There is a biblical role for the state, just as there is for the church, and they are not the same. According to Romans 13, the state is supposed to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, and to uphold the rule of law; 1 Timothy 2 adds the function of keeping the “peace.” When the state fulfills its role properly, it allows the church to do its work in the world. The church must become “bilingual” in speaking the evangelistic message of the kingdom of God to all that will hear while also speaking to the state about its role and responsibilities. Justice, equity, and fairness become concerns for the Christian community and standards to which the government is held to account.
One could say that people of faith should endorse a “limited” view of government. This is not the old conservative proposal for small government, sometimes cynically argued in order to reduce the public sector’s ability to counter the power of the wealthy and ensure more fairness and balance in a society. But neither is it an argument for big government that usurps more and more control in a society and puts in jeopardy both individual rights and countervailing powers to the state. Clearly, the answer to the endless left-right debate is neither small government nor big government, but rather effective, smart, and good government.
All three sectors of a society need to be functioning well for its health and well-being—the private (market) sector, the public sector, and the civil society (nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations, of which faith communities are a part).
It is indeed like a three-legged stool. When one leg is too long (or too powerful) and the others too short (or too weak), the stool loses its balance and is in danger of falling over. Each sector has crucial roles to play, and each should do what only it can do and not replace what the others can do better. A society works when each sector does its share and does what it does best.
After Hurricane Katrina struck, religious communities were the first on the scene to give practical assistance to the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and they did so far better and faster than every level of government. The religious communities showed both more compassion and greater effectiveness than many governmental agencies, which were exposed for their incompetence. Many pointed out these facts to bolster their arguments against the role of government generally. But while churches can bring relief, they can’t rebuild levees. And if you could add up the complete budgets of all our religious congregations and put the total amount at the service of poverty relief, it would still fall far short of the need—both at home and around the world. Churches cannot provide health care for 47 million Americans who don’t have it, or ensure enough affordable housing to working families, or provide social security for the elderly or a social safety net for children. Only governments, often working with the civil society, can do that. Nor can the churches provide jobs with a living family income for parents with dependent children.
Only the private sector and the labor movement can assure adequate and fair employment, with justice in the workplace. And contrary to the antigovernment rhetoric of the Religious Right, many religious and charitable groups helped prompt the New Deal by calling for the government to take a more active role in relieving poverty and ensuring fairness in American society.
To maintain order and security for its citizens and to uphold the rule of law, the state is allowed the use of force, but only within clear boundaries. Nowhere in the Bible is the state given a blanket authorization to use violence, without regard for any standards or accountabilities. Indeed, the Hebrew scripture’s admonition of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24) was designed as a restraint on violence, not an expansion of it. The purpose of restraining and limiting violence that we find in the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament, to Christians) comes to fruition in the nonviolence of Jesus, the one who fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah’s suffering servant. Nonviolence becomes the methodology of the kingdom of God. Jesus tells his followers to put away their swords, and his disciples in the first three centuries did just that by refusing to serve in the military. After Constantine and the state establishment of Christianity, Christians began to join in the state’s police forces and armies. Augustine soon intervened to guide that involvement with strict criteria for a “just war,” to which few of our modern wars would conform.
It is painfully clear that Jesus calls us to nonviolence and not to “just wars.” Jesus said the peacemakers, not the war-makers, are the ones who will be blessed. It is also quite evident that when he commanded us to love our enemies, he really meant it. But, admittedly, no nation-state is going to behave that way; it’s hard enough for those who call themselves disciples of Christ. So Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and others came along to give the state some criteria or benchmarks for deciding whether wars were just. Since governments are not about to live by the ethics of Jesus, that’s probably a good thing. At least, in the intention of the just war theory, the violence of the state would be restrained by some very rigorous criteria. Paul suggested the same in Romans 13—that the state has an ordering role, but not a blank check.