In our contemporary world we are prone to look at the bums in Washington, DC and feel disgust. Throw the bums out!! Pacifists today feed off this resentment, delighting in pointing the failures and brutality of government in comparison to Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Jesus and the church are supposed to represent the foretaste of the Kingdom of God, and the way of Jesus and his Kingdom are peace. The opposite of this Kingdom is the “American Empire,” with violent and overweening pride, and anything else that we can slap on the label of “empire,” “colonialism,” and “imperial.” We see abuses by police or government corruption in the news every day. How are we to respond?
A brief look at the history of Christian thinking on the point of political authority is illustrative. The first response should not be to look at the faults of government but to look at what the purpose of government is. Christian tradition on this score is remarkably consistent across time and denomination: Government governs. And what is governing? The judging between right and wrong, and thereby providing a modicum of justice and peace, which are great goods. This is the basic purpose and reason for the existence of government. Government exists to judge: making laws, the functioning of courts, the defense of the nation, and the work of police officers all point to this single purpose for which God has ordained government. Most Christians don’t appreciate this gift but rather take it for granted or view it as somehow contrary to God’s purposes, as the instrument of the devil.
Protestants have called the good of peace and justice that governments supply “common grace.” Why? First, it’s common to all people regardless of race or creed or geography. God has provided this wonderful good of government for all people. Second, and more controversial, it is a grace. Yes, it is grace!! Though imperfect and prone to abuse, the power granted to rulers is a form of mediating God’s goodness to the world. How? Through the government’s enactment of laws and restraining of evil, God provides for the good of human community and all the infinite goods that flow from peace and justice, and those goods are real and valuable.
This may seem too obvious or too miniscule, but that’s just because we have lived under good government for such a long time in America and the West that we have lost perspective. When I was a teenager, I spent about a month in the Ukraine, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. None of the places we stayed had hot water, so if I wanted to shower it was going to be freezing cold. At the end of the trip, we had a one-day layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and the shower I took in the hotel there was legendary. I cranked up the heat and just sat there enjoying the warmth of this wonderful shower. My whole life I had taken hot showers for granted, but in their absence I realized how truly wonderful they were. Government is the same. Our human propensity is to take the simple things that it does for granted, but any discussion of politics must start with this very basic appreciation of the grace and gift of government for human life and society.
Just think of all the activities that we can engage in and the goods that we enjoy because we have peaceful societies that are not at war with each other. You can go to bed at night without the worry of a militia coming and pillaging your home and taking your life. The college students and protesters that decry American power abroad or abuse at home need to go spend some time in Somalia, where there is no government, or Syria or other parts of the world where there is a vacuum of governmental authority. What reigns in the absence of governmental activity? Chaos. Pure and simple. There is no peace, and there is no justice because there is no government to judge and enact those judgments. The militias that roam those countries enact a form of arbitrary and brutal justice, if we want to even call it that. People live in constant fear and insecurity. Second-century Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, noted that God’s providence had provided governing authorities so that “men may not eat each other like fishes.” People will do almost anything to escape anarchy. Even a brutal dictator is better than this state of affairs.
Today we are prone to looking at the faults of our government and governments around the world. No doubt we must hold our governments to account for their actions, and governments are prone to sin and corruptions of all sorts. But the reason why we expect so much from our governments is because they have been so effective in fulfilling their purpose. Americans can actually see the grace of God mediated to us in the functioning of government on a daily basis, whether on a local, state, or national level. And for that, our first response should always be to give thanks to God.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St Augustine of Hippo.