An item recently came to my attention. (See the whole thing here.) It is a very good study of the relationship of Christians to ‘the powers that be’ by David Berresford. While I recommend you have a look, I want to use it to discuss something I have been considering for the last couple of years.
The author is concerned about how Christians should relate to governments – especially government which seem to have gone awry. At one point he comments:
From a secular perspective, the Founding Fathers of this Nation, who, as a whole, were Godly men, had to wrestle with this matter of honoring the king who was in a position of delegated authority. Their appeal was to a higher authority. In the Declaration of Independence they noted that the rights of all men are unalienable. The Creator Himself was the source of these rights. Only the Creator had the authority to endow them and only the Creator has the authority to abrogate them. Their accurate assertion was that the king and the British government had usurped the authority of the Creator in the attempt to unlawfully subjugate them.
While there are several interesting things we could explore here, I will focus on only one. The author is someone who sees that governments can come to be ‘out of control’ and he is trying to think through this matter from a Christian perspective. He comments that
I never advocate doing wrong to accomplish right. The end does not justify the means. I cannot violate God’s law to facilitate a political goal, regardless of the correctness of that goal.
He takes a very circumspect route to his opposition to bad government by appealing to a higher authority:
Considering that civil authority in our Nation rests in the standard of the United States Constitution, my loyalty and obedience belong to that Constitution and those leaders who honor it in word and actions. To obey those who oppose that Constitution is to be disobedient to the very standard upon which this Nation is built.
While I take a very similar approach to this question, we must remember that constitutions are easily ignored by those who hold power. If the immediate political authority of our governmental officials comes from the Constitution, it is possible that circumventions of the Constitution negate the authority of governing officials. But the absence of authority does not mean an absence of power. Governing officials without authority can and do still use (abuse) power to kill you, your family, and your friends.
I respect the genius of our Constitution and I deplore the fact that it is often ignored today. But I have to admit that part of the reason this happens so easily is because our Constitution was framed with two important circumstances in the background:
1. It was a quiet revolution against the government of the Articles of Confederation. They were perceived to be ‘not working’ and, rather than revise them (which required the unanimous consent of the states) they were replaced. It is an intriguing story which we can’t recount here.
2. It was a compromise solution. There were several, very different and conflicting, ideas about how to construct this new government. Part of the solution to this problem was to make the Constitution somewhat ambiguous in some areas. It was left for those who would implement it to ‘flesh out’ the details in many respects.
This means that, when implemented by good men who were in harmony with the compromise solution, we usually got good government. (The epitome of these would have been Washington, and then Jefferson, in my opinion.) But it also means that it is very easy for those elected under the provisions of the Constitution to ignore its requirements and do whatever they wish.
In short, appeals to the Constitution mean little to those who are not in sympathy with its spirit.
From this and other considerations I cannot recount here, I think Christians (and others, too, for that matter) need to think more about what authority is held by governing officials who have gone awry.
When the author of our article says (above) “the king and the British government had usurped the authority of the Creator in the attempt to unlawfully subjugate them” he doesn’t go on to say something that most if not all of those who signed the Declaration of Independence would have said: since the king had usurped his authority, he has also abrogated it.
I think it is time for conservative Christians to admit this ‘out loud’ so to speak. It solves what I call the ‘Hitler and Stalin’ problem: what should Christians think of ‘leaders’ gone awry? What we should think, stated very bluntly, is this – the leader gone awry has forfeited authority, even though he may retain power. And this is important.
It means that we no longer owe such people respect. Remember that, in Romans 13, those to whom we owe respect are those who ‘do good.’
It means that, whenever we have the power, such people should be removed from office. Often we will not have that power, but when we do, we have a moral obligation to remove the ‘leader gone awry.’ (The ‘power’ of which I speak here is not necessarily physical power. More often, it will be political, social, or perhaps economic power.) We should speak out against and oppose the leader-gone-awry whenever we have the ability and opportunity.
But when Christians live under the regime of a ‘leader gone awry’ we have a moral duty to actively subvert, in any ways we can, the wrong-doing of such leaders. Ministers should preach about this and Christians should study it in Bible school classes – it is heavily theological!
We should all pray about it – we should pray that if the leader gone awry does not repent, that God will move against him in a mighty way. (God is good at that, as my wife likes to remind me!) We need to leave behind that syrupy idea of ‘praying for our officials’ as though that only means praying that all will go well with them. For the leaders-gone-awry we need to pray that God will remove them, and the sooner the better.
It is long past time for silence and inaction on these matters by Christians and the church.