It seems like forever since I’ve written anything here; I’ve been busy writing on Canadian politics over at the Green Party Provencher page (I’m the Green candidate for the federal riding of Provencher). But while my thoughts have been on sustainability and public policy, I still see the world theologically, so I’ve been thinking about the theological justification for a Christian entering the political arena and promoting sustainable policies.
Some people think that it’s inappropriate for Christians to be involved in politics because we may be tempted to make decisions for everyone based on our own faith, which may not be shared by those we represent. Government is secular, and therefore safe from the variety of competing religious claims that diverse Canadians may hold to. While I think it’s impossible to be non-political, or to compartmentalize faith so that we behave differently in public than in private (we need to maintain integrity), I think there is a point here. I also think that it’s a point that fits well within Christian theology, and goes all the way back to Genesis.
The Role of Christians in Society
We’re sometimes tempted to make laws and policies that reflect Christian character. Why wouldn’t we? After all, Christ taught us to love one another, and only forbade things that were harmful to us all, personally and collectively. The trouble is, you can’t legislate love. Laws and policies are blunt instruments that are only able to limit the damage of our sin, not make us better people. That’s why Christ challenged his followers to exceed the law.
Let’s think about that a little bit more. Jesus said “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” and gave several examples of how to do so by exceeding the requirements of the law. The law says not to murder; Christ says not to hate. The law says not to commit adultery; Christ says not to lust. We often read this as Christ instituting a new law, but that’s not what he said: the law remained as it was, and he called people to a way of life that involved intentionally and self-sacrificially exceeding the requirements of the law. He was very open about the fact that this way of life wasn’t for everyone, even though he thought the law was for everyone.
As followers of Christ, then, we have a role to play in society, but it’s not to enshrine the way of Christ into law. It’s to intentionally and self-sacrificially exceed the requirements of the laws we live under. Another way of looking at it might be to out-government the government by offering our own social structures and supports to society. Christians have traditionally done this by funding hospitals, running soup kitchens, and providing sanctuary in their churches; or by inviting their neighbours in for a meal, or sending an anonymous donation to the family down the street who’s struggling financially. We’re not called to undermine the other social structures that exist (unless they are unjust), but rather to consistently embody generosity and care in a way that raises the bar for public institutions and society.
So it’s not right or helpful for Christians to push legislation that would legally hold everyone to the standard of Christ. So on what basis does a person of faith interact with politics?
Humans First, Israelites Second
God chose Israel from among the nations, formed it from the offspring of a long line of barren women in order to be his special, chosen people. Then he gave them a code of laws that would govern them as God’s people. These were the laws that Jesus was talking about when he urged his disciples to go even further, but these laws didn’t apply to most of the world. These laws were God’s way of asking Israel to go further than the people around them, to stand out by the extent of their holiness and generosity just as the disciples of Jesus did in his day and still do today. These are not the kind of laws that govern any nation today (not even the modern nation of Israel). These are precisely the type of laws that are inappropriate in a diverse society like Canada.
So what other laws were there? If we go back a little bit further to Genesis 9:5-6 we see the passage that some scholars refer to as the founding of human government:
And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.
This is the most basic law in Scripture, complete with a punishment. It implies a basic prohibition (not to kill humans), and applies to everyone, human and animal. This is the kind of law that governments can enforce, even in a pluralistic society like ours. Israel had many laws like this, which were also very similar to the Code of Hammurabi (which predates the 10 Commandments), and an Israelite probably would have expected any foreigner to fulfill this kind of law; but they would never have expected a foreigner to fulfill Israelite purity laws. Some laws are universal, and some are articles of faith and devotion; a modern secular society maintains the former, not the latter.
In this regard, then, I don’t see any reason why a Christian shouldn’t serve in a political office that requires them to represent non-Christians. The type of laws we write and uphold in Canada are universal and enforceable, applicable to human beings in general and not the product of a call to exceed the basic law that governs us all. But let’s go another step backward.
Human Purpose: A Biblical-Theological Argument for Secular Green Politics
While the covenant with Noah is often seen as the beginning of human government, it’s not the first time humans are told how to live. If we go back to the beginning of Genesis we see God creating the world, including human beings. Everything that is created is good, but humans are the only things created with an explicit purpose:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
If the Noahic Covenant (above) brings us a universal law against killing people, the Adamic Covenant here gives us something that is beyond a law, but is also not a voluntary way of life that only applies to certain people. The way of Christ exceeds the laws of Israel, which themselves exceed the universal laws of other humans; but this thing is foundational, both to the laws and the call to exceed those laws. This thing is more than just vocation, or what we’re called to – that’s what Christ offers us. This thing is created purpose, or our inherent reason for existing. It’s foundational, universal, and departure from it does a type of violence to ourselves and everyone around us.
The passage above has been used in the past to justify humans using the whole earth for our pleasure, but that’s not a good reading of it. “Rule over” doesn’t need to mean exploiting, plundering, or abusing. Key to interpreting this is to look at the words “image” and “likeness.” In the Ancient Near East a ruler would erect a statue of themselves in cities far from the capital to remind people of what the king looked like – this was an image, or likeness. The other use for these words was to refer to idols, which were made from the ground (clay) and the spirit of a god would be “breathed” into them. The description of the creation of Adam in the next chapter very deliberately follows this formula. Humans were created to be a representation of God’s rule over creation, and to be a physical host for his spiritual presence. What this means, then, is that our relationship to all of creation is to be as stewards or representatives of God; or more powerfully, as co-creators with God, the physical presence of a spiritual God. This means that we should treat the creation as if it is our own precious creation, nurturing and tending it as God does.
Because this relationship to the rest of creation is the reason humans exist, it is at the core of our human identity and forms the foundation for all of our interactions with the rest of creation and each other. When we depart from it – i.e., when we act destructively toward the world – we cause incredible suffering, not just for animals and ecosystems, but also for other humans, ourselves, and even society. A government that writes and enforces laws that abuse the natural world is an unjust government that harms its people (even if only indirectly) and an unwise government that fails to plan for the best interests of its people.
So my theology does not allow me to impose my own Christianity on others through legislation, even if that would work. The basis of national laws is universal rather than being limited to a particular faith or ethical commitment, and my own faith and ethical commitment spur me to personally exceed the basic requirements of the universal laws while only requiring that others adhere to those laws rather than exceed them. But at the core of my faith commitment and my very humanness is my relationship to the rest of creation. Because of that, I am compelled to care about the environment and sustainability, and governments are compelled (as an aspect of serving their people if nothing else) to write and enforce laws and policies that limit negative interactions with the natural world and facilitate the kind of cohesive and caring relationship with the natural world that fulfills our created purpose as humans. We can’t force people to be Christians, or to love each other, or to care for the environment, but we can collectively agree to limit the damage that we as individuals and as a society would otherwise cause, and in so doing create space for the self-sacrificial generosity and care of Christ to raise the bar for all of us.