October 15, 2012

The Bible and the authority of the state

I'm reading an outstanding book on political theology by Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Might and the Almighty. And it has stimulated some fascinating lines of thought. I look forward to reviewing the book once I'm finished, but I wanted to wrestle with one nascent idea "out loud," as it were. A perpetual question for Christians in America (and the world, for that matter) today, is how the church should relate to the state, a question that becomes particularly acute in questions relating to morals. But in order to constructively engage any particular question, I think there needs to be some type of underlying understanding of just what the state is and what is role is. Wolterstorff does a great job of laying that out, emphasizing the state's role in curbing wrongdoing and promoting justice, a position built on Paul's argument in Romans 13.

But what does that mean in practice. What "wrongdoing" should be curbed? Does anything "wrong" constitute wrongdoing? One helpful thing Wolterstorff emphasizes is that the state is a rights-limited institution, based on the natural rights of individuals (and social organizations) within the state, and based on its own task of curbing wrongdoing and therefore not perpetrating wrongdoing itself.

My own reflection at this particular moment is this. Paul talks of the state as being tasked with curbing wrongdoing (Rom 13). Is there a sense in which this is similar in some (but certainly not all) was to the role God appointed for the Mosaic law: that is, to curb sin and organize society until the coming of the fullness of time (though for the Mosaic law, that time came with Christ, for the state as an institution, that time will come with the fullness of the kingdom). A particular component of the parallel I'm reflecting on is Jesus's candid assertion in Matthew 19 that the law of Moses allowed divorce because of hardness of heart. That is, there is a pragmatic element to the law that is meant to curb injustice while not always enshrining the full and highest good as a positive mandate. That doesn't mean that there isn't a higher good out there that can be identified, but maybe there are places for the protection of a lesser good (still a good but not the highest good) on account of pragmatic considerations. I wonder if thinking of the role of the state this way would enable Christians to both hold to the existence and value of the highest good, the good embodied in Jesus Christ and outlined in the Bible, while also advocating for a lesser and more pragmatic good on account of the sinfulness of humanity.

There are so many other facets to consider: the role of pluralism in a liberal democracy, the moral foundation for the making of laws, and the extent of the natural rights of citizens, to name but a few. But maybe Matthew 19 might help nudge Christians in a more constructive direction. Because in some fundamental sense, we do legislate morality, but I think there is also a live question of to what extent we do so.