24 October 2014
Politics and power: the biblical perspective
There is an inscription in the ancient city of Prierne which reads in part: "The most divine [one] … we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things … for when everything was falling … here stored it once more … [He is] the common good fortune of all… the beginning of life and vitality … all the cities unanimously adopt [his birthday] as the new beginning of the year … the Providence which has regulated our whole existence … has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [him], whom it filled with virtue for our welfare, and who, being sent to us and our descendants as a saviour, has put an end to war and has set all things in order … having become manifest, [he] has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times … his birthday has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel concerning him."
This was written just before Jesus was born, in 9BC, about the Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar; in the Eastern half of the empire, there was a long tradition of worshipping political rulers as deities. When Matthew and Luke wrote their narratives of the birth of Jesus, they self-consciously used political language, taking imperial titles and re-applying them to Jesus. Paul does the same thing, most obviously in his core confession of faith, 'Jesus is Lord'; of course it is a claim to deity, but Paul knew very well that the basic Roman confession of loyalty was 'Caesar is Lord'. To be a Christian was necessarily to dethrone Caesar, or so Paul thought.
There is a collision between faith in Jesus and obedience to earthly power: how do we negotiate the relationship of faithfulness to King Jesus and obedience to Queen Elizabeth? The biblical answer, it seems to me, is 'nimbly'. There are guiding principles which we need, to discover how to enact faithfully and creatively in different situations.
God is sovereign, of course, and God is sovereign over good and bad and downright appalling regimes. God's purposes are never thwarted by ballot box, or indeed by revolution. Jesus is King, and King Jesus, unlike Queen Elizabeth, is no respecter of parliamentary majorities.
That said, in the good purposes of King Jesus, we have earthly governments. He permits and demands their best efforts in governing justly and well. As Paul has it in Romans 13: "…there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." We have to be realistic about the repeated failures of all earthly governments: we know, after all, that they and we are fallen people working in a fallen world, and so perfection in government or in any other area is very far from attainable.
But earthly government does good. In Romans 13 the focus is on the maintenance of peace. Under God, governments are called to rein in violence, to preserve the order of the society. And, of course, the order they preserve is in many ways unjust, but the witness of scripture seems to be that almost any order is better than no order, and history does not disagree.
There is, then, a biblical mandate for earthly politics; what is the place of the Church in this? We might phrase it as 'critical friendship', or as 'speaking the truth to power'. Since the government is ordained by God, the Church is, as far as it can, to be a friend to government. But being a friend is never being an uncritical cheerleader. Where the government errs, and as we have seen, government by fallen people in a fallen world will always err, our primary loyalty calls us to stand against it.
In scripture we see examples of godly people close to power, dancing the nimble dance of offering criticism and correction alongside proper honour and obedience: Esther, Ezra and Daniel all did it in different ways, and there is much to learn from Ezra's prayers, Daniel's wise judgments of where he could bend and where he had to refuse any compromise, and Esther's courageous and clever planning to make the king hear truth. These stories offer an orientation – an attitude – that will work out differently in different situations, and that we are called, depending always on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to find ways to exemplify. We have to be wise and imaginative in finding the right ways to speak truth to power, moment by moment.