God and Government
I came across this article by N.T. Wright, which is more a sermon transcript than an article, actually. Though he is talking exclusively about British Parliamentary politics, I think much of what he says is applicable to American Republicanism. But it’s what he says about the interaction between God and Government that I find most fascinating.
The concept of humans bringing God’s order to the world lies at the heart of all ordering of human society, all leadership, all government. The New Testament reaffirms very strongly the essentially monotheistic vision of human powers and authorities: all of them, rulers, authorities, powers and dominions, declares St Paul, are created in, through and for the Messiah who is the Image of the invisible God.
When it comes to government, this is the theology that ought to form the framework of the Christian perspective. Governments exist for Jesus. He is, after all, the King of the Universe. This was the view that early Christians had toward Rome.
The Christians were perceived not only as giving their full allegiance to this strange character called Jesus; that was bad enough, even though they claimed they were living as good, law-abiding citizens in other ways. They were discovering that following Jesus generated and sustained a new way of living together, a new kind of communal life, which, strangely to ancient eyes, didn’t offer sacrifices to the gods, didn’t go off to ask directions from the oracles, and, though it paid Caesar’s taxes, didn’t pray to him or offer incense before his image. They weren’t normal revolutionaries; they were worse than that. And so, as the early church spread, the story of Acts was multiplied: martyrdoms on the one hand, explanations on the other, and, increasingly, a whole new view of how the world should be governed. The earliest Christians were in no position to do the governing themselves. But they, like some ancient Jews, had no hesitation in telling rulers how to do their job. The church was not simply called to be a parallel society, leaving the world to go its own wicked way. The church discovered that, out of allegiance to Jesus, it had the annoying and dangerous task of calling the world to account.
Jesus is not merely a god among many. He is the Lord of the world. And it has always been the responsibility of the Church to publicly proclaim him as Lord, and see to it that his designs for the world are accomplished. And the designs of Jesus are, as Wright puts it, setting everything to rights.
What has changed with the victory of Jesus is that we now know that the ancient Israelite dream of a world put to rights was not a mere fantasy. Jesus has launched God’s new creation, and one day the whole world will be put to rights. The task of governments in the present time, seen from the Christian point of view, is to perform within the world that waits for that eventual day such acts of judgment – the making of decisions, the drawing of lines, the setting of parameters – which will properly anticipate, even in the present time and even if the rulers in question are unaware of this God-given role, that final putting-to-rights of all things. And it is a prime task of the church to remind the rulers, whoever they are, of this vocation.
You might say that the government’s job is to prepare each society for the coming of the true king of the world, Jesus Christ, by putting setting into motion that which anticipates the final setting to rights of creation. The Church’s responsibility is to remind the government that this is their God-given task and their part in the coming of the kingdom of God.
As we work this out, we will find that speaking in a prophetic voice (for that is precisely what this is) requires moving beyond liberalism and conservatism. The role of the Church is far too great to be contained within a singular political party. This task brings us back to the cross where we find the greatest victory and the truest use of power for the sake of all mankind. In this task the cross is not only what we speak but how we speak it.