Governing with God

Gen. 1:26-28; Psalm 8:1-6

Today we’re going to talk about Christians and politics. This isn’t often an explicit topic of our sermons. But it will be this afternoon because today’s lectionary passages address this. There are many conflcting ideas about how Christians should engage in the political realm and try to influence government. So today we’ll look to Jesus and Scripture for some guidance.

In Genesis 1 we see that God created human beings in his own image and likeness to be his co-rulers on earth. In ancient times in most places kings alone claimed to be the image of God. Which meant that the king alone represented God as ruler on earth. But in Genesis we see that all humankind bears God’s image. It’s not kings who are given authority to govern. But all of us as the human community are ordained as God representatives.

This is a wonderful affirmation of how much God loves and values us. Psalm 8 expresses astonishment that God enters into a relationship with us lowly humans and shares his glory and honor with us. It’s amazing, the Psalmist writes, that God even notices us. But He not only notices but cares for us and crowns us as his co-rulers. God didn’t create human beings as slaves or menial servants, but as his own agents and representatives with the capacity to love and the call to govern.

Chapter 1 of Genesis describes God creating and bringing order to the world. God separated light and dark, day and night, land and water. He brought forth vegetation, and made the animals, and human beings. God brought order to the earth so the world would be just and productive. 

But amazingly God leaves an unfinished part of this work to us. That’s what Genesis means when it says that God calls human beings to “subdue” the earth. God has given human beings the task in love to help bring order and justice to an unruly world. To help shape a world where people are in right relationship with God, one another and all creation.

Being made in God’s image and likeness also tells us what co-governing with God looks like. God isn’t a harsh dictator who lords it over humankind. In Revelations 5 we see that the One on the throne of the universe is the Lamb who was slain — the Suffering Servant who gave his life for humankind in love. Self-giving love sits on the throne of creation. That’s how God rules, as a suffering servant. As we see in Jesus, the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. God is like a caring shepherd of the sheep.

And that’s what ruling in the image of God looks like. When we read in Genesis that humans are to exercise dominion in the earth, this is the picture we should see. God doesn’t authorize humans to plunder nature for our selfish use. Nor to coerce and subjugate our fellow humans. But to care for and tend to the earth and its creatures as a good shepherd tends the sheep, with self-giving love. 

As followers of Jesus we too participate in God’s charge to humans to help order the world in love and justice. Contrary to what some believe, however, Christians are not authorized to take over running governments. Jesus rejected that option for himself and for us when he withstood Satan’s temptation in the wilderness.

Instead, we’re called to a prophetic witness of speaking truth in love for a more just and compassionate world. As followers of Jesus we should participate in the political realm with love and respect, not with the anger and contempt that characterizes so much of political engagement today. We speak and act with passion and commitment, but, we do it with love, not with hate and contempt.

As Jesus-followers the content of our message should be shaped by the character of God’s Kingdom. 

When God’s Kingdom comes in fullness, the poor “will be lifted up” and “the hungry filled with good things.” So we call on governments now to end hunger and extreme poverty and to help bring about just and fair economic relations among people.

In God’s Kingdom, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” So we speak up for government policies that help bring a more peaceful, less violent world now.

In God’s Kingdom ,“each one will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” So we call on governments to uphold the personal dignity and physical and economic security of all people.

In God’s Kingdom, “creation will be freed from its bondage to decay.” So we care for the earth as good stewards, and seek laws that respect and preserve the natural environment.

In these ways, the nations of the world – if they have the will to do so — can prepare themselves for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

It’s easy to be turned off by politics today. Especially when we see Christians speaking and acting in ways that reflect badly on Jesus and the Gospel. We may think political engagement cannot accomplish anything good. But I grew up in the 1950s and 60s when the Black Church-led civil rights movement filled the streets and the halls of Congress. 

I watched on TV as Black Americans were repeatedly attacked and beaten as they marched nonviolently for the end of segregation and the right to vote. You don’t forget videos of police on horses viciously beating unarmed men and women with clubs, and using powerful waterhoses to knock down and injure peaceful demonstrators. Or White mobs yelling obsentities at little children trying to attend formerly segregated schools. 

These committed believers paid a high price for their advocacy, but they didn’t give up. And their sacrifice and persistence resulted in new laws protecting civil and voting rights. Their courage and success instilled in me a lasting belief in what political action in the Spirit of Christ can accomplish.

During the late 1990s I had the privilege of advocating on behalf of the Jubilee 2000 movement to cancel the unfair debts that very low-income countries owed to rich ones. Inspired by the Old Testament year of the Jubilee and a commitment to fairness and justice, followers of Jesus across the U.S. and the world spoke out for canceling those debts so countries would have money to spend on the needs of their own people.

The Jubilee movement included Catholics, mainline Protestants and Evangelicals, Jews and Muslims. The Pope, Rev. Billy Graham and the Christian rocker Bono supported it. People of faith across the country flooded Congressional offices with letters and phone calls. When the legislation was passed and debts were cancelled, a faith leader from one of the countries that benefitted spoke to a group of us in Washington about the impact.

I’ll never forget what she told us. “I want you to understand what you have done,” she said. By “you” she meant all the Jubilee supporters across the world. “Because of your efforts there are schools that now have teachers and text books. There are health clinics that now have doctors and medicine. There are children alive today because of what you’ve done.”

One more story. In 2010 the Affordable Care Act was enacted by a very close vote in Congress. It passed because some members of Congress decided to vote for it because Catholic nuns spoke out in its support. As a result of the nuns’ efforts, tens of millions of people in the U.S., including my daughter, now have health insurance and can get needed medical care. Then in 2017 when Congress almost ended the program, thousands of nuns again spoke out, and helped preserve healthcare for millions of people. There are still many people in the U.S. who cannot get medical insurance, so our work on this isn’t finished yet. But remarkable progress has been made and that can give us hope for more.

I could name other important policies that were enacted with strong advocacy from followers of Jesus and other people of faith. But I want to specifically note that members of our church have written letters to Congress in support of making permanent the DACA program for young immigrants and for humane immigration policies generally. Congress hasn’t yet enacted this legislation. It’s a long and difficult struggle, but we shouldn’t give up.

By speaking truth in love to governments, followers of Jesus exercise our human calling as God’s co-governors. And yet, there is even a more powerful way that we rule with Christ and can move the nations toward good. 

We can be examples of love and justice in our everyday lives. The early Christians had no power to advocate directly on governmental policy, but they modeled a new way of life that changed the world. Like them, we can demonstrate in our own everyday spheres of life the loving and just ways of God’s Reign. By sharing the Good News of Jesus, by showing compassion, by the care we give, the forgiveness we offer and receive, the peace we make, the jobs we do “as unto the Lord,” the sacrifices we bear out of love.

Such faithful everyday actions may seem small in our own eyes and no doubt are imperfect. But if we could see them as God does they would shine like precious gems. Our everyday acts of love and justice light up the world, honoring God and making a difference for good. 

In this way we “look for and hasten” the coming of God’s Reign in fullness, “the new heavens and new earth, where love and justice will be at home.”

Marty Shupack, New Hope Fellowship, June 4, 2023