Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
“Ethics for Caesar”? The Good of Political Office
Some Christians argue that we should not be in the business of “doing ethics for Caesar”-- that is, formulating principles that would guide our political leaders in their efforts to do justice within the context of political community. For such believers, the church is an “alternative polis,” a signpost to the coming kingdom of God against the rulers of this age, which is passing away. After all, does not the apostle Paul assert that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12)? Our world is full of tyrants who esteem themselves too highly, assuming godlike claims on their people’s loyalties. Doesn’t this prove that the church is perpetually in a position of opposition to the political authorities? Or, if not in opposition, should we perhaps live as though they didn’t matter over the long run?
There is a measure of truth in this. Certainly we are called to the life in Christ, which sometimes requires us to stand against the spirit of the age. In those countries where Christians are being persecuted for their faith, they daily confront hostile neighbors and governments actively serving the idols of our time, whether in the form of radical Islam or of a totalizing secular ideology. In such contexts, we can understand why many believers despair of receiving justice from their governments and turn their hopes instead to an eschatological future when government will supposedly cease to exist.
Many who possess political office are prone to misuse it, thereby perpetrating injustice on the people over whom they are set. Some think that this inevitably accompanies any exercise of authority over others, and they can apparently cite scripture to this effect: “Jesus called [his disciples] together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Matthew 20:25-28, NIV, emphasis mine).
This passage recounts the episode in which the mother of James and John requests that Jesus give her sons vice-regal positions in his coming kingdom. Jesus responds that, not only are such positions not his to give, but those who follow him must be servants above all. The more literal translations of the Bible, including the Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version and New American Standard Bible, seem to agree that Jesus is contrasting servanthood to the exercise of authority, which the disciples are called to reject. If so, that would seem incontrovertible evidence that Christians are to put aside political life, which lies, at most, within the realm of God’s providential care and is not an active calling for those who are in Christ.
But there is another reading of this passage, found in the New Revised Standard Version and such paraphrased versions as the New Living Translation and The Message and based on a more accurate translation of the Greek. The NRSV renders verse 25 thus: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (emphasis mine). In other words, Jesus is not calling his disciples to avoid assuming authority, which, I would argue, is impossible in any case. Rather, he is contrasting the abuse of authority, i.e., tyranny or authoritarianism, with servanthood, which is fully compatible with authority rightly understood and properly exercised.
The Unique Tasks of Political Authority
The Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship are clear in emphasizing the good of political office: “Those who disdain government and the political process dishonor God and their own humanity. It is legitimate – even a duty – to criticize unjust and bad government policies and public officials, but this should be done by calling government to fulfill its proper task and high purpose.”
What is this purpose? First, government must maintain “a healthy public commons” enabling the achievement of such ancillary goods as freedom and prosperity for every individual and community within its jurisdiction. Public safety on the highways is not a benefit that can be divided among individual citizens but is enjoyed only as a whole – as a genuinely common good. Similarly, protecting and maintaining a clean environment takes concerted action among a number of authoritative agents, with government best positioned to take the lead in coordinating such efforts. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle already understood that “that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it,” implying that care for the commons calls for a specialized institution charged with this responsibility.
Second, and just as important, human beings engage in a huge variety of endeavors, from eating, drinking, and reproducing, to writing poetry, singing, and building cities. In our society, such activities have come to be dispersed into a variety of communal contexts, such as marriages, families, church congregations, museums, schools, businesses, and trade unions. Government has the task of justly interrelating the various spheres of human activity, whether individual or communal in character. Along with caring for the commons, this task is unique to political authority and cannot be replicated by the institutional, or gathered, church, whose normative task is quite different.
This differentiation of authoritative offices means that one community simply cannot do the work of all the others. Unable to recognize this, the twentieth-century totalitarian régimes actively subordinated the rich variety of social institutions and activities to the whims of a single party-dominated state. Authoritarian governments, while making no grand effort at wholesale social engineering, definitely monopolize political life for themselves, permanently keeping citizens in a state of political immaturity, something which most of us recognize to be unjust.
Sharing the Office of Caesar
Even those viewing the institutional church as an “alternative polis” cannot quite refrain from criticizing governments when it seems warranted. Condemning a state for launching an unwise or unjust military action presupposes the tacit acceptance of norms for wisdom and justice uniquely applicable to political life. Calling the state to treat all citizens in an equitable fashion assumes the existence of a public equity which governments are called to advance. No, the church as a differentiated institution cannot take the place of government and should not try to do so, something which the language of “alternative polis” does not adequately recognize.
It is time to abandon the notion that we ought not to “do ethics for Caesar.” Especially in a democracy, where citizens share in the task of governance, there is a profound sense in which all of us share the office of “Caesar,” called to seek public justice in a way for which political authority is uniquely equipped. This means that we cannot be content only to criticize, as if we were outsiders to the business of governance. Rather, we must take our citizenship seriously, recognizing that insofar as we are active members of the body politic, we bear an authoritative office whose responsibilities we must discharge as servants of God and of our neighbors.
Questions for Reflection:
- Why do some Christians believe that believers ought to avoid political life?
- For what specific reasons do people tend to criticize government? Are all of these fair criticisms? Is it possible to critique the actions of government without having some sense of norms for just governance?
- What does it mean to be a servant within the context of political rule? Is it possible to wield what Paul calls “the power of the sword” in a way befitting a servant of God?
- Is government part of an order that is passing away? Or will government continue to exist in some fashion in a renewed earth?
—David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”