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.
By the classic criteria, the U.S. war in Iraq was not a “just war.” During the run-up to the war, a majority of church bodies and their leaders around the world said just that. Pope John Paul II was quite agitated about the buildup toward war against Iraq and, had he been a younger, healthier man, might actually have intervened to prevent the unjust war. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) also spoke strongly against war. Even most evangelical Christians around the globe were against the American war in Iraq, and continue to be—a fact that the U.S. media also missed. There were others, such as the Southern Baptists in the United States, who supported their president’s war, but on an international scale they were clearly the exceptions.
Augustine said that Christians should go to war only as the very last resort and only with great reluctance and many tears. That reluctance stands as a critique of the attitudes of many contemporary American churches who, despite being followers of the Prince of Peace, are often the easiest to convince that our country should go to war.
Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us that violence is most often counterproductive, usually serving to make worse the conditions it purports to solve. King put the contemporary choice before us most clearly. “It is no longer a choice,” he said, “between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. . . .”
Jesus calls for nonviolence and tells us to love our enemies, but nations can still be held to the requirements and ethics of the “just” uses of force. Although it is unrealistic to expect nation-states not to use force to protect their citizens and uphold the law, we can insist that governments seek to resolve conflicts with the least violence possible. The public theologian John Howard Yoder, who taught at Notre Dame, writes, “A realistic Christian social critique will always require the highest attainable aim. We do not ask of the government that it be nonresistant [nonviolent]; we do, however, ask that it take the most just and least violent action possible.” The Pentagon cannot be expected to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus, but the church should be.
One can accept the state’s use of force in maintaining the rule of law and protecting the innocent, for example, without condoning capital punishment. One could also accept the state’s role in protecting national security and defending the nation without condoning the weapons and tactics of modern warfare. The use of force suggested in Romans 13 is closer to what we would today call the “policing” function of the state than it is to the preemptive wars of a superpower.
The church’s life and work is not meant to replace the necessary (and biblical) role of government but to offer an example of compassion and justice. And the church’s prophetic witness should hold the state, not just the religious community, accountable. We should lead by example, offering prophetic witness and, when necessary, even resistance. I have Martin Luther King Jr. on one of my shoulders and Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic worker movement, on the other—both whispering in my ears. And they don’t always say the same things. Dorothy called for resistance to the powers that be. I have a quote from her hanging above my desk that says, “Most of our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” (Dorothy wasn’t always poetic or understated.) Martin Luther King Jr. called for radical reform of the structures of injustice, believing that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Like both of them, I have been arrested many times for nonviolent civil disobedience (twenty-two times to be exact), which is a way both to resist and to change the structures of injustice. As Gandhi demonstrated, one uses different tactics and methods for different purposes and times—education, advocacy, testimony, preaching and speaking out, marching and demonstrations, relationships with political leaders, mobilizing mass constituencies, using the media, symbolic protests, pragmatic organizing, prayer, worship, and civil disobedience. Prayerful and strategic discernment is always employed to determine when and how various methods are used. But it is essential to be specific about what you want to change and how you want to hold the state accountable to justice.