October 3, 2013

Churches & Government Shut-Down

Jim Wallis has declared the government shut-down to be “unbiblical,” or at least so declares the headline of his latest Sojourners column. More specifically he faults “a clear hostility to government itself, government per se, from a group of political extremists that I believe is unbiblical.” In case there’s any doubt, he’s talking about conservative Republicans, fretting “that extreme minority has captured their party and the political process, and has driven the nation into dangerous crisis based upon fear.”

More sagely, Wallis says the “biblical purpose of government is to protect from evil and to promote the good — protect and promote. Government is meant to protect its people’s safety, security, and peace, and promote the common good of a society — and even collect taxes for those purposes.” He even cites Romans 13. Although he’s shy about admitting it, Wallis is a strong pacifist who rejects all violence, so it’s curious what he means by “security.” All government, of course, is based upon force, so it’s even more curious how the pacifist Religious Left typically demands more government without considering the coercion required for it.

In contrast to Wallis, most church pronouncements on the government shut-down have been more temperate. Unitarian Universalists, Bread for the World, Mainline Protestants (United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian Church USA, Episcopal, etc) and the Islamic Society of North America declared they’re “opposing efforts to allow the will of the few to threaten the common good.” But otherwise their statement is relatively benign.

Two United Methodist bishops have issued statements that are also relatively non-controversial. Bishop Marcus Matthews of Washington,D.C. notes: “We are a nation that trusts in God.” And he warns against “finger-pointing,” while still aiming his own jibe against “efforts by a few to threaten the common good.” He concludes:

It is my prayer that God grant our political leaders the courage and wisdom to confront the tough decisions in a manner that gives credence to our belief that “In God We Trust,” and that you and your neighbors weather this storm with grace. God is with us.

Indiana Bishop Mike Coyner more deeply pondered “The Government We Deserve.” He notes: “All of the traits in Washington that we decry are actually an outgrowth of the messed-up values in our whole culture.” He faults Americans’ over spending, their “entitlement” attitude, and their “unruly behavior.” There are a couple factual errors. He says our culture is getting more violent, when violent crime has been declining for decades, thankfully. And he says Americans are increasingly in debt, though average household debt has been falling since the 2008-2009 financial crash.

But Bishop Coyner’s overall point is correct:

We can complain about the government, but we get the government we deserve. We get the government we elect. We get the government that reflects the unhealthy trends in our whole American society.

Coyner suggests the answer is to be “honest about the nature of human sin” and “confess that we all are the root of the problems we see in Washington,” and “pray that God will forgive us for choosing the government we deserve.”

Church leaders urging prayers for God’s help are faithful to their churchly vocation. Picking partisan sides, or portraying government as primarily a cornucopia of endless entitlements, is not. Ideally, the government shut-down would motivate church thinkers more carefully to consider God’s vocation for the state, starting with Romans 13.

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