Political choices

Following my post yesterday, I read a passage this morning in Jacques Ellul’s book The Subversion of Christianity which seems to fit in well with the dynamic I was describing in that post, between (on the one hand) the scepticism towards all power of Psalm 146:3 and (on the other) the principles in Proverbs 31:8,9 that should guide us in exercising power as a “necessary evil”.

Ellul rejects the idea that the church is to be avoid political expression altogether, but identifies two differences between his position and that taken by many Christians who are keen on political involvement:

The first is that in its political orientations the church should find another way. It should not conform to the present age. Nothing is more false than to say: “Society presents us with three or four options, which should we choose?” In reality the church ought to invent and innovate. It ought to propose something new. It should never serve as an instrument of propaganda. It should never seek to justify any political force.

This is consistent with the message of Psalm 146:3, that we are not to put our trust in princes (not even the “distributed princeship” of liberal democracy).

However, that does not mean that all political regimes are equally bad. Proverbs 31:8,9 provides one benchmark for assessing a given regime or political model, but how we apply the principle of “defend[ing] the rights of the poor and needy” through politics is then a matter of human judgment rather than divine revelation. As Ellul says:

The second difference is that if political regimes are not the same, Christians may choose that which suits them best for purely human reasons. Democracy seems to me to be preferable to dictatorship. I like socialism better than capitalism. But strictly speaking, God has nothing to do with such things. Or perhaps he does, but I know nothing about it.

Hence, as I described yesterday, we are driven back to the relativising sceptism of Psalm 146:3 in denying that any form of political authority carries divinely-ordained legitimacy:

The Bible does not enable me in any way to declare that a given regime is in conformity with God’s will. It is not my job as a Christian to identify history with God’s will. We do not have to think that because such and such a power is set up it is God who has set it up.

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5 Responses to Political choices

  1. Phil Walker says:

    The Bible does not enable me in any way to declare that a given regime is in conformity with God’s will.

    That is to say, regime qua regime, independent of what it does, presumably. And independent of whether the way it is set up leads more naturally towards repression and tyranny.

    In other words, we can say God’s revealed will does not include democracy (this is clearly true) but also that democracies are less prone than dictatorships to breaching the Proverbs verses, and those others on the theme (this is historically demonstrated). So one can prefer democracy and another can oppose it, and both can do so for sound “Christian” reasons, without needing to resort to the obviously nutty claim that God’s preference is identical with their own. And both can agree that God hates tyranny.

    We do not have to think that because such and such a power is set up it is God who has set it up.

    The powers that be are ordained of God? There’s a difference between saying God raised up Cyrus to fulfil his own purposes, and saying that everything Cyrus does is therefore within God’s revealed will. I suppose Ellul (under translation, is he?) means the latter and not the former.

  2. John H says:

    I agree that there are “Christian” reasons for preferring democracy to dictatorship, but the point is this is still a matter of human judgment and assessment rather than a matter of “thus saith the Lord”.

    As for Romans 13:1, I think you are right to mention Cyrus as an example, but I think Ellul would go further than just saying this doesn’t mean “everything Cyrus does is therefore within God’s revealed will”, and would say that this doesn’t even mean that Cyrus’ political authority as such is legitimised, either. IOW, the fact that God makes use of something and exercises sovereignty over it doesn’t mean it is good in itself.

    Ellul is stronger on the earlier words in Romans 13:1, “there is no authority except from God”, where he rightly points out the negative impact of the church’s reversal of this statement into saying, “All authority comes from God”. Which seems logically equivalent, but is worlds apart in practice.

  3. ourb says:

    i need people’s political opinion for http://www.ourblook.com

    its a collaboratively written political blook. topics are hot buttons, and content changes based on user contribution. would appreciate all input!

  4. In my research on the book of Daniel, I’ve read several scholars discuss how the exiled Hebrews lived in a tension regarding their host culture: on the one hand, there is very little reason to believe the Empire will ever truly recognize and submit to God; on the other hand, the Hebrews must continue to hope that God is in the process of redeeming the Empire from its self-idolatry.

    What would happen if the Church in the USA started living this way? How can we model a better way of relating to our national government with all its unbiblical pride, arrogance and self-interest?

  5. Phil Walker says:

    its unbiblical pride, arrogance and self-interest?

    Over here, we don’t really think our government has those characteristics: we normally make fun of them for being blithering incompetents. I don’t know if it’s much help, but we feel better. 😉

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