Now, About Governing
As the alarm sounded on November 9 in Uyumaya, Nigeria I jumped out of bed and looked at my phone. I expected news of the first woman elected President of the United States. Instead, I was shocked to learn that no one had yet won the election and that Donald Trump had just surpassed Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College tally. It was not until mid-morning in Nigeria that news came that Donald Trump was now President-elect.
This was shocking news to everyone around us in Nigeria, and later in Kenya and, of course, to most people in the U.S. In the days that immediately followed, the shock deepened as protesters demonstrated around the U.S. in major cities, as we heard about jubilant “winners” expressing their joy with hateful, profane and scary words and gestures, and as many begin to contemplate what the campaign that has now brought us the next President and Congress portends for the kind of nation we will become, or already are.
In the face of the shock, what ought followers of Jesus to say and do about governing? As tempting or paralyzing as such a question can be, we cannot remain idly content or discontent with the way things are. Nor can we stay close to the One we follow if we fail to make careful and consistent response to the times that have now come upon us. Here is a beginning list of responses that seem timely to me and that, in my judgment, track with Jesus who leads us in continuing mission.
If you read Romans 13 and Revelation 13 (which I recommend) you will read two reflections upon governing that seem poles apart. In the former are classic words that admonish readers to submit to government leaders with respect and hope for good things to come. In the latter we find a strange vision of government that has gone demonically rogue and that incurs frightening judgment from God. Both passages reflect on the same Empire of Rome. Both are part of the canon of our scriptures and it is important to view both poles of governmental expression as orienting points on our horizon as citizens of God’s kingdom. The differences between the two are circumstantial for communities of Jesus in the mid to late first century of our common era, and likely so in the present one. The responses I would suggest keep both in mind.
According to our scriptures, government is a gift of God to the world God created that carries with it high levels of responsibility and accountability. The goal of government, in God’s plan, is to recognized, reward, and foster what is good . Likewise, it is to expose, punish, and eliminate the evil (Rom. 13:1-4). All leaders are charged with these responsibilities, whether they know it, agree with it, or accept it. Ultimately all leaders and governments are accountable to God to govern in such a way as to assist people to flourish in their lives, enjoying the good and avoiding the evil.
I know that this sounds impossibly utopian and utterly impractical. First, the world simply doesn’t work in this way. Second, it is inconceivable that there would ever be agreed-upon notions of these huge concepts of “good” and “evil” that could then provide a basis on which government operates. It is, in fact, more likely that there might be agreement that there are no such things as good and evil, in the way people once assumed. Third, even in a place like the U.S., often acclaimed as a good if not great nation by its citizens and by others around the world, simply or only advancing “good” and curbing “evil” still would seem to offer no practical help in today’s world.
I know. But I wonder: are these assertions really accurate for followers of Jesus, whose kingdom vision fits nicely with just such a view of government (see below), whose own teachings often sound just as impractical, and whose dying and rising from death—so we claim—has begun a kingdom movement that one day re-makes everything? For followers of Jesus, what now about governing and governance?
We have a new President-elect who will be inaugurated and will serve as the leader of the U.S. He deserves respect and Jesus calls us to respect and to pray that he will step up to the huge responsibilities he has. Some will object that his words and behavior cannot be respected. I would agree that I have heard and seen things I cannot respect, but we are not to offer respect for what he has said or done, but for him as a person, made in the image of God, and now entering into a huge set of responsibilities. It is interesting that the biblical writers command respect in relation to leaders whom history shows to be contemptible and despotic. It is not because they have performed well, but because they have been created well, with a dignity their worst selves cannot entirely shake. Those same writers, while calling for respect and honor for such leaders, also call for fervent love within the followership of Jesus (see 1 Pet. 2:17). My point is not to brow beat unwilling people to “say prayers” they do not believe will ever be answered and on some days maybe wouldn’t want answered. We pray in the Spirit, sometimes with groaning, with anticipation that God is in it and is working for the good and against the evil. In showing such respect and honor we practice Jesus’ “golden rule” with hope that the One who gave it is at work. This is a hope, I remind you, that is not in vain!
We should not have difficulty identifying what is ”good” and “evil” in governance. There are clear expressions of this in our scriptures. For example, Psalm 146 extols the Lord who reigns forever specifically in contrast to earthly princes whose best plans have a way of dying when they do. The Psalmist makes clear what is good and evil. Indeed, it is the Lord:
who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD! (Ps. 146:7-10 NRS)
These are not isolated concerns or priorities for the governance of the Lord. In Psalm 72, similar traits of the good government of the godly king are extolled. Again we find repeated concerns for the poor, the needy, the weak, the hurting and the vulnerable, and corresponding calls for protecting them and providing for them. In the governance of God, if it doesn’t work for the lowest and least, it simply doesn’t work. Of course, all such priorities are embodied in the person of Jesus our Lord and Messiah. In fact, as followers of Jesus read/hear these traits of good governance, they cannot help but recall how Jesus himself described his own mission and agenda in the world (see Luke 4:18-19).
Some note that these are things that the Lord God values in governance, but we do not have the Lord God as the leader of our nation. No, we have the Lord our God as ruler over the world, who exercises his rule in ways revealed and powerfully vindicated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, it should not trouble us that scriptures calling for such priorities give little if any practical guidance for how to pursue them. We claim that Jesus is Lord. The story of Jesus shows how he pursued the priorities of his kingdom. Followers of Jesus will follow his lead wherever they are. Walking and following by faith and not by sight is all about trusting that prioritizing what heaven prioritizing is not in vain and will contribute to the governing that the world needs, even in and through people who have other priorities.
Therefore, we must advocate and agitate for good governance, as revealed and embodied in Jesus. This will mean, among other things, to care deeply, to take action courageously and to dare boldly to protect and help all to thrive, to work for the common good of all, but especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the marginal, women, children—born and unborn, aliens, outsiders, and yes even our enemies. We must kindly but firmly rebuke and call out violators of such priorities in the name of Jesus and for the sake of his kingdom, even or especially if they are holders of power.
In those two celebrated and very different passages, Romans 13 and Revelation 13, we learn that the point of good government and the good that governance can achieve ought to be good that followers of Jesus experience regularly. Paul says that we should owe no one anything but to love. He notes that we give ourselves to love for God, one another and all and so fulfill the law of the Messiah. And John the elder describes the devastation that comes to governance that refuses to serve as God intends. As the devastation comes, it is the Lamb who stands amidst those who have a new song to sing (read on in chapter 14). The point I am observing is that the Lamb stands on the strength of his overcoming, in the way that he and his followers overcome. At last, that is the governance so good its praises can only be sung.
So, in the meantime, let us live in ways that make the governance of Messiah Jesus palpable, that fosters the good and abhors the evil. It would not be the first time that the good and the right have surfaced from below from communities of people who serve another Lord, the One who is unvaryingly good. We may not have opportunities to shape policy and processes at the so-called highest levels, but then again we may. But at whatever level, we follow the One who is Lord. We must know and live in the way of blessing, as in Matthew 5—7, we must testify to the Light who has come and taken up residence within and among us. We must seek out the poor and the weak, the broken and alienated, the lost and least, telling them of the Love that seeks them. We must not repay evil with evil, but we must cry out against evil and leverage whatever is at hand to protect those most vulnerable. We must repay evil with love and kindness because it is the way of our people, Jesus’ people. We must serve our generation by demonstrating another way, pioneered by the ultimately Human One, the image of the invisible God, whose likeness we most long to reflect. We must accept our role as agents of good governance for the sake of our world, no matter how any particular expression of governance proceeds.
We were shocked on November 9 to learn who became President. May our world experience the shock that can come when followers of Jesus help the world learn who is Lord.