Here's the third and maybe second to last post about the conference I attended last week at Wheaton called "Government, Foreign Assistance, and the Mission of God in the World." Previous posts include:
Why Government should aid...
The first presentation of the conference was on the biblical basis for governmental assistance. The presentation focused on Psalm 72 and Romans 13. I imagine that I wasn't the only one that found this line a little shaky. One professor from Denver Seminary used the word "tricky."
It's always tricky in my mind to apply the civil dimensions of the Old Testament to today. Governments are usually a given rather than something we can apply the Bible to. What is different about the US is that it is a democracy. Within the limits of the Constitution, we can as a people "bend the power of the United States" in certain directions, as long as they we do not violate the establishment of religion clause.
I've never found Romans 13 very helpful on these issues either. Statements in the Bible usually give a snapshot of the truth that is particularly relevant to a place and time. Romans 13 is nothing like an absolute philosophical statement on the timeless purpose of government. Governments punish wrongdoers. Yep.
But they can do much, much, more and they often do less. In fact, this was the same government that put Paul to death, reflecting the simple fact that governments more often than not fail at one of their fundamental purposes. Indeed, we cannot be completely sure that there is not an element of rhetoric in Romans 11--that Paul is giving a more idealistic picture of Rome than he himself believed, suggesting what Rome should be like rather than how it is.
Interestingly, the most helpful part of the conference for me on this score came in the last 20 minutes of the conference in a comment from Cheryl Sanders of Howard University. She mentioned the Joseph story of Genesis. When someone questioned this example, wondering if Pharaoh was really a model for government, her response was, to me, very insightful. It amounted to "Exactly." In so many words, Pharaoh embodies all the ambiguities of the people of God engaging with worldly powers.
So I propose the following model of Christian-state relationship. First and foremost, the people of God should never confuse themselves with worldly powers. Even when we are in government, even if Billy Graham were to become President of the United States, we must always distinguish the people of God, the Church, from the powers of this world.
If we take all the kings of Israel and Judah, far more were not kings after God's own heart than were. And the period of the judges was far from an operational theocracy. In short, this distinction applies even to ancient Israel, which is usually used as the model for those groups that most wish to identify church and state.
What we find in the story of Joseph and Pharaoh or Daniel and Nebuchanezzar or Nehemiah with Persia or Esther with Artaxerxes or Paul with Rome is that there is always a "dancing with the devil" dimension to any relationship between the people of God and government. God can and does use government to forward His will. God uses specific individuals at specific times and places to move governments in the right direction.
But it's often like playing with a snake. It can bite you. The relationship between people of God and worldly powers is ambiguous. It can be good. I can be bad. It is not a simple formula. It is not always Christ versus culture. It is not always Christ within culture. And this side of eternity it will never be finally transformed any more than our flesh is ever permanently removed from play. The relationship is dynamic.
I am not advocating a two kingdoms model because I am not suggesting that Christians can give up their Christian identity in their involvement with worldly powers. I am not advocating a Christ versus culture model where one withdraws from political engagement. I am advocating the attempt to intersect the kingdom of God with the kingdom of this world as much as possible to "bend" it.
Although I would not make too much of the supposed Christian foundations of America, there is a great deal of commonality between fundamental Christian values and fundamental American principles. More than most other nations in history, we have the opportunity to "bend the power of the United States" in Christian directions. As was also pointed out at the conference, here we are the government, in a sense.
But make no mistake, the US government operates on the basis of a social contract between everyone living here, which includes many non-Christians. No law or policy that is specifically Christian--and not generally beneficial--will stand the test of time. This is why the entire Christian lobby against gay marriage will eventually fail and probably is, in my suspicion, a waste of energy, an exercise in futility.
But it will also often be possible to argue for Christian goals within the language of the US Constitution. For example, it is in the best interest of the US government to alleviate poverty in those parts of the world that grow terrorists. The current problems around the world with terrorism stem more than anything else to the impoverishment of peoples. So Christians are motivated to eliminate poverty because we are following the mandates of Christ. But we can "bend the power of the United States" using an argument that achieves a similar end but using the language of national self-interest.
In the end, my mind was drawn to the Parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16. This parable seems filled with all the ambiguity of the relationship between the people of God and worldly power. As in all of Luke, money is viewed as something outside the kingdom of God. It is morally dubious at best. This strange parable seems to say, Be very, very sharp when dealing with the world. You are handling a dangerous thing, like a snake. Be very shrewd. Be wise as a serpent, but harmless as a dove.