God’s servant for your good
I notice dates. I am fascinated that Bettendorf will have a citywide “Zip Code Party” on 5-27-22, the date in this century that numerically reproduces its zip code. Will we even be using zip codes in another 100 years?! “Moon Day” – July 20; JFK’s assassination date – November 23; Groundhog Day – February 2; Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death date – April 9; and other, more obscure dates. Every year as they come around I notice them and am aware that they carry some significance, some opportunity to reflect on a dimension of life.
So here it is, January 20. Presidential inauguration day. Of course, we only inaugurate every four years. This year again, though, it gets me to thinking about presidents, government, and faith. What might we learn about good government from our faith? The US Bill of Rights established the principle that government cannot impede the free exercise of religion or compel any religious activity. This “wall of separation,” as Thomas Jefferson called it in 1802 and the Supreme Court later cited repeatedly, only operates in one direction. Government cannot dictate religion as policy or impede religion in practice, but people’s religious beliefs, values, and ideals can and do inform their political activity and the government it shapes. So, what might faith say?
Among the most familiar biblical references to government is the admonition of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles and New Testament author, in Romans 13:1-7. It begins, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” When we go on to explore the “authorities” that scripture addresses or describes, a remarkable variety appears. Kings of biblical Israel, the people Israel as a whole, any individual who happens to wield power, the Roman emperor and bureaucracy, church community collectively, bishops – one part of scripture or another expresses views on the proper exercise of authority by each of these. They variously represent models of governing that could be called royal, autocratic, charismatic, democratic, and more. There is no single model.
Not surprisingly, since God exercises justice and righteousness, human authorities are expected to do so, as well. Concern for the poor and vulnerable is a common theme, but not to the point of injustice to others. Moreover, what constitutes justice and righteousness is not comprehensively defined. The New Testament’s “law of love” is eloquent and sweeping, but its application can be murky and debatable. One commentator even says that the community of John’s gospel, which codified the new commandment to “love one another,” embodies it in practice as a “choosy love” – more selective than one might expect.
Returning to Paul in Romans, we find what may be the most helpful guide. After enjoining everyone to obey the governing authorities as God’s appointed surrogates, Paul says that the authority “is God’s servant for your good.” Paul is speaking to “every person,” to the community as a whole, so the expectation is that government will function on behalf of the good of the whole community. If it is not “for your good,” then it no longer is serving its proper function as God’s servant. That principle does not answer all the questions or solve all the problems, and it neither precludes nor settles debate; but it seems to me that it is not a bad starting point.
By the way, if you are reading this on January 20 and would like to have some conversation about the topic, join the discussion this evening at Theology Pub: 6 p.m. at Front Street Brewery in Davenport (208 E. River Drive).