A biblical framework for understanding politics – part 4

[update: the full series is available as a PDF here]

In the final post in this series we will take a step beyond considering how we should view politics and government and set out in hazy terms what such a government should do.

If you’re only just joining us I would suggest taking a moment to catch up. In the first post I explored the key characteristics of political authority, in the second how we should view government, and in the third what the Lordship of Christ meant for all this.

The purpose of government

We’ve already looked at government as an ambiguous concept, caught in the tensions between it’s created status and its fallen nature, and between it’s legitimate role and it’s evident limits.

The exercise of political authority is often equally dubious. These tensions exist in what the government seeks to do and how it does it.

But we’re invited to the task of living in these tensions and working to bring the redemptive hope of Christ into the outworking of government and across all of society.

Here are three broad areas which the Bible suggests should be within the scope of government.

Commitment to human equality

It’s astonishing that the church has let the concept of equality be snatched from its grasp, because equality is such a fundamental part of biblical teaching.

We are all equal under God, this is true in our created status. It is true in the universality of sin, and it is true in our universal need for redemption.

Jesus was radically inclusive in his ministry, he deliberately sided with the poor and the disenfranchised. He overturned the social order and he overturned the tables of those who would profit from the poorest.

But that wasn’t were equality began. In the laws for Israel there was a strong seem of justice running through them. The laws for the ownership of property and slaves ensured that intergenerational social mobility was not hampered.   Israel was warned against taking a king and the prophets railed against the injustices perpetrated by them.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he exhorts them to generosity, and he uses the old Testament portrait of the manna provided in the desert to point out that those who gathered much did not have too much and those who gathered little did not have too little.

For the common good

All governments promote and seek some form of common good. What this looks like is different in different contexts and sometimes gets lost in the pursuit of just judgement.

Thomas Aquinas noted that the common good existed for the good of the people and not for the good of the ruler. For much of history this was not the way that political authority operated.

The concept of the common good is based on the idea that a community is more than a series of disconnected individuals, it works upon the coming together of those people and their working together for a common cause.

While Christianity has often emphasised individual choice, especially in relation to salvation, it has also affirmed the need for community structures that enable us to live fulfilled lives as part of wider society.

It is the role of government to promote such structures while making sure that they do not dominate them. When the common good comes to the fore it makes sure that no one suffers permanent social exclusion.

This means that particular attention should be paid to those who are liable to experience such exclusion. David McIlroy comments, “The weight of the classical tradition is solidly behind the prioritising of the needs of the weakest, in whom it has been recognised that we see the face of Christ with special clarity.”

Exercise of just judgement

The third core function of government, alongside a commitment to equality and working for the common good is the exercise of just judgement.

The Christian tradition has long acknowledged that the Christian ruler must discern the requirements of Christian moral teaching within and for the complex realities of the society that has to be governed.

This means that there are very few absolutes of what a governing system should look like. I think if we cast our minds through history we can see the rights and wrongs of political systems of every hue. Including those who explicitly reject Christian teaching, and those claiming to govern in its name.

It is not possible to take judgements in a neutral space. It is simply one of the myths of contemporary political thought that there exists a space where all prejudices and conceptions of the common good can be removed and a judgement reached that abides by the rules of justice and nothing else.

Instead, we have to accept that there are many competing claims to subjective morality, and these require us to offer a substantive argument for why the values we hold, and the truths we believe, are for the common good.

And we need to keep one eye on the fact that human concepts of justice will only ever be limitedly just. This means that that the capability of government to promote the good, and exercise judgement, while present, is limited.

Conclusion

The apostles chose to reinforce the radical message of Jesus’ death and resurrection and refused to accept the absolute claims to authority that the Roman Empire demanded.

But they didn’t reject the fact that it had authority, they just saw its authority as limited. They continued to remind the authorities of their duties and responsibilities and reflected the role of the prophets in the Old Testament.

We must remember that neither tyranny nor anarchy are what God desires. The institutions of political authority have good in them as they reflect the nature of our created God. But they are also fallen because they are formed by fallen humans.

But most of all, we must hold to the hope for the ultimate redemption of all things and how we are commanded to have a role in that rebuilding.

Advertisements

A biblical framework for understanding politics – part 3

Government in the New Testament

In the first two posts in this series I set out firstly the concept of political authority in theological terms, and then in yesterday’s post what this meant for how we should view government: as both legitimate but limited. I’ve also briefly touched already on the position of government and political authority in New Testament teaching, but here I want to delve a bit deeper. In particular I want to explore what impact a full understanding of the Lordship of Christ has on our engagement in politics.

Tom Wright has written extensively on this subject and a theme he returns to time and again is that Christianity has underplayed the political purpose in Christian thought, and as a result misread key aspects of the gospels and epistles.

This revolves around an incomplete understanding of what Jesus achieved through his death and resurrection.

If we understand Jesus as Lord, and subsequently understand that Caesar, or what ever contemporary ruler has taken his place in different times and contexts throughout history, are not Lord, we are free to step back and take a broader view of what Lordship means.

We’ve already referenced Jesus before Pilate, and his declaration that whatever political authority he exercised had been given to him.

 

You see, Israel wanted a liberator. They wanted a saviour who would vanquish their foes, free them from oppression and enforce the laws that were ignored.

But the coming king did not look like that.

Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem with chariots to overthrow the Roman oppressors. The Messiah who for hundreds of years they had awaited did not back the Pharisees and insist that the law, in all its detailed regulations governing every aspect of daily life, was strictly enforced. This king did not even remove himself from the enemy occupiers to create a kingdom on earth without blemish.

For Jesus those who broke the rules and those who enforced the rules were both equally wrong.

He confounded his critics and he confused his supporters.

The way that Jesus engaged in public life was completely different to anything they expected.

So when Jesus came before Pilate we see very clearly the meeting of two different kingdoms, the kingdom of the Roman Empire and the political authority that it exercised. And the Kingdom of God fully represented in the person of Jesus.

The point that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world does not mean that it is instead an entirely spiritual one.

No, Jesus’ kingdom is not derived from this world, but it is designed for this world.

Tom Wright puts it like this: “Precisely because it is the kingdom of the wise creator God who longs to heal this world, whose justice is aimed at restoration rather than punitive destruction, it can neither be advanced nor attained by the domineering, bullying fighting kingdom methods employed in merely earthly kingdoms”.

This is how Jesus redefines what Lordship means.

Yet at exactly this point he also declares support for the existence of earthly rulers. In affirming that Pilate does have authority he is advocating government over anarchy.

The worst form of government is not dictatorship but no government at all. I’d suggest that even the very worst ruler is better than a world where we are all our own tyrants and the weak are crushed in our desire to achieve the best for ourselves that we can.

God did not send his son to destroy the world but to rescue it from evil. And the structures of human society are part of the good of creation that he came to redeem.

During Jesus’ ministry the disciples squabbled over who would get to sit on his left and his right, and Jesus sees all this as an adventure in missing the point.

He radically restates that the rules of this earth lord it over their subjects but under his kingdom the greatest must be the servant. Mark 10.45 offer the conclusion to this dramatic reversal: “The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.

This is more than just a statement about the work of Jesus on the cross.

It is a radically counter imperial statement. To quote Tom Wright once again: “it is an invitation to understand the atonement itself … as involving God’s victory not so much over the world and its powers but over the worldly ways of power.”

Romans 8 gives us a fuller picture of our hope for a new creation. It upstage the hope of Rome that is entering a new stage of its fruitfulness. It goes beyond our wildest dreams as to what a new creation could look like.

And this links back to what we’ve already considered: the ultimate recourse of an earthly authority is to take away life.

Jesus’ victory over death, and the promise of a future resurrection, makes this exercise of power somewhat futile. Death has, after all, been defeated.

The Lordship of Christ needs to be considered alongside the biblical themes of creation and judgement. Together, in harmony, they show us the good news. That the God who made the world now rules the world through his son Jesus.

In the closing section of Romans, 15.12, Paul echoes Isaiah 11 saying “Jesus is the one who rises to rule over the nations, and in him the nations shall hope”.

This Lordship is not just over heaven, it is not just for the ultimate future when everything will be restored to Him. It is also for the present time, for this penultimate future where we catch a glimpse of God’s coming kingdom.

And in response we are called to be the bringers of hope. The carriers of healing to a broken world. And show that Christ’s rule is good news for all.

Read on: the fourth and final part in the series