance of right and wrong is recognized by human institutions. A right doesn’t erase a wrong. But it does offer us hope that we don’t have to be controlled by wrong. It speaks to order of the universe, that right is the guide through the chaos. Governments punish to retain order, not to correct our sinful tendencies.
Christians must come to the conclusion that government is more like depravity management than it is the direct arbiter of God’s divine justice. Governmental attempts at justice will reflect our inherent personal desire to see rights and wrongs acknowledged and will hopefully display the importance God places on human responsibility to uphold moral principles and the rule of law. But at best, it can only restrain sin. It cannot stop it and it cannot cure it. We are broken and desperately need fixing. As J. Budziszewski puts it in his book, The Revenge of Conscience, “Not only are we broken, but we can’t repair ourselves.” Government and its laws do not offer any hope of a remedy for the problem. That’s where Jesus comes in. He says a lot about sin, but by his mercy and his grace and with his death, he conquers it. He does address the reality of our brokenness and He is the only one capable of correcting our deformities. That is a task too great for any government to accomplish.
This article was contributed to WOTG by Micah Lovell.
Read more about the editor and contributors on our About the Authors Page.
Thanks, Micah, for so thoroughly addressing Government’s role in justice. Brings to mind for me the importance that Jesus gave in discussing justice in Matthew 23:23 where he suggests that it is more weighty an issue than tithing. The Old Testament Law was about Justice and therefore Christians should be concerned with justice. But is that the same as morality? Should morality be a function of government? This post by Justin Taylor seems to suggest that Government is built on health, safety, and morals. If God calls Christians to live by certain principles, shouldn’t a “Christian” Government uphold those principles? Thoughts? http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2012/01/18/what-is-the-purpose-of-law-and-government/?comments#commentscomment-95272
Pingback: Soapbox: Comparing the Bible and the US Constitution | Worthy of the Gospel
Pingback: Sermonette: SPECIAL BONUS ROUND – two for the price of one | Worthy of the Gospel
Pingback: The Influence of Government – Peace | Worthy of the Gospel
Pingback: good news (“resist not evil”) « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality