God and Government
Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin (eds); foreword by Rowan Willliams, Archbishop of Canterbury.
SPCK, London, 2009
This collection of essays by ten competent British Christian writers is the outcome of a creative joint project between Theos, an ecumenical "public theology think tank" located in London and the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, at Tyndale House, Cambridge, England.The book formed the basis of a "God and Governance" conference held in Saint Matthew's church, Westminster, 10th November, 2010. The aim was to explore what such Christian reflection has to say about the vital issues of government in Britain today. (At least three lectures from that conference are available - Jonathan Chaplin's at www.chirbit.com/chirbit/31173; Nick Spencer's at www.chirbit.com/chirbit/31170, and NT Wright's at www.chirbit.con/chirbit/33848.)
Chaplin, Spencer and Wright are featured in the book along with seven other writers, academics, journalists and churchmen.
Nigel Wright, former president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and principal of Spurgeon's College, outlines in his essay, "Government as an ambiguous power", what he believes are the implicit ambiguities of government. In order to clear a path for Christian political thought and action he outlines what the separation of church and state does and does not mean.
Julian Rivers, professor of jurisprudence at the University of Bristol begins his contribution, "The nature and role of government in the Bible", by agreeing that the Bible is profoundly ambivalent about government but he does not thereby suggest that we should be ambivalent about our political life as service of God. As we read, it becomes clear that the ambivalence which the Bible presents is about government acting illegitimately and presuming unlimited competence.
Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham, presents "Neither anarchy nor tyranny: Government and the New Testament". This is a re-iteration of what he has said in numerous publications and Biblical commentaries: the New Testament writers, in proclaiming the Gospel of the Messiah, God's Chosen Ruler of the Princes of all the earth, expose religious idolatry and in particular that which was basic to Roman Imperialism. Thus the New Testament shines a bright light upon any "new imperialisms", including America's world-wide military and economic dominance.
David McIlroy, a practising lawyer, academic and research fellow at Spurgeon's College, outlines "The role of government in classical Christian political thought". Drawing upon Christian writers ancient and modern he presents a view of the positive "common good" task of limited and accountable government. It is a public service, standing in need of a well developing and developing wisdom.
Nicholas Townsend, teacher of Christian ethics at the South East Institute for Theological Education and the University of Kent outlines a view of social justice in "Government and social infrastructure", developing the view of John Courtney Murray that connects Catholic social teaching to the New Testament. His aim for "government as social infrastructure" is as much a challenge to oppressive hierarchy as it is to place a principled limit upon the state's role in fostering the common good. He says: "The gospel is not about politics. The gospel is political." Political authority is therefore secondary or indirect; government's task is to establish the preconditions for all to live with one another as God intends.
Philip Booth, professor of insurance and risk management at City University, draws on Catholic social teaching to clarify the inter-dependence of "Government, solidarity and subsidiarity". He draws on papal encyclicals to explain why a minimalist view of subsidiarity and solidarity, that "grudgingly" allows government intervention in the economy to help the poor and the homeless, can be avoided. The responsibilities of what he calls "lower-order communities" should not be displaced by government over-stepping its limits and usurping lower-level government and voluntary associations.
Clifford Longley an author and journalist also draws on Catholic social teaching in "Government and the common good", but, in contrast to Booth, his starting point is that the common good is the fundamental governing principle, "from first to last". His presentation seeks to offset the idea that Catholic social teaching is compatible with classical liberal (or American neoconservative) free-market economics. To promote the common good is the true object of all social activity.
Andrew Bradstock, one-time director of the Christian Socialist Movement and professor of theology at the University of Otago, discusses "Government and equality". His paper has two major themes: the fact that all are created in the imageo Dei already places moral demands upon all people to ensure basic needs are met by all; government have good reason to develop policy that narrow the gap between rich and poor.
The foreword by Rowan Williams is a brief endorsement of the need for sound Biblical and theological reflection on "God and government". Nick Spencer's "Introduction" explains how the project arose and why reflecting together on political differences is an important and immediate part of political obedience for followers of Jesus Christ. The fact that all contributors to the volume are male may provide those developing the Theos/KLICE project with an important question that needs to be addressed. Chaplin's "Conclusion" concludes in the hope that the book will spur practical Christian political wisdom, promoting justice and the common good for a contemporary Britain crying out for much more of both.
For us in Australia, the God and Government project and its associated publications, provides an example of what can be achieved by a sustained Christian effort to jointly reflect upon and discuss our political differences as part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus.