Friday, May 21, 2010

Bible, Christians, Government

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:

Basic Thrust
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.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I hope that being shrewd as a snake, but harmless like a dove, does not suggest deception in being snakes in Genesis were shewrd in their deceptive means of attaining their 'ends', and it ended up "biting" men in the process...

This illustrtion would be analogous to Christians being like snakes in their "use of money", shrewdly deceiving others to get them to "take the apple"...although Luke does affirm being shrewd in how we are stewards of "unrighteous mammon"...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

BTW, taking from one to give to another is nothing short of "stealing", as far as I am concerned...redistribution of wealth. It is always easy to "spend someone else's money", which government so happily does and it does nothing to elevate the "moral righteousness" of those who have been "taxed". Charity is a gift, not a mandate...

Ken Schenck said...

The problem with making anything like a direct connection between personal property and money given for taxes is that a society is bigger than the sum of its individuals. We pay taxes to empower the structure that maintains the terms of our social contract. This includes police, army, the justice system and it could potentially involve a health system that provided health to everyone.

If we had such a health system, just because a person would not need it at one point would not mean that a person might not need it at some other point. Paying for such things now would be an investment for having it available at another time.

In the same way, foreign aid and development is in the long term advantage of the individual American. The question is the amount, not the importance or public value.

As long as a person lives within and benefits from a societal social contract, they have certain obligations to maintain the overall societal structure.

Of course I know you are not personally interested, but this is to say nothing of the Christian orientation around personal sacrifice in the interests of others--an ironically different orientation than much "Christian" rhetoric being sounded right now out there from misguided pulpit and pew.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Taxation without representation" is the common cry of those that find their voices unheard...and it was the basis of our "rebellion" against "The Crown" (as you pointed out that the government in our system, is "the people".)

Since there are "no kings" in our system and understanding of government, then, there should also be no "mandated form" of religious expression, that being charitable service.

I understand that Gordon Wood in this era and others have written about the "virtuous citizen". And I applaud thier insight.

Virtue is another aspect of personal choice and commitment in how one chooses to serve their society. And those, like me, who value liberty and honesty, would shrink and shake at the suggestion that the "ideal" can be understood and applied to others, like a "paint by number" program.

"A paint by number program" diminishes what makes the individual unique and significant. Society must maintain its balance of virtue, itself, by affirming the value of the individual. Individuals make up society (government) and it is only when the individuals in society flourish that society flourishes.

Ken Schenck said...

One fundamental flaw in the Tea Party movement is to compare themselves with the "taxation without representation" of the 1700s. The Tea Party is represented in Congress. It just didn't like the outcome of the vote, which possibly puts them in the category of a child throwing a tantrum because it didn't get its way.

Dislike what Congress has passed. But Congress has passed it. If those opposed can get the votes to overturn it, those who favored it also will have no right to throw a tantrum.

As I see it, without concluding one way or another on the advisability of the health care bill...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Surely you do know that most did not want healthcare passed as it was presented to Congress because:

1.)the bill was not even read by most of the Congressmen, which makes one question if the representative was being "strong-armed" by an administration. How can one represent their people when they do not know what is in the bill, in the first place.

2.)Some of those who did want a healthcare bill were resistant to this particular bill because of its over-reaching "arm" in governmental controls.

3.)The "town hall" meetings represented those who were questioning their representatives and many expressed concern and even outrage over such a large grab for power, 6% of our GNP.

4.)Represention of the "poor" has become the "new minority" in legislation. Their "right" circumvents and subverts any other person's right in garunteeing healthcare at another's expense.

5.)The "tea parties" are not mis-guided, if you consider that those who are involved have sought "civil ways" of discussing these issues, but with little response from their representatives...

I do not believe that our system of government should resolve its differences in revolutionary ways, but ultimately, through its courts. The law is to protect all citizens in their liberties, not just the minorities' and their rights.

The citizen's vote and protest through freedom of the press and assembly is another way to make change in our society.

The tea parties should seek their grievances peacefully, which has been the case, for the most part.