Saturday, May 12, 2012

How the Bible Establishes the Moral Legitimacy of the State

I bugged some friends to respond to my last post and got one more response than I deserved, which I here reproduce in part:
1) I assume moral legitimacy to the state primarily because the Bible does. 2) You are suggesting that if we lived in a state-less society things would be better. Can you give an example of a society larger than hunter gatherers like pygmies and bushmen where there is no state?
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the proper response to the first question takes us a long way down the road to answering the second.
As sure as a hangover is God’s punishment for self-intoxication, as are cirrhosis of the liver, unemployment, divorce, and abandonment by one’s family and friends, the state is, quite simply, God’s way of punishing rebellious society. Thomas Jefferson’s aphorism, “If men were angels, there would be no need for government,” is the view of a Deist Qohelet. Let me suggest that the view from heaven is, “If they refuse to submit to me, let them submit to those who hate me.” And, as Friedrich Hayek noted, It’s always the most ruthless that rise to the top of government; the more more ruthless the government, the more ruthless you need to be to get to the top.
The biblical case for the beneficent state begins with the book of Judges, in which “there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
“See?” the argument goes, “this is why we need government: to keep people from doing right in their own eyes, to avoid chaos.” QED, right? Wrong.
The most easily available torpedo for that argument is the account in which God actually provides a king: God says he is ending the golden age of anarchy because Israel has rejected him as king (1 Sam 8:7). He promises them not order, but chaos:
He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. (1 Sam 8:11-17)
The common people would no longer be free to do “what was right in their own eyes,” true, but the powers that be, ordained of God, would—as we see when Saul takes tax money to pay his soldiers to chase down David, when David has many of his loyal soldiers killed so that he can marry Bathsheba, and when Solomon oppresses the people so that he can marry a thousand women—be freed to do what was right in their eyes. Again, God states the reason he is ending anarchy and bringing in archy: the people have rebelled, and he will ordain powers to bless them, but not in the way they expect.
So yes, the powers that be are ordained of God; they are “God’s servant to do [us] good” (Rom 13:4), specifically, with a few notable exceptions—which are exceptions—by making life miserable for us.
And it is quite likely that anarchy will always remain out of reach: “You will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day” (1 Sam 8:18). If, as Paul writes, “the many died by the trespass of the one man [and] by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man . . . in Adam all die” (Rom 5:15, 18; 1 Cor 15:22), it may be that in those rebellious Israelites we too became condemned to life under government, just as we all face mortality because of Adam’s sin.
The ship of state may be leaning, you say, but she’s still afloat. OK, torpedo number two: the history of the state before Israel transformed himself from an oasis to a cesspool. The Bible speaks evil of all but at most one king before Saul:
Nimrod, the first to have a “kingdom,” was “a mighty hunter before the Lord,” but there is no evidence of godliness in his society; many Bible commentators consider it to be the society cursed by the confusion of tongues at Babel.
The kings of the east who invade the Jordan Valley in Gen 14 are simply thieves and murderers.
The kings of the Jordan Valley are no better, as Abraham’s treatment of the king of Sodom and Lot’s later experience with him attest.
The Pharaoh of Egypt and Abimelech of Gerar abduct Abraham’s wife instead of negotiating a marriage, proof that Abraham was right when he said, “There is no fear of God in this place.”
The evil of the Pharaoh of Moses’ day and the Canaanite kings of Joshua’s day needs no further explanation.
Abimelek, the first to be called king of Israel (Jdg 9) was a thieving murderer.
The only exception to the rule is Melchizedek, “king of Salem” and “priest of the Most High.” And as the writer to the Hebrews makes plain, he was in a class by himself: “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God” (Heb 7:3).1
Note also that whenever the Israelites rebelled against the Lord, he brought against them states, specifically kingdoms, ruled by Balak (Num 22), Cushan-Rishathaim and Eglon (Jdg 3), Jabin (Jdg 4), Zebah and Zalmunna of Midian (Jdg 8), and “the king of the sons of Ammon” (Jdg 11, NASB). And, after the monarchy failed to halt their apostasy, he brought in the superpowers of Assyria and Babylon, the latter specifically designated “my servant” (Jer 25:9; 27:6; 43:10).
Unlike these nations, Israel under Moses, Joshua, and the judges had no king. It was anarchy, designed by God to be so, and under this anarchy “the land had peace” for those decades in which the people kept covenant with the Lord (Jdg 3:11, 30; 5:31).
And Israel was no tribe of “hunter gatherers like pygmies and bushmen.” If we are to take the numbers in the book of Numbers literally, it was a nation of perhaps three million men, women, and children. It was anarchy, but it was far from chaos.
Further, Israel is the only anarchy that I know of to win a military victory over a state.2 This tells me that the only way anarchy can become a reality is if it is in covenant with the Lord.
That the state is God’s instrument of blessing through inflicting misery is shown ultimately in the crucifixion of Jesus. Why did God have Jesus killed by Roman soldiers instead of by Jewish priests, the agents he chose from the beginning to offer sacrifices of atonement for sins?
The answer is nowhere stated, but I would suggest that a priest offers sacrifices in the context of a covenant: the sacrifice is an admission by the one offering it that he has sinned, is repentant, and wants to make things right. But when God sends in his servants the heathen soldiers, he is showing that the covenant has been broken and he has no intention of renewing it, as when he told Jeremiah not to pray for the people of Judah (Jer 14).
I take God using soldiers, not priests, to slaughter the Lamb of God as testimony that Jesus took on himself the penalty for sins that separate us from God beyond God’s desire to see covenant established or renewed. Only through soldiers could he inflict on Christ his wrath against our worst sins.
So I am forced to admit, however reluctantly, that the Bible does ascribe moral legitimacy to the state. But that admission comes with a caveat: God’s ordination of the state does not include impunity for wicked deeds. In brief, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).
This is especially true for those who execute the judgment of the Lord: God calls Nebuchadnezzar his servant, but holds his underlings responsible for the evil they did: “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps 137:8-9).
A more detailed warning that should hit US citizens close to home comes from the prophet Habakkuk:
He gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples. . . . “Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion! . . . Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you. For you have shed man’s blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them. . . . Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain to set his nest on high, to escape the clutches of ruin! You have plotted the ruin of many peoples, shaming your own house and forfeiting your life. . . . Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime! . . . Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies. . . . You will be filled with shame instead of glory. Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed! The cup from the LORD’s right hand is coming around to you, and disgrace will cover your glory. . . . For you have shed man’s blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them. (2:7-17)
Whether anarchy can ever be achieved in this life or not, the obedience to God that is prerequisite for anarchy is a worthy goal in and of itself, infinitely more so than the building up of a state that can at best put its agents in line for God’s retributive judgment.

 1 Some might argue that Joseph’s rule in Egypt was also beneficent. While it is true that he and his family prospered at that time, I think Frank Chodorov has done a good job of describing it as time of loss for the populace as a whole. Certainly the benefits even to Joseph’s family were temporary at best, as shortly after his death (Ex 1:8 KJV, NASB, ESV, contra NIV) his descendants were enslaved by the same system that had benefited Joseph and his brothers at the expense of the Egyptians.
2 Actually, there is one other: Abraham’s victory over the allied forces of the kings of the east in Gen 14. However, as his camp numbered only in the hundreds, they can probably be classified as pygmies and bushmen and therefore rate mention only in a footnote.

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