On what basis should we approach the challenge of Christian witness in public life? At the most basic level we have the great commandments—to love God with our whole lives and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:34–40). We also know a great deal from Israel’s history: God’s covenant law holds Israel’s judges, kings, and people accountable to be righteous and to do justice. This is magnified in the words of the prophets delivered against the wickedness of the people and their governing authorities. Justice and righteousness were fundamental norms for Israel’s life and governance in a wide variety of social, economic, and ecological ways.
An examination of justice and righteousness in the Old Testament shows a significant contrast with Greek political thinking from the time of Plato and Aristotle until the end of city-state independence. In Greek thought, contextualized by life in diverse city states, justice was seen to be part of an ideal form of political order. It was believed that if reason could grasp that ideal form, then it could shape the ever-changing conditions of actual political life. Even today, people throughout the world who have been influenced by Greek philosophy tend to ask, what is the ideal form of government? The Bible, however, does not speak of an ideal form of government or polity but instead presents God’s normative call to do justice. Justice is a norm that calls us to act in keeping with it, not a form that entices a quest for the rational capture of an ideal state. In the development of life through changing circumstances Israel’s responsibility was to do what is just in keeping with God’s commandments regardless of whether the people were wandering in the wilderness or living under judges or kings.
Paul’s brief account in Romans 13 of God’s will for ministers of government is that they are to encourage the good and punish evildoers. Paul does not even hint at an ideal rational form from which to deduce just laws, institutions, and procedures. Nor does he suggest what governments should and should not do to encourage the good or to punish evildoers. It is clear from many parts of the New Testament that God is the merciful judge and that those who govern and those who are governed bear responsibility to do what is right in God’s sight in relation to one another and their neighbors. There has, of course, been a long history of Christians acting politically, both for good and for evil. There have been martyrs who chose to suffer death because of their faith. There have also been Christian advisers to, and officers of, governments. Depending on their circumstances and convictions, communities of Christians have either shunned or accommodated themselves to different forms of government, including the Roman imperial system adopted by the emperor Constantine after his conversion to Christianity early in the fourth century. At the time of the Reformation, Anabaptist dissenters chose to stand apart from both government and the churches that continued to accept church-state bonds.
This is not the occasion to try to detail any of this history. Yet we know that Christians throughout the world today living in almost every conceivable kind of political system continue to face everything from dictatorial oppression to opportunities of participation in open political systems. Political debates and governing struggles around the world continue over what makes for a just political constitution and over particular laws that deal with taxation, education, health care, religious freedom, immigration, economic development, wealth and poverty, and so much more. That challenge we face as Christians is to ask how we might contribute to just and loving relations among people, including in the ordering of political communities. That is a normative call from God that we must not ignore or shun.