The quip goes as follows: ‘The problem is, whoever you vote for, the government always gets in’. 1 There’s more than a trace of anarchy in that comment – it sounds cynically Australian – but I’m sure that its sentiment has been heard in many countries. Historically speaking, it is a relatively new sentiment, because it is meaningless in a dictatorship or where kings or emperors rule or even in a theocracy when religious leaders rule and God is the supreme secular head. We might believe that government of the people by the people for the people is a fine form of government, maybe even the best form of government – even though Winston Churchill commented that democracy was the worst form of government – except for all the others – but we know all too well that it isn’t perfect and it doesn’t produce paradise. Sectional interests always seem to compete with the common good and a lot of effort is spent working out the fine details about justice and fairness and living together country by country, maybe even state by state or county by county.
Where do Christians fit into the political world? I am reminded of another quip: ‘For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong’. 2 Fair enough, no simplistic answers. I don’t think Ezekiel was intending to give us one.
Our first reading has a context that is not immediately apparent. Ezekiel is in exile having been taken with the first wave of Babylonian captives in 598BC. God calls him to speak his message to both the people in Babylon and those still in Jerusalem. Jehoiachin surrendered Jerusalem to Nebuchadrezzar
who put Zedekiah on the throne and ‘pulled his strings’. However Zedekiah didn’t keep his covenant with Nebuchadrezzar – a covenant made using the name of God – and sought an alliance with Egypt in an attempt to overthrow the Babylonian yoke. Maybe good politics – independence for God’s people – but not so according to Ezekiel – who spoke the parable of the two eagles and the sprig or shoot from the top of the tree. The prophet Jeremiah had warned of the fall of Jerusalem as punishment for the people’s unfaithfulness. Ezekiel lived in the aftermath of the first wave of exiles and predicted the second wave of destruction which occurred in 587BC when Jerusalem was razed to the ground. All the people felt the consequences of the political decisions made by those who had the responsibility to make them.
But that is not the end of the story because God continues to speak through Ezekiel and talk about sprigs/shoots and plantings.
Thus says the Lord GOD: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 17:22-24 ESV)
God gives a message of comfort and hope that he will get involved in the breaking, the planting, the bearing of fruit so that everyone will know that he is involved. Israel will not stay in exile forever but will return to Mount Zion and this is an event that will have benefits for every kind of bird and winged creature.
There is no other detail given but we know that the return from exile was the consequence of political decisions made by others – in this case, the Persians – particularly Cyrus – which affected the people of Israel who were not independent again really until the 20th century. From the return from exile to the destruction of the temple in 70AD Israel was under the control of Persia, Egypt, Syria, and then Rome. Jesus lived his entire life in land occupied by Roman soldiers and government and under a layer of Jewish government control as well. The two governments coexisted and sometimes worked together but there never was any doubt which had the final authority and power. And somehow in ways not necessarily evident, God’s words through Ezekiel were fulfilled.
For Christians this fulfilment is clearly seen in one person – sometimes thought of as a revolutionary and certainly those with political power chose to use it against him – Jesus of Nazareth who spoke constantly about the ‘kingdom of God’. ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:15). This kingdom is not from this world (John 18:36). ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact the kingdom of God is among you.’ (Luke 17:20b,21) This kingdom is centred in Jesus and his reign on earth and so we can say today that it has come with Jesus, it is coming as Jesus reigns and works on earth and it will come again when Jesus returns for all to see. This is God’s doing over all the planet – no matter what the lines of the map say and no matter how people live together in whatever political structures they use.
The early Christians lived in an empire that wasn’t overly friendly to them. They were taught to live faithfully and peacefully as far as possible. The anonymous epistle to Diognetus (c. mid 2nd century AD) describes Christians as follows: Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by country or language or customs … While they live in cities both Greek and oriental, as falls to the lot of each, and follow the customs of the country in dress, food, and general manner of life, they display the remarkable and confessedly surprising status of their citizenship. They live in countries of their own, but as sojourners. They share all things as citizens; they suffer all things as foreigners. Every foreign land is their native place, every native place is foreign … They pass their lives on earth; but they are citizens in heaven. They obey the established laws, but they out-do the laws in their own lives. They love all men; and are persecuted by all. 3
Justinus (also known as Justin Martyr, who as his title implies was martyred c.165AD) wrote a defence and explanation of the Christian faith and practice in which he said: The Lord said, ‘Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; to God, what belongs to God’. Therefore we render worship to God alone, but in all other things we gladly obey you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of earth, and praying that in you the royal power may be found combined with wisdom and prudence. 4
The kingdom of God thus benefits the earthly kingdoms but is not identical with any of them. Christians pray for and mediate the blessings of God where they live – no matter the country’s political system. For sure, some systems might make life easier than others but Christians don’t live in their countries as blind followers of the land of their birth or migration or citizenship but as critical friends whose first allegiance is to their Lord. Our citizenship on earth and our political, social, economic behaviour are expressions of our relationship with God who has given us life for today and for eternity. We are called to live with our eyes open to the world around us so that we can pray and act. Christians do so as disciples of Jesus knowing that in all countries of the world there are other brothers and sisters in Christ trying to do the same thing.
There are no simple answers to how Christians fit into the political world. We can have differing views and work for different targets. We have different roles to play in the land. Yet through our work – whatever it is – our goal is that it produces peace and justice. And at the same time God’s kingdom continues to come through word and sacraments so that people may know that our citizenship is really in heaven. This is not a cop-out but our opportunity to live the life we believe is the most important there is – that of being disciples of Jesus so that those around us may encounter Christ. Our ‘Monday to Saturday’ lives are not unimportant for they are God’s activity in this world as his kingdom comes.
1 Variously on the web
2 H L Mencken
3 H Bettenson (1978). Early Christian Fathers: p.54.
4 H Bettenson (1978). Early Christian Fathers: p. 59,60.
- Ezekiel 17:22 - 24