Surprisingly, it was the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant who coined the phrase “the crooked timber of humanity.” Whatever one makes of Kant’s philosophy, he seems to retain at least some of the Lutheran pietism that he so admired in his parents. Kant’s phrase echoes what Christians throughout history have professed: with the rebellion of Adam in the Garden of Eden, human nature was altered from its inherently good created state of loving God and loving neighbor to loving ourselves first and foremost and turning aside from the law of God.
We are all sons and daughters of Adam in that we have the same created nature, but we have also inherited the same “crooked timber.” But that nature is not inherently evil. Our created nature is good. When God created the world and human beings in His image, male and female, he saw that his creation “was very good” (Genesis 1:31). But post-fall, humans are born “crooked timber.” Our desires have been disordered so that God is not our first love, and loving our neighbor is a challenge because our sinful nature within divides us and mixes up our motives. One needs only look at the world around us or turn on the daily news to see the results of our rebellion against God’s law. The internal chaos we sense within becomes a hot mess when you bring humans together in community. After the fall in Genesis 3, we see the murder of Abel by his brother Cain as sign of things to come. St Paul in Romans 5 describes life after the fall as the reign of death, both physically and spiritually. As bleak as this all may sound, and highly offensive to modern ears, it’s the truth.
What does this have to do with government? Everything. Historically, Christians have talked about the fall of Adam in conjunction with the origins of government. The divide between Protestants and Catholics on this issue is more pronounced as Catholics, under the influence of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, emphasize the goodness of hierarchy and government before the fall whereas Protestants, more influenced by Augustine and Luther, tend to view government as a remedial institution to deal with sin after the fall, believing that in the beginning God never intended for one man to rule another.
The role of government is different from that of salvation. God has provided for the salvation of humankind, for the straightening of the “crooked timber” in Jesus Christ, but not all individuals will be saved by this grace in this life and shall continue to walk in rebellion. People—including Christians!—will commit crime, steal, murder, rape, abuse, and destroy, as well as cheat on their taxes. Until the return of Jesus to reign in the kingdom of peace and to judge the nations, government does the work of upholding the righteousness of God in the civil community. How? By enacting God’s righteous judgments against wrongdoing. The Bible does not give us a form of government but an activity that is to be carried about by kings, judges, tribal leaders, and governors. That is why Christians are not married to one form of government. It is what governments do—mediate God’s law and judgment—and not its form (democracy, monarchy, etc.) that matters most.
It is not vindictiveness or hate to punish, but punishment upholds justice, goodness, and peace which communities require in order to function. When Bernie Madoff robbed thousands of people of their retirements, investments, and life savings, his punishment was not merely the expression of anger, though no doubt many were angry and hurt, but the upholding of righteousness through the punishment of wrong. For peace, justice, and community to be protected from our sinful nature, we must publicly punish wrongdoing. Thomas Aquinas coined the phrase “common good” (bonum commune) because goods such as justice and peace are goods that a community shares together. Throughout the Bible, we see the biblical authors praising kings, judges, and magistrates for judging rightly. Moses is overwhelmed in Exodus 18 because the people are demanding a judge to decide cases. One of the benefits that the Romans provided for the people they conquered was a consistent judicial system, whereby governors would travel their province and judge cases in villages and cities.
But we must always remember the fragility and imperfection of this judgment. Government cannot redeem. Its judgments are made by humans, meaning it is limited and cannot claim the finality nor righteousness of God’s judgment. The judgment of government cannot heal, regardless of what activists may desire. Many, on either right or left, want government to be something it cannot and should not be: God. It is understandable to hear people cry out for justice, especially if the injustice is being committed by our very government, but rather than expecting government to bring salvation we ought, rather, to appreciate the limited good it can do. Government is a grace, but not a redeeming grace. We would do well to remember this.
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.
Photo Credit: Roman Forum, via Wikimedia Commons (Stefan Bauer)