Yesterday’s shootings at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas were horrific and especially cruel given the tight-knit nature of a small community. It was more than a little surreal to see Christianity Today report that, what is now the nation’s fourth-worst gun massacre (the shootings in Las Vegas being number one), was “only the 14th mass murder at an American house of worship since 1963.” Only! We have to have rankings of such things now, complete with charts detailing deadly incidents at faith properties… and by denomination?
The interminable debate about prayers-vs.-action was back, too. As soon as politicians started tweeting their standard lines about “thoughts and prayers” going out to the families of the victims, other users responded that this response wasn’t good enough. They included Max Boot, who is not exactly a flaming liberal:
I’m sick & tired of “thoughts and prayers” for mass shooting victims. What we need: legislation & regulation. Start with assault-weapon ban.
Which led in turn to this response from Federalist Senior Editor Mollie Hemingway:
People who oppose praying to Almighty God instead pray to the god of government, which they believe can solve the question of man’s evil.
This is so many ways wrong I hardly know where to begin. I guess let’s start with it being a particularly nasty response to Max Boot, who is Jewish, and continue with it being a complete strawman argument, as though atheists or secular people really believe any such thing about government. Nobody really thinks government can solve the problem of evil, but many—believers or not—think it can help limit the effects of that evil. Let’s also raise here the question of why it’s so awful that people who, you know, don’t believe in God think government is okay. Last I checked, the Constitution was pretty good with that.
On a broader level, you can’t chastise people for believing government “can solve the question of man’s evil,” yet believe that government has a legitimate role in policing and defense, Romans 13 be damned. If God’s given a role to government in managing human affairs, God’s given that role, whether or not you approve of how it’s carried out. Paul says “Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” He makes no exceptions for the Second Amendment.
Making government a false idol in opposition to God usually comes along with the idea that people of good faith don’t like government. That’s the insinuation of Hemingway’s tweet, and I mean very much the double entendre here. Some conservatives believe no intellectually honest argument can be made in favor of government, which is so laughably stupid I’m not even going to dignify it with a response. Like unto this belief is that “people of faith” should not, cannot appreciate government, because relying on government means you don’t or won’t rely on God. (This line of reasoning is sometimes deployed in debates on social welfare programs as well.)
For the record, Christians of strong and good faith can and do participate in government. Christians and other faithful people can even rely on government to meet their needs. Have conservatives never heard the one about God sending a helicopter? It is just spectacularly dumb and dishonest to say that humanity functions as God’s hands in the world—except when it comes to government, which is of the devil.
On the most complex theological level, insisting that government and God are in opposition fundamentally mistrusts God. The story of Exodus, for example, shows God forming a new society out of the disorganized slaves of Egypt. That society comes complete with its own form of government. When that structure doesn’t work for the humans, God endorses a change. God warns against the change, but does go along. Later, when the new form doesn’t work out, God endorses another change. Again, the approval comes with a warning, but in the end God says, “If that’s what you really want…”
This sets up the dynamic that humans discern the form of government they think will work best, and God works with it. As it happens, our form of government is not distinct from the people it serves: the government is the people is the people of God, formed in God’s image, which makes the formation of government a godly, even sacramental, endeavor. God invites humans into the business of creation and re-creation.
We suck at this work! Humans are selfish, stupid, and short-sighted, not to mention greedy, cruel and dishonest. But we can be also be generous, clever, and able to approximate justice, as Reinhold Niebuhr said.
More important, as in all things, God is at work to bring out the best, even in the worst of circumstances. At a minimum, you can’t read the prophets and not see how God pushes human leaders to do better—through humans themselves. Remember that whole thing about “Let justice roll down like mighty waters?” That’s the prophet Amos telling his king to stop making edgy foreign-policy deals and concentrate on feeding people at home. It’s not God speaking through Amos, it’s the prophet discerning and preaching his interpretation of the word of God.
So yes, government is a creaturely, fallible, broken thing. It’s just like us, in other words. We mess it up, but we’re also capable of changing and correcting it, with the help of God. Because of that, setting government up as a false idol really says that God can’t bring anything good out of it. In other words, you doubt God’s abilities, and essentially say that humans cannot be redeemed. Again, either humans are the hands of God, even if relativized and imperfect, or they are not. Either they participate in the work of redemption or they do not. You can’t pick and choose how they function as God’s servants.
Perhaps I’m wrong about all of this. There is a long and complex tradition of Christian reflection on government as an entity distinct (if not always separate) from the faith, stretching all the way back to the man Jesus himself. Much of that tradition focuses on the failings of government, and the evils of those who seek power through it.
But you know what? If the false idol of government can prevent an infant from being shot to death with an AR-15, I’m willing to take my damn chances.