Thursday, May 18, 2017

The State Through the Bible (or, The Bible on the State)

[[This is the first draft of the introduction to what I hope will become a handbook for Christians who want to see the kingdom of God expand and fill the earth, who believe that Jesus wants us to live lives of loving service to our neighbors as a way of calling them to submit to Jesus, the ultimate servant and the true ruler of the universe, and who are convinced that Christians have made a tragic mistake by thinking of themselves as citizens of two kingdoms and of the “powers that be ... ordained of God” as rightful lords over the lives and property of those powerless to oppose them. Subsequent chapters will appear as I am able to make them coherent; this will have to suffice for now to give my vast readership an idea of where I am trying to take my argument.
  The inspiration for this endeavor was my trip to Vietnam in 2016, documented here. Upon my return, I was invited to report to my church, which had supported me financially. While in Vietnam I read a Vietnamese Christian account of the bombing of Hanoi by the US—which I know included US Evangelicals—and I felt it my Christian duty to muse on at least the possibility that had US Evangelicals had a proper view of the state they would not have supported the war in Vietnam and thus saved Vietnamese Christians years of the misery of war and of the subsequent reprisals, which includes decades of being viewed with suspicion by the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I did so by trying to go from Genesis to Revelation in ten minutes, a journey that ended up taking considerably longer. My importunity (and, I must admit, discourtesy) was gently but firmly rebuked, but I think I am on the right track, and so I will press on.]]

While one can answer the question “What is wrong with the world?” no better than G. K. Chesterton’s “I am,” somewhere high on the list is the tendency of human beings to idolize power. What Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust for power, pollutes all relationships, from the toddlers and schoolyard bullies who insist on forcing others to do their bidding, to sexual exploitation in dating and marriage, to national and worldwide politics.

While most people condemn the lust for power in most circumstances, they give it a comparative pass when it comes to politics. Christians especially tend to begin their theology of society by quoting Romans 13:1–7:

Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow. For the authorities do not frighten people who are doing right, but they frighten those who do wrong. So do what they say, and you will get along well. The authorities are sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong. So you must obey the government for two reasons: to keep from being punished and to keep a clear conscience. Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid so they can keep on doing the work God intended them to do. Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and import duties, and give respect and honor to all to whom it is due.

When reminded that God’s people from the beginning have faced severe persecution at the hands of government—the decapitation of the writer of Romans 13:1–7 being one notable example—and that the famine and other forms of poverty—to say nothing of war—that plague the world today are the product of government policies, the response is something along the lines of “Well, government is imperfect, but it is God who has established it and so we have to submit and trust that God is working his perfect will out through it.”

Worse, they allow Romans 13:1–7 to trump everything else the Bible has to say about how people are to treat their neighbors. They reduce “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) to a prohibition against literally bowing down to an idol (à la Daniel 3) or ceasing to evangelize (Acts 5), meanwhile saying nothing against theft by taxation and murder in imperialist war; perhaps worse, they disdain to bring bring disputes over such matters as sexual abuse by church staff before church courts, preferring instead to take them to secular courts in violation of 1 Corinthians 6.

Perhaps the paramount principle in biblical interpretation is to put the passage under discussion in context. This book is an attempt to put Romans 13:1–7 in its proper context by taking the Bible in chronological order, reading it “along the grain.” That is, I am assuming that the Torah is almost entirely the work of Moses, written during his lifetime, prior to 1400 BCE, and that the events the Old Testament describes happened pretty much as the books describe them. The writings of the early church, specifically the books of the New Testament, seem to know little if anything of modern source criticism. More to the point, my intended audience is people who, as I do, believe that the Bible is God’s holy Word and intended by its ultimate author to be so read.

Under this hermeneutic, Romans 13:1–7 was written a millennium and a half after Moses brought down from Sinai the commandments against murder and theft. For fifteen hundred years, then, the Word of God to his people was unalloyed: love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18); do not kill, steal, commit adultery, or bear false witness (Exod 20:13–16). The Torah knows of no exception to this rule for a special class of people set apart as the state. While the Lord commands capital punishment in some instances, we shall see that it is to be executed by common people, not a special class of people. Similarly, he commanded the people to pay what amounts to taxes, but these were to support the cult system—the temple and the priesthood—and to help the poor, not to support career politicians and their armed agents. Most importantly for our purposes, how much people gave, how they obeyed the commands, was between them and God; there was no class of people funded by the very taxes they extracted to enforce the tax laws.

It is this kind of society—a society of people voluntarily serving each other—that we are to hold up to a world ravaged by the political class. Whatever form the state takes, it destroys whatever it touches. Monarchs have always tended to exploit their subjects. Republics and democracies arose as a response to the depredations of monarchs, but democracies inevitably degenerate into mob rule as people vote themselves privileges out of their neighbors’ pockets, and republics similarly degenerate as the elected representatives are no less greedy than the people who elect them. And, as the book of Judges documents so clearly, an anarchy will degenerate into the chaos of the state if the people will not put the Lord and his law first in their hearts.

The take-away from this book should be a passionate desire to see the knowledge of the glory of the Lord fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). While those who live to see that day will live well, our goal should not be that we, or even they, live well. This passionate desire should instead spring from our love for God, which in turn is the result of his love for us: our gratitude for the grace he shows us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension and his gift of the Holy Spirit.

The way forward, then, is to eschew the weapons of the world, specifically political power, to “come out from among them and be separate” (2 Cor 6:17), and to build a society that models the nature of our God, the servant king. We will pay taxes and obey just laws meantime, but always with an eye to winning a hearing for the good news of salvation in Christ. Part of that good news is the nature of the kingdom, the promise that the king of that kingdom will make sure that his people are fed and clothed (Matt 6:31–33) and that innocent people will never have to hear a functionary of a self-serving state say, “Do as I say or I’ll kill you.”

We model this kingdom not by attempting to “Christianize” the coercive world system but rather by meeting people’s needs God’s way: through voluntary means. Schools, hospitals, and homes for orphans and the aged, institutions that post-Christian and never-Christian societies now consider indispensable, were begun in earnest by Christians as voluntary operations. As they have been taken over by the taxman, they have indeed become more “effective,” if by such is meant able to “serve” more people and provide more in the way of tangible benefits. But as selfish human nature has taken its toll, many of them have also become primarily places where employees make a living and secondarily channels of common grace.

To the degree that they fulfill the function their builders intended, such institutions proclaim that God is irrelevant. That is, not only does the observer see no reason to glorify God for the benefits he receives from an institution that does not acknowledge God, but those who build the institutions do so in part to show that they have no need of God, that God is somewhere between irrelevant and the subject of an excrable, death-dealing lie.

He who is faithful in little will be given charge over much (e.g., Luke 19:17). The stone “cut out without hands” that destroyed the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was small, but grew to fill the whole world (Dan 2:15). The kingdom of God—the antitype of which Nebuchadnezzar’s stone is the type—similarly starts small and grows to fill the earth (Matt 13:31–33). We can choose to be part of this growth or not. We can, to borrow C. S. Lewis’ metaphor, make mud pies in the slums of politics, or we can work to have a holiday at the shore of voluntary service. Crowning Romans 13:1–7 king of our social theory inevitably binds us to the slums.

This book is intended to give you the courage to put that unwitting usurper in its place, a place in subjection to Jesus’ plain words: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25–26), and most importantly, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:37–40, quoting Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18).