On Civil Government

Dr. Bradley Burroughs

Article XVI (Confession of Faith) — Civil Government

We believe civil government derives its just powers from the sovereign God. As Christians we recognize the governments under whose protection we reside and believe such governments should be based on, and be responsible for, the recognition of human rights under God. We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ. We believe it is the duty of Christian citizens to give moral strength and purpose to their respective governments through sober, righteous and godly living.

In a memorable scene from The Matrix, the character Morpheus explains the nature of the artificial reality after which the movie is named. “The Matrix,” he says, “is everywhere. It is all around us… You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work … when you go to church … when you pay your taxes.” In many respects, he might just as easily have been describing civil government.

Like the Matrix, in much of the world government is a pervasive, artificial reality whose influence is vast but often unnoticed. When Americans like me look out our windows to see paved streets or electrical wires or even sprawling fields of corn, we are seeing—though perhaps not noticing—the power of government, which has profoundly determined the character of our lives, including by constructing transportation infrastructure, crafting energy policy, and subsidizing specific commodities. Turning on the television, we tune in to a medium of communication that is not only routinely populated by the latest news of government scandal but that has been made possible by government support and restrained by government statutes. Going to work or to church we similarly enter institutions whose present configurations owe much to the influence of government subsidies and regulations.

Capitol_domeYet, much like the proverbial fish that does not know it’s in water, we can have difficulty thinking clearly and critically about civil government precisely because of its pervasiveness. When this happens, we are likely to fall back on accepted wisdom, which for Christian thinking about the role of civil government has frequently led to a near exclusive reliance upon the opening verses of Romans 13. There Paul writes that every soul should be subject to the governing authorities, who “bear the sword” as servants of God in order “to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” Political theories that grow out of such reliance depict the proper role of government as one of curbing evil. The purpose of government, its proponents suggest, is to restrain the forces of chaos so that, in the words of Augustine, “the good may live peaceably among the bad” (Augustine, Letter 153: To Macedonius).

Our Confession of Faith encourages us to acknowledge the importance of government’s restraining role. In a world where human beings are “fallen from righteousness” and “inclined to evil” (see Article VII), some governing force is needed to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. At the same time, however, the Confession pushes us to recognize that government is capable both of less and of more than the restraint of evil.

To say that government is capable of less than the restraint of evil is a reminder that sometimes governments themselves function not to restrain evil but to perpetuate it. The Confession’s claim that “civil government derives its just powers from the sovereign God” suggests that the governments of this world stand under God’s judgment, and that it is possible that they will fail to measure up. Whether by arrogating illegitimate powers to themselves or wielding legitimate powers in ways that defy God’s will, governments not infrequently become purveyors of injustice. The Bible is no stranger to this reality. From Pharaoh’s oppression of God’s Chosen People to Samuel’s condemnation of the extortionate behavior of kings (1 Samuel 8:10-18) to prophetic oracles that protest against those who “make iniquitous decrees” (Isaiah 10:1) to the apocalyptic vision of beasts with governing powers making war on God’s holy people (Revelation 13), the Bible repeatedly indicts governments that defy God’s will for justice. Most of all, in the government-sponsored crucifixion of Jesus, the one who “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21), we witness that at times government may be a terror not to bad conduct but to good. The brutalization of civil rights marchers in Birmingham, Nelson Mandela’s long sojourn on Robben Island, and the disproportionate incidence of police brutality against unarmed persons of color today attest that the potential corruption of civil government is by no means relegated to the past. Even as we “recognize the governments under whose protection we reside,” the potential for corruption calls us to confront governments when they fail to provide such protection.

Nelson_Mandela-2008_(edit)

But government is capable of more than simply restraining evil, for it can also aid us in achieving good. The Confession declares “governments should be based on, and responsible for, the recognition of human rights under God.” According to most understandings, human rights entail not only what are often called “negative rights,” which protect us against the depredation of others, but also “positive rights,” which entitle us to certain goods. Accordingly, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights maintains not only that no one should be subjected to torture (Article 5, articulating a negative right) but also that all people have “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [themselves] and of [their] family” (Article 25, articulating a positive right). And indeed governments in many parts of the world have taken responsibility for such positive rights by providing pensions for the aged, education for the young, and medical care for the infirm. While they necessarily fall short of the perfection of the Kingdom of God, Christians ought to recognize such initiatives to be approximations of that reign in which those who are hungry shall be filled and those who weep shall laugh (Luke 6:21).

Nevertheless, perhaps most striking of the truths embodied in this final article of the Confession is that if civil governments are properly to restrain evil and attain good, they depend upon virtuous citizens to give them “moral strength and purpose.” Such a claim cuts against the grain of modern political theory, which has been centrally dedicated to determining how we might create a just government without just people. Such a project is by no means pointless; there are undeniably certain institutional arrangements (such as the separation of governmental powers) that promote greater justice. However important such procedures may be, though, the character of a government is inextricably tied to the character of its people. Thus, if we desire a more just government we must focus not only upon changing the government but also upon changing ourselves.

For those in the Wesleyan tradition, this means devoting ourselves to the cultivation of social holiness. That begins with the intentional gathering of Christians seeking to grow in the image and likeness of Christ, who embodied God’s justice. But it is driven into the world and broader forms of social and political action by the desire to embody God’s grace and to transform the world so that it may more closely resemble God’s will. In such ways we witness to the fact that although civil governments, much like the Matrix, might pervade our lives, it is truly God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and that in the end “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29).

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