Independence Day is tomorrow in the United States, and it's good timing for some thoughts I've been having lately. As my congregation has worked through the beginning of I Samuel and the founding of the Israelite monarchy in our sermons, I've had the occasion to reflect on the nature of government. I think there are two principles, which you might think of as being in tension (but not contradiction) with each other, that have a bearing on how we should think about our government today and how we should think about the 4th of July.
First, all government is given by God and is thus good. Romans 13:1-7 is the locus classicus for this strain in biblical thought on government. Throughout the prophets (e.g. Daniel 2:21, 37-38; Jeremiah 27:6) we see the antecedents of this in God's ordering of things, with human rulers subject to him and to his will, even when they do wrong. See Isaiah 10 for a clear example, harkening back to Pharaoh in Exodus. See also I Timothy 2:1-16; Titus 3:1ff.; I Peter 2:13-17.
Second, no government is perfect (except the direct rule of God), and therefore all government is bad. Isaiah 10 also gives a clear sense that despite God's hand in what the king of Assyria was doing to enact God's judgment on Israel, this was an evil king doing an evil thing for his own evil reasons. John 19:11 brings both of these points together at once. What Pilate is doing is clearly wrong, but God has given him the authority to do it, and it's even fulfilling God's plan.
Babylon in the book of Revelation almost certainly refers to Rome in its immediate reference to its initial readers struggling with whether they would persevere in the fact of severe persecution. Yet I Peter tells people admidst the same kind of persecution to honor the king, and Paul in Romans 13 says that all authority comes from God and is appointed by God. Whoever resists the divinely appointed government resists the authority of God. The government is God's servant for doing good, even if they don't always carry out that purpose wisely, and the taxes we pay are therefore to God.
When Jesus said "Render to Caesar what's Caesar's and to God what's God's" (Mark 12:13-17;Matthew 22:15-22;Luke 20:20-26), people usually take it to be citing these two as owning different things, but Paul makes quite clear that giving to Caesar is giving to God. Therefore, it's possible that Jesus may have been saying that giving to Caesar is one way to give to God. The responsibilities to the state are clearly separate in one sense from the responsibilities directly to God, since they can conflict, and in that case God takes priority. That seems to be the main point of much of the book of Revelation and of Acts 4:19 and 5:29. Yet the obligations to the state really derive from obligations to God. I'll quote from Leon Morris' commentary on Luke (p.315):
"... the reply confounded the critics. It left no room for an accusation of disloyalty to Caesar, but also stressed loyalty to God. Jesus is saying that we are citizens of heaven and earth at the same time.This does not mean dividing life into compartments, as though God was not supreme in all of life or the duties of either aspect of our citizenship could be discharged without reference to those of the other. It means that we can neglect neither loyalty. The state must be respected and its directions complied with in the sphere that God allots it. It follows that the state rightly collects taxes to carry out its functions."
Jesus is saying that we should give to the state what belongs to it, what it given to it by God. That's part of giving to God what is God's. Yet he wouldn't need to mention giving to God what is God's if there didn't need to be some distinction between serving the state and serving God. Not every way of serving the state is really service to God, since the claims the state may make on us can conflict with God's claims on us. Yet that's not the normal way of things as Richard France, in his commentary on Mark (p.466), points out (referring also to Rom 13:1-7 and I Pet 2:13-17):
"None of these passages envisages a conflict of loyalties, and therefore they offer no guidance for those situations, with which the church soon found itself only too familiar, where God and Caesar appear to be pulling in opposite directions. But it is an importan starting point for debating such conflicts to recognize that for Jesus, as well as for Paul and Peter, the normal situation is one of compatible loyalties rather than, as the Zealots would have insisted, one of conflict between Caesar and God."
So what do we think about the 4th of July in light of this?
First, I think a very good case can be made that the American Revolution was an unjust war. The kinds of oppression these people were claiming was not worthy of a rebellion. The colonists who were claiming that the British had no right to rule in the New World were just as guilty of asserting their own authority in a land that already had its own ways, ways that didn't involve European control. Current fads in intellectual analysis of colonial history are right in at least that. Besides, if anyone had a right to claim oppression, it was the slave population imported from Africa, people torn from home and family and not allowed to have permanent bonds due to the slaveowners' absolute obligation to buy and sell whomever they wanted. I don't think Christians slaves had a right to rebel either, but they had a better case than the colonists.
I could probably muster a halfway decent argument that the Revolution satisfies right intention given that it's a just cause to begin with, and I think I could even get legitimate authority. Proportionality of good envisioned vs. bad caused by the war may even be possible. I don't think just cause is there to begin with, though, and last resort is at least suspect. See here for explanation of these terms if you're not familiar with traditional just war theory.
Second, God had particular purposes for the American Revolution, from immediate effects on those at the time to the events of today. The government that came into power as a result of this war was instituted by God in the same way that every government is (besides ancient Israel, of course) and in no other way. There's nothing Christian about the United States, and there never was, because such a thing is impossible. Christianity cuts across national and cultural boundaries and defies adoption by a government. Those governments that have claimed to be Christian have done nothing but smear the name of Christ simply because the church is not tied to any political entity. Our true citizenship is in heaven. That's our real identity, and seeing our identity as centrally anything other than Christian is to lose a crucial element of the gospel. Trying to find Christian identity in a national government is little short of idolatry.
Still, God instituted the American government just as he did every other government, including the British empire, the Roman empire, Japan's current leadership, Cyrus' overthrow of Babylon, the Saddam Hussein Iraq, the new Iraq government, and the reunited Germany.
Some of God's purposes for particular regimes are clear in scripture, and others seem obvious from history. Assyria and Babylon both served as judgment on God's people. Jeroboam's regime in Israel was also both a judgment and the grounds for further judgment. Cyrus' reign of Persia served as a way to bring Judah back to their land from exile. Rome served as the agent of crucifixion of the Messiah, the Son of God. Rome also served as the gateway for the gospel to go to the nations. It doesn't take much speculation to see the ways certain nations have been agents of God's judgment on wicked regimes and others have been God's grace toward the people of a nation.
Third, our government today and our system of government are the ones God has in place for particular purposes. It takes some degree of speculation than to say what role people and events may have in God's ultimate plan, particularly when we don't know how things will turn out. For instance, it's a little beyond what we know for sure to say that 9/11 was God's judgment on the evil of the United States, but we can (and I will shortly) list some things we deserve God's judgment for. 9/11 may well have been a wake-up call to some and a warning to others. It's way beyond what we can now say to be sure that George W. Bush was God's instrument in liberating Iraq from a brutal dictator, simply because we don't know for sure if the liberation will remain so for long. What if Iran invades and takes over? What if the new government becomes corrupt or oppressive in a way worse than Saddam was? I don't expect those things to happen, but only time will tell, and it's a bit short-sighted to say we know for sure what God's plan is. Still, we can see what kinds of things he does throughout history, and good leaders will seek to do what is just so as to further those purposes in as morally righteous a way as possible.
Fourth, the United States as a nation (I'm talking culture here and not just government, though it includes that) is good in a number of ways but is also deserving of God's judgment and will receive it if nationwide repentance doesn't at some point come. I think the U.S. Constitution is largely one of the best ways of humanly governing that the world has yet seen. There are some statements in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that I think are morally dangerous. Rights, for instance, are not a biblical way to think about moral or legal obligations. Still, I haven't seen a better way except righteously governed monarchy, and that has the danger of what actually happened in Israel, even with prophets of God at the center of the king's court. Godly leaders still did evil things, and the next generation was never guaranteed to be a good, never mind godly, ruler
Some of what the United States does today is morally unconscionable. I can't see how abortion could be seen as an absolute right. It's cruel treatment of a human being, developed to a greater extent than most of the animals the average American would be horrified to see having their brains sucked out of their skull. There's severe mistreatment of people at the lower rungs of society. I don't think it's the government's responsibility to even out all of society economically, but it's a sign of moral problems with those at the top if there's a serious disparity. We put our elderly in nursing homes in order to be rid of them. The government funds this in many cases. Maybe sometimes it should, but this is a real problem of injustice and mistreatment.
A large majority of our leaders don't think the government should model good behavior. The left hates this because they don't think you can legislate moralty, forgetting that most laws legislate morality and ignoring the fact that encouraging morality doesn't require it. It only requires it if a certain benefit is to be gained. The right hates it because they think it's big government. George Will takes so much flack for his big government conservatism that inspired the current administration's compassionate conservatism. I can't see this indifference toward laws that encourage morality as anything but a dark stain on our government. Different people will disagree about what they find problematic, of course. My point will still stand, because no one can get away with arguing that our government is perfect, just as no one (i.e. Michael Moore) can get away with arguing that our government is perfectly evil.
Fifth, the normal and healthy attitude of a Christian to a government that isn't perfect is submission, appreciation, and tolerance of what's not good, speaking out against real evil but allowing imperfect leaders to be imperfect. I Sam 10-11 give an example of how Samuel responded to those who criticized Saul. After chapter 8, it's not hard to see how people would be opposed to Saul's kingship. Samuel makes it quite clear that the people asking for a king were sinning in a way that amounted to idolatry. See my comments on the relation of this passage to idolatry. So it's not surprising that twice, at the end of chapter 10 and at the end of chapter 11, people grumble and oppose Saul. In the first case, Saul doesn't respond. There's a textual issue here, so I won't rest my argument on that. What's more important anyway is how Saul and Samuel respond at the end of ch.11. Saul himself refused to put to death the people who opposed him, even though his people were insisting on it. Samuel is clearly there, and we see nothing of the illegitimacy of Saul's kingship. He's God's anointed.
The truth of the matter is that God's working on such a large scale sometimes takes a very long time from our perspective. Our normal attitude is to oppose injustice, at least in procaliming that it's unjust, but it's beyond the authority given to most of us to do much more than trying to help those in need to the best of our ability, perhaps to defend just and righteous policies and politicians if we're skilled at doing so, even to run for such offices if we would do a good job, and most of all (in a democratic land, anyway) to vote for those who will best fulfill the purposes of good government, to carry out justice as the representative of God in civil matters. Resisting someone placed there by God even if the person is downright evil is just not the biblical method. We need to pick our battles, and the spiritual battles always take priority. That's why Peter and Paul both tell us to honor even those who persecute Christians and therefore blaspheme the name of Christ.
See the above-mentioned posts by Jollyblogger and Beyond the Rim... for more on this timescale issue, though they're talking about different contexts to some extent. Change for the good takes time in the normal order of things as God has arranged them.
Finally, we can use this holiday to reflect on these principles, to be thankful for the good, and to repent nationally for the evil. Simply celebrating independence from the British empire when we're our own empire with its own injustices is not just indequate. It's morally blind. Yet simply focusing on the evils of our society is no better than speaking ill of what God has done, since that's in effect what it is. Let's honor the powers that be for what they are, God's ordained authorities. Let's recognize the gifts given to us in living in this kind of society. Let's also speak out against injustice, repent of the ways we've contributed toward it, and pray for those in authority that they may govern justly in the sphere given them by God.