Posted in politics, power

What are governments for?

I’ve been trying to avoid the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party as much as I can. But even on a remote island it creeps through. So as a second line of defence against the posturing and point scoring, I’ve tried asking a different question, which I think underlies quite a lot of what I haven’t been able to avoid seeing and hearing. From a Christian point of view, what are governments for? Why do we have them at all?

Despite having been in government for twelve years, quite a few of the candidates are trying to present themselves as new – promising a different government, a fresh start. It’s quite a stretch after all this time, though it did seem to work for the present Prime Minister in 2019. I doubt if (consciously at least) the candidates are adopting that approach because they think the last twelve years have been a failure. What they are doing is recognising the deep-seated, and I think entirely reasonable, distrust in which all governments should be held by those whom they notionally serve.

This is of course a thoroughly biblical position – or at least, so I would like to argue. When the people of Israel demand a king, the prophet Samuel lists the consequences, each sentence beginning “he will take … your sons, your daughters, your fields, your produce, your resources …”, and ending “and you will be his slaves” (1 Samuel 8). But the people don’t listen: they want to be like the other nations. They want a king: what we might now think of as a government. But national government as a concept doesn’t seem to be getting much divine approval.

In contrast, some might point to the various injunctions to pray for and respect “authorities” in the New Testament. Paul in Romans 13 says “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” but I don’t think that disproves the point. If Paul was talking about the Roman empire, the stories of his experiences recorded in the book of Acts directly contradict his statement that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”. Given the context of the passage in that part of the letter to the Romans, it’s far more likely that he’s trying to work through the contested relationship of Christian believers to the synagogue authorities – with an added working out in practice of Jesus’ command to pray for those who persecute you.

There’s far, far more to say, but for now I’m inviting you to go along with the idea that a certain suspicion of the notion of government might be a reasonable position to start from. The biblical deal was that God should occupy the space other peoples gave to their king. Any human government then is usurping what should properly be God’s space.

So what are governments for, then? Despite their origin in human disobedience, God’s response to the people’s demand for a king in 1 Samuel is that he gives them one (Saul), and then another (David). Within the context of the world as it is, governments of some sort seem inevitable. But how can they be better than ‘take,take,take’?

The story would suggest that if you’re going to have a government, it should be as small as possible, as lightweight as it can be, interfering as little as possible with people’s lives. If governments are in principle an improper usurpation of God’s desired relationship with God’s people, then at least they should occupy as little of the space as possible. But – and it is a huge but – that doesn’t necessarily mean what the modern day proponents of “small government” have in mind.

To caricature, arguments for small government tend to argue that government’s role is to keep the playing field fair and open so that people can get on with their lives. And as virtually all of them come from the political right, that tends to be interpreted in a particular way. Defence of the nation, defence of property rights, underwriting of contractual and legal obligations: those are the sort of things that governments have to do. You could argue that (in its 21st century version) that’s the sort of thing that the people of Israel were asking for – “we are determined to have a king … [to] go out before us and fight our battles”.

I would argue though that we’re still stuck here, still part of the unhealthy dynamic which led to the appointment of a king. The fighting of battles is the price the king pays for being able to take, take, take from the people. It’s a theory of governance rooted in a Hobbesian vision of a world in which all are at war with all. The reality of that world is tempered by a government which itself is tempted to use its power not to keep the peace but to dominate others. No-one can be trusted.

There is a better biblical vision of society than this, a vision of mutuality which recognises human weakness but isn’t imprisoned by fear of the other. It’s there in the laws for the ordering of society set out earlier in the Old Testament. The cycle of taking that Samuel promises will be the fruits of kingship are replacing a deeper pattern which is based on a cycle of giving, especially to the poorest and most marginalised. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not gather to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 23:22) – in a rural economy, this is a form of redistributive taxation, without the intervention of a state mechanism. The rules of jubilee (whether or not they were ever observed) set out a vision for maintaining mutuality within society, and a fundamental equality between all its members.

And this I think opens up a possible answer to the question. What are governments for? In a fallen and unjust world, of which they appear to be an inevitable consequence, governments are there to try to remedy the injustices that made them necessary. The ideal government would be one that worked itself out of existence. And yes, governments should be setting themselves to keep the playing field fair and open so that people can get on with their lives. But the vision of society we see in Leviticus requires a lot more than today’s ‘small government’ enthusiasts would want.

Government needs to be only as big as is needed in order to provide conditions of equity for all, and especially to ensure that those on the margins of society are not left at the mercy of the powerful. But in a global society in which the powerful are multi-national and massively rich, embodied in mega corporations and personally adept at hiding their wealth from any attempt to tax it – to stand up for the poor means being pretty big. For a government in the 21st century to espouse biblical principles of community life demands that it is involved in education, in health care, in protection of those who lack the necessities of life; and also that it is strong enough to demand of the rich that they make a proportionate contribution to the good of the whole.

There remains though always Samuel’s warning. Governments are always tempted to see themselves as entitled to take. Their only ethical purpose is to give.

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