Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Christian in the Polis

I like the way that Gideon Strauss put it on the Dialogical Coffee House when he called 'Libertarianism' "Egyptian Gold". There are things in the philosophy that do, I believe, resonate deeply with Christian values. But, also, there are things that rail against it and so must be examined and critiqued. I am not a wholehearted endorser of the Libertarian movement. One such place is the over-focus on individualism. While individual liberty is a very important thing, it is not the only thing. Libertarians must be concerned with familial liberty, too. Also, since the family is the building block of both the Church and society, liberty in the family becomes how to express the desire of "liberty under God for all".

Second, many 'Libertarians' think that their philosophy allows them to be 'Libertines', those who have no moral foundation. They think that if there is no State to enforce anything, then I can do anything. The Christian horror at this should be obvious. There is no such thing as liberty without covenantal authority. In other words, those that believe they can live without God's Torah or nomos (Hebrew and Greek words for God's ordering principles), are fools (Ps. 14). This leads to something very important: there is no such thing as 'pure' liberty, only derivative responsibility.

This can be seen in Creation: sun, moon, and stars are given authority over what God had originally made to stand by itself--light. Man is given authority over beasts, birds, and bass. Authority (or, if you want, government) is creational; but is it derivative. It must answer to its higher authority, which is always and in all things going to be God. Part of the original creation is that God has set boundaries that keep order and preserve Creation for its true development. If any of the governing authorities let those boundaries be ignored or intentionally transgress them (the original meaning of 'transgress' is to step over a line), then their is chaos and oppression and violence. When these things get out of hand, all Creational boundaries are set free (by God) to stop those that would seek to establish their own boundaries (the Flood being a prime example of this phenomenon).

Along with this, there is also the recongnition that no single created authority is total or absolute. Only God is the absolute ruler and rules over all things. All governments (whether cosmic or human) have their boundaries that they must not cross, under penalty of divine judgement. Part of the right stewardship of God's creation is that we must determine those boundaries and preserve them through our politics, our economics, our ecclesial structures, etc. This can be done through many means: legislation, wisdom traditions, community standards (both implicit and explicit), etc. Determining how to enforce these boundaries is also part of the wise stewardship of Creation. Thankfully, we are not left alone to decide these things: God offers his Torah/nomos as the foundation of our thought about wise stewardship (I take Jesus' commands as part of that Torah/nomos complex, but not the only part).

In that sense 'government' is creational. This is because God has created hierarchies into His Creation, to glorify him and for the best use (least waste) of His Creation. However, that does not mean that all expressions of this created reality are good. Many can be totally rebellious, preserving only the idea of authority as their creational component. As neo-calvinists, we must realize that sometimes created structures are so distorted as to look 'new under the sun'. Just because there is a centralized State does not mean that is it good or the ultimate will of God, it may just be a perversion of God's mandate of caring, bounded authority. Too often we look at the institutions of today and think that since this is way it is, it is a good (maybe slightly corrupted) way. If 'government' steps outside its boundaries, it is not good and must be called back through prophetic speech and action.

What, then, are the different types of 'government' and their boundaries? That is one of the most important questions that can be asked. Another is, is there a hierarchical structure to them, in other words, is one form of governance more important than another?

First, there is family (or self) government, which is the most important type of all. If the family is weak, all of society (Church, State, business, agriculture, etc.) is weak. Families are the place of moral and educational training (Deut. 6 and the book of Proverbs); discipline (Proverbs and various Deut. laws); and long-term welfare (I Tim. 5:4). It is in this context that most of the things of life are to be exercised. Dominion (in the 'keep and till' meaning, not domination) is primarily a family enterprise: being faithful with the little we are given, not desiring more and not despising it, though it is little. That is why the fifth commandment is so prominent: the family is the basis of social order, if it is despised or mistreated, then all of society has no hope. Adultery leads to the same thing, societal collapse. Man can be most easily faithful when his family is given the freedom to puruse their own interests (in the context of a faithfilled community that lives by the Biblical narrative) and his authority wont be lost or nullified by a bureaucracy. I have spoken at this from an economic standpoint in "Creational Capitalism", to which I point the readers.

It is 'civil government' (too often erroneously shorthanded to simply 'government') that is the tricky issue. Civil government is to be concerned with the welfare of the poor and the establishment and protection of justice. No Christian, whether Left, Right, Center, or 'off the map', would disagree with that. The question is what the words mean and their proper boundaries. "Welfare of the poor" is that the '60 Great Society ideal? Or does it mean that in the court system, the local magistrate has the economic liability (and responsibility) to take up their case so that the rich cannot use their clout to buy the case (the Old Testament idea...which is probably the right one)? The 'establishment and protection of justice' is another tricky phrase. Most activities by man are not under the jurisdiction of the 'civil government', according to Scripture. Notice that no one is charged to enforce the Jubilee laws or the gleaning laws, the laws that we today call 'justice to the poor'. Instead, it is the responsibility of the poor to cry out to God and He will personally see to their justice (through His Church's generosity and teaching and through His historical sanctions). Any State that decides to enforce its own (non-Scriptural) defintion of 'justice' is in rebellion to God.

My hands and mind are tired and taxed at this point...I'll try and continue later.


brian said...


Very interesting reading. I've been working on a larger entry for the Dialogical Coffee House about your concept of "Creational Capitalism" (I'm very intrigued), but I have a question. You say:

"Notice that no one is charged to enforce the Jubilee laws or the gleaning laws, the laws that we today call 'justice to the poor'. Instead, it is the responsibility of the poor to cry out to God and He will personally see to their justice (through His Church's generosity and teaching and through His historical sanctions)."

But what if the solution God provides _is_ the government caring for the poor? Aren't you assuming that God can't use civil government for the good of His people?

Sean Purcell said...

I thought you might be interested in this:

"A few months back there was some discussion regarding Tom Wright,
Norman Shepherd and the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP).  The
following is a summary by Mississippi Valley  on the NPP.



Qere Ketiv said...


Thank you for the question, sorry it has taken me so long to respond to you. I would have to be shown through Scripture where God authorizes a centralized government to be the solution to "caring for the poor". In both Old and New Testament, it is the responsibility of the individual, the family, and the Church--not the civil aspect of government.

That doesn't mean that "God can't use civil government for the good of His people". The 'good' isn't just monetary help to the poor (which, historically anyway was conducted by the Church setting up orphanages, etc.), but for the civil government means equality before the law. Civils are to provide fair courts and equal opportunity to justice, plus just (God's law abiding) rulings that show no partiality. Other than that, the only other function is for the punishing of evil (Romans 13): evil being defined as whatever is contrary to God's law and under the jurisdiction of the civil government (you can see these issues in the Torah by looking for references to elders adjudicating, executions, etc.).

If we find that the civil is "helping the poor" (which is a contention that I don't think can be proved historically or statistically), then it should act as a sign of power-hungry, totalitarian government and also as a shame to the Church for shirking its duties of justice and shalom.

I'll write more about the "Christian in the Polis" soon, but now I must go to class.

Shalom olam.