catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 19 :: 2011.10.28 — 2011.11.10


God, politics and wisdom

We’ve all heard Republican Christians joke about whether anyone who votes Democrat can really be a Christian. Of course, some Democrat Christians return the favor! But behind the humor lurks the question: What does God think about politics, government and the way we vote? I’m not claiming to be God’s answer man, but many biblical narratives do provide clues here. When I explored this a few years ago, while doing some inductive Bible study for a talk I had to present, I noticed that what comes up, repeatedly, is how rulers and subjects conduct themselves politically under whatever system of government they find themselves. This lead to some fascinating discoveries and conclusions, presented here in the form of three maxims.

Maxim 1: God works through whatever political structures we give God to work with — even the most rebellious.

This maxim is about God and governments. One needs only to read the first four chapters of the prophet Amos to see with striking clarity that God is the ultimate ruler and judge of all nations. Today, however, with hundreds of years of liberal democracy at our backs, it is easy to read Amos as if God condemned the entire political histories of ancient governments. But that is far from the case. God was politically active in all of them.

Take the land of southern Canaan, for instance, when it was ruled by King Abimelech in the time of Abraham. Genesis 20 reveals God working through that Canaanite political structure to ensure that a policy would be implemented in favor of Abraham and his family settling there peaceably for a time. This policy was hammered out at the high level that today we would call a cabinet meeting.

Years later, God’s political involvement in Egypt, which had international as well as domestic implications, is described in the long account surrounding an economic policy created and implemented by the Hebrew slave Joseph, who had become prime minister (Genesis 39-45). Narratives about Persian and Babylonian kings, such as Ahasuerus, Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar, and especially about the devote Jew Daniel, who served as a distinguished statesman in Babylon, are other examples  which show that God is not limited to working in a particular kind of government. There are many other such narratives. The same principle is true with ancient Israel. God worked with them whether they were a community of slaves, a wilderness rabble, a system of judges or a monarchy.

Further, the question “What is God’s ideal form of government?” never comes up. Even when the idolatry of a nation reached such a pitch that God sent a prophet with a word of judgment, whether to Israel or any other nation, the first part of the message was always, “Repent!” The prophet never said: “If you’d just become a democracy all would be well.” Instead, unjust policies that had become normative under any government were to be repented.

Apparently, God is not fussed about an ideal form of government — at least not in this world. A question such as “What is the ideal form of government?” is a question that arose with ancient Greek philosophers. And it is a question that informs a lot of Western thinking about government and politics, including Christian thinking. It can produce a mindset that prevents seeing and appreciating God at work in all governments.

Maxim 2: God is interested in the political actors themselves, not just in their policies and political decisions.

The maxim is about God and rulers. Biblical narratives show all sorts of governors, judges and kings making political decisions and implementing policies that effect their countries’ domestic and international situations. Decisions made in the halls of power loom large in the direction a nation takes toward prosperity or disintegration. Social and economic policies are implemented. Peace treaties are made, then broken. Geopolitical alliances are formed in what today we call “balance of power” arrangements. Negotiations take place, as do power plays, shuttle diplomacy and back room deals. Kings reign, then surrender; they conquer, they are dethroned. The public is told one thing, while the kings and their advisors are scheming in quite another way. It all sounds very much like politics today!

The eye of God, we Christians believe, is on all of this. And the prophetic literature makes clear that the divine plumb line that marks God’s blessing or judgment on a nation is whether its policies are just or unjust. But we know this, so I don’t want to spend more time with it here, except to say that to spend all of our time thinking about policies leaves no time to consider the human being.

What surprised me during my inductive study of politics in the Bible was God’s caring interest even of rulers themselves, even of some who were Israel’s declared enemies. Perhaps the most well known narrative of this sort is the book of Daniel, in which, among other things, we see God using Daniel to reach out to Babylonian kings — kings who ruled Israel while it was in exile. Probably, most of us can find ways to accept the fact of God’s practical goodness through Daniel to the Babylonian kings, but what do we think about God’s care of those labeled sworn enemies?

A stunning narrative is that of Naaman the leper, an incident which Jesus himself cites in a peculiar way (2 Kings 5; Luke 4:27). The story is astonishing. I mean, come on, Naaman is a decorated Syrian general, a man of war, a man of blood, a sworn enemy of Israel, and yet he gets a miracle. Naaman does not just represent a foreigner. He represents a menacing political power that was perpetually hostile to ancient Israel. He was an outstanding military leader, and evidently had participated in recent wars against Israel. “This is the man,” writes Jacques Ellul, “to whom God will manifest his love” (The Politics of God and the Politics of Man).

The narrative is puzzling for many other reasons, which space precludes considering here. But it is worth hearing Ellul’s conclusion: “All the text tells us is that there is an express will of God in historical events for every people, whether it is a believing people or not…. We must [therefore] insist on the complete liberty of God and the mysterious character of history.” It is a history that includes God’s care for political actors themselves.

Maxim 3: God will bring about the future He desires, and that future will not be without a political meaning.

This maxim is about God’s political future when all is said and done. No one knows in any detail what the political life of the future is going to look like when leaves of the tree of life heal the nations, any more than we know what that future will entail educationally, economically, socially and so on. We anticipate that it will be a future of righteousness, in which there will no longer be any curse, or any night, and God will dry our tears. We may hypothesize about this future, of course, but we are foolish to conclude anything about what it is going to be like, practically speaking. “It is not for you to know,” Jesus told his disciples. “But you will be my witnesses.”

Apparently, the task Jesus has set before us is not how to become God’s all-knowing, end-time prophets. The question is instead one of witness. Of course, Christian discipleship entails being a witness for Jesus in all sorts of ways, depending on what aspect of life we are talking about. So for this article: what kind of political witnesses are we locally, regionally, nationally, internationally? Some might reply: the question doesn’t concern me; I’m not political; I don’t vote. But no one gets free pass here. Human beings function and have obediences to fulfill in all aspects of life, religious, moral, social, aesthetic, economic, and so on, including the political aspect. The choice not to vote is a political choice. 

So, to what and to whom are we testifying, politically? Are we witnesses to the political agenda of right wing ideologues on talk radio or their counterparts on the left? Do those outside the faith see us as so patriotic that it appears to them that we are promoting democracy and the United States as if these were the kingdom of God on earth? Are we so much of a Republican, or a Democrat, or a Libertarian that we vote for sectarian policies? How is does any of this anticipate and witness to a future, God’s future, in which, if the Book is to be believed, all nations will partake — a future which Jesus died to obtain?

Biblical clues suggest that this future is going to be some sort of monarchy, for the Book reveals that the king, the King of kings (it’s an overt political title), is its ruler. Although we are not privy to any of its details, what has been revealed discloses a pretty strange monarchy indeed, for, to use a religious image, it is ruled by the Lamb who was slain. To put it in the terms of philosophy, the Principle of Sacrifice rules from the throne of the universe. Someone needs to write a book about the challenging implications of this system of government and its officials — a book that can help us see not just how far away from this ruling principle we may be today, but also that suggest how we may become witnesses to that principle of God’s government today, which will be part of the future He desires. 



The past few decades in America have seen the rise of a destructive metatrend that is subtly shaping even the way we Christians see and do politics. Let’s call it the deification of ideologies, such as political realism, idealism and neoconservatism, and on a broader scale, liberalism and conservatism. Such idolatries boast solutions to every domestic and international ill. If only everyone would sign up to mine, people say, all would be well. The inadequacy of this is immediately clear. Someone with a different political idolatry is pushing a conflicting agenda. And another, a third. Unchecked, this leads to increased tensions, then adversarial relations, then demonization of parties, and then sectarian domestic violence. We have reached the third stage in America today.

We Christians can help America shake free of this by digging to deep questions, such as: what is the purpose of government and its handmaiden, politics? A long time ago, I participated in a challenging worldview course that looked in depth at such basic questions with a Bible in one hand and contemporary understandings in the other. As those months passed, I was shocked to see how much unbiblical wisdom I had absorbed about politics and government from childhood and school and now carried with me as an adult Christian.

What makes a biblical understanding about the purpose of government so important is that, throughout history, government has been that area of life where we humans have most powerfully ganged up against God’s rule in the world. And what a bloody mess we have made of it, and continue to make of it, including the United States.

It was in that worldview course that I learned that God created, sustains and governs all of life not by political ideals, or even by theology, but by wisdom. This is made clear all the way through the Book, but somehow I’d missed it. I had substituted “finding the right ideal” for “wisdom.” Seeking wisdom, however, rather than becoming more consistent to an ideal, is the biblical approach and it is essential to Christian discipleship, including for our political witness. We Christians are to be witnesses to a gospel-shaped wisdom for politics and government. This is not something learned over night, but learn it we must, if we wish to have an alternative voice in the public square for policies consistent with the Principle of Sacrifice. 

You can find out more about Charles Strohmer’s work on wisdom-based intercultural and international relations at:

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