God & Government:
An Easter Reflection, An Eternal Perspective

by Sarah Beall, 3/14/2012

Sarah BeallOne of my church's elders mentioned from the pulpit on a recent Sunday, “Democracy is the rule of man by man”— to which I must add, any human government is rule of man by man. And this idea of men ruling their brethren made me laugh aloud. A man can hardly rule himself; how could he possibly rule his neighbor? We spend the entirety of our Christian lives attempting to allow God to remake our souls back into the purity of His image, yet we forever fall short of the command, “Be ye perfect, as I am perfect.” And even among the unbelieving I would imagine there are few who are entirely satisfied with all they have ever done or not done. So how can a man who cannot perfectly rule himself be given authority to rule his equally imperfect neighbor? Therefore, let him who is without sin throw the first stone. Let him who is perfect, and only him, rule over those who are not.

A Perfect Man to Rule?

Yet in the end, we know that no man is perfect. However, I would venture the jarring suggestion that, save one condition, the best form of government is in fact what in its human forms we would call tyranny, or even slavery: absolute rule. But this is only ideal if the ruler is in all ways perfect. I do not mean a “benevolent” dictator, or a philosopher-king. I mean rule by one who is perfect: in all ways good, omniscient, omnipotent, just. A human ruler in the position of absolute power would fail because he is none of these things. He is not completely good, but is susceptible to motives of greed, lust, or cruelty. He does not know all things, so he is subject to errors of reason or is liable to overlook crucial facts. He is not all-powerful, and so whether he is right or wrong on a certain judgment, he will not be able to execute his will without regard to opposition. He is not always just, primarily because he is not always good or omniscient; he will not always make the just decision, whether because of a failure of righteousness, wisdom or knowledge.

But suppose there were an individual who was crippled by none of these failings. Would not such an individual be the perfect ruler, and would not a society in which all obeyed him be the perfect society? Crime would be perfectly dealt with, in swift and summary justice; there would be no hidden corners of crime because nothing can be hidden from a ruler who is by nature omniscient and omnipotent; and yet there would be none of the sort of oppression and violence committed by totalitarian regimes because our ruler would also be completely good.

The Ruler I am describing, of course, is and can only be God Himself, and the form of government I am describing would generally be called theocracy. I do not think there can be a better form of government than this: rule by a perfect being. But to all intents and purposes, such rule is, in human terms, impossible. As individual Christians, we can have a theocracy within our soul—and indeed this is precisely what we are called to when we submit to the love and lordship of Christ—but the very nature of this type of government means that we as human beings cannot establish it; the moment humans attempt to construct it, it becomes (naturally enough) a human construction, and ceases to be a God-made and God-led government. Furthermore, human tyranny is wicked precisely because it is man usurping the rightful throne of God himself. Any ruler is wise to be careful that he does not take upon himself the authority appropriate only to God. Only God can claim lordship; only God is perfect, possessing all wisdom, power, glory, and love.

A Perfect People to Be Ruled?

But if civil theocracy is not achievable by humans, I have another idea of what a perfect society could look like, an idea brought on by musing on the words of America's Founders. These men had much to say on the necessity of moral citizenry, and expressed some anxiety that the government they created would be lost by a people who did not live up to religious and moral standards.

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
-John Adams, 1798, Address to the militia of Massachusetts

(T)he foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality; ...the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained...
-George Washington, First Inaugural, April 30, 1789

The Founders were right. The paradox, however, is that if a people were not only moral, but completely moral—that is, doing all that they do in accordance with the will and nature of God—what would be the use of civil government? Why would we need a law against a certain behavior, a police force to enforce that law, and a court system prepared to judge cases regarding a breach of that law, if the citizenry has absolutely no inclination to engage in that wrongful behavior? It would be an exercise in redundancy; why would you tell a child who does not like chocolate that he must not, under any circumstances, eat that chocolate bar, or else he will be sent to his room?

This, to me, is another possibility of perfect society: one in which the citizenry is marked by a complete absence of the impulse to do wrong. Such a society would make civil criminal law redundant; they would have no need for external government at all, because they perfectly rule themselves. We would generally call this lack of external government anarchy, but only if we take the word to mean “no civil government.” There would be no need for an outward governing body because citizens would perfectly govern themselves, ruled from within by perfect goodness borne of an uncorrupted nature.

This, of course, is just as unattainable to fallen mortals as establishing theocracy, or has been ever since the Fall. Humans are not perfect, and will not govern themselves in an uncorrupted manner; therefore, a society which abolishes all forms of outward government will fall prey to a generalized moral dissolution among a citizenry which does not live life in accordance with truth and goodness.

The Grand Experiment

Thus, since we do not have a perfect citizenry, anarchy (to state the obvious) will not work. And God has not instituted a civil theocracy, so we cannot even attempt to set one up without grossly abusing power. So we are left seeking an unhappy medium, attempting to somehow make sense and societal peace out of the absurdity of man ruling man. We cannot grant absolute power to a single a man, or to a group of men, whether oligarchy, democracy, or republic; but we have to grant some power, or there will be anarchy, the consequent power vacuum, and the inevitability of something filling that vacuum. This seems to be the very dilemma that faced the Founders of America, and somehow they managed to create a decent compromise with our Constitution. But it was not a perfect solution; how could it be? They could not create a perfect citizenry, and they could not institute a perfect theocracy. They were left to attempt a less-than-perfect compromise, granting mortal rulers some power (because an anarchic society will not function), but binding those rulers with the chains of a constitution delineating the limits on power, so that there can be no free exercise of absolute power (because tyranny destroys a people).

Two Poles Meet

Nonetheless, it would seem we have a paradoxical truth: the best form of government is either absolute rule by a perfect being (something we would call tyranny if implemented by any less-than-perfect ruler), or a society that has such remarkable self-control and innate goodness that they have no need of civil law system at all (a government-less state we would call anarchy). Never mind that neither of these goals are humanly attainable; the fact still remains that in an ideal world, we would either be ruled by a perfect King or we would perfectly rule ourselves.

Tyranny or anarchy—these are our best-possible-world scenarios, these two opposite poles of political philosophy? Absolute rule, or complete absence of rulers? What an unexpected discovery, what an odd twist on the truths I thought I knew.

In an even odder twist, the truth is that when one day we stand in the presence of God, these opposite poles will meet and the political spectrum will become a circle and not a line, as Heaven itself will be ruled by both of these seemingly contradictory ideals: we will have the perfect Ruler finally recognized and fully obeyed, and we will have a people made perfect by their God, precisely the kind of citizenry that renders civil law redundant. And while we are yet on earth, waiting for the day we are ushered into His presence, we are called to the difficult and holy road of striving to live our daily lives in accordance with both of these ideals, which in the end turn out to be almost the same thing: our lives are to be wholly in submission to Christ, the ruling King, and we are to be wholly perfect, as God Himself is perfect. If we cannot have theocracy in society, we must still have theocracy of the soul. This theocracy of the soul is what Adam and Eve possessed in purity in the Garden of Eden; it is what was lost when the First Man brought sin and death into the world, it is what the Second Adam died on the cross for that we might regain it, and it is what we look forward to possessing in purity again in the great and glorious day of Resurrection.