No government shutdown: A biblical case for government

Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg Good government is not the enemy of the people, either in the Bible, or today in … Continued


Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

Good government is not the enemy of the people, either in the Bible, or today in Washington, D.C. The enemy is incompetence, greed, and a callous disregard of the people’s need for justice and fairness.

The biblical letter 1 Timothy 2:1-3 instructs the people to pray for “all who are in high positions.” Why? So “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.”

Good government is a blessing to the people, promoting peace and prosperity.

Bad government, however, is roundly condemned in the Bible. Especially in the prophets, the Bible rebukes those rulers who do not “know justice” as is made clear in Micah. Those rulers who “abhor justice, and pervert all equity,” and who “give judgment for a bribe,” are wicked and will be judged. (Micah 3)

We are not the first people in human history to be plagued by special interests and lobbyists using money to pull “those in high positions” away from the needs of the people and bend them to the desires of a few. All throughout the prophets, however, greed and incompetence in rulers is strongly, strongly rebuked. If you rule “for a price,” you are condemned.

Micah asks, ‘What does God require of rulers and the people?’ “Do justice” and “love kindness” is the answer. (Micah 6:8b)

It’s not that complex. The biblical definition of good government is the requirement that those who rule do justice and act compassionately.

Is that too much to ask?

Lately, yes, it does seem that simple justice and compassion are too much for some in this Congress. The “sequester” across the board that began in March have hit hardest on the poor. Nancy Cook notes in the
Atlantic
, “Agencies such as the Justice and Homeland Security departments found wiggle room in their budgets to stave off furloughs. But programs outside of D.C. for low-income or distressed people — such as Head Start, Meals on Wheels, or federal unemployment benefits — have suffered as the cuts kicked in, leading to cancellations, fewer meals, smaller checks, and staff layoffs.”

$40 billion dollars have been cut from food stamps (SNAP) by the Republican dominated House, literally taking food out of the mouths of hungry children. The Tea Party backed argument was that the program had “grown out of control.” Well, that’s because more people are making less in this so-called economic recovery, where the jobs that are created more often pay less than those that were eliminated. They are hungry and their families are hungry.

When more Americans are hungry, you need more good government programs like food stamps. It’s not that difficult to understand.

Good government works.

But conservatives object to government programs on principle, undermining the very idea that government is for the purpose of doing good.

The looming government shutdown is just another step in the ‘all government is bad’ idea that has actually been actively promoted by some. For years now, Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform, as well as others, have systematically undermined confidence in government, painting government as the enemy, sowing suspicion of government and even verging on anarchy, as Harry Reid recently said of the Tea Party.

Today, opposition to “Obamacare” has become the focal point of this years-long effort to destroy Americans’ faith in their own government. This is a profound struggle that has strong theological underpinnings.

Try this. Do a Twitter search for “Satan” and “Obamacare.” You will be amazed at how many hits you get and what they say.

Really, is “Obamacare” the work of Satan? Yes, in the highly dualistic theology of the religiously conservative Christians who make up many of the Tea Party base, it is.

They frame the struggle with “government-run programs” and even opposition to government itself, as a struggle with Satan.

In my view, this obscures the real enemy. I actually do think there is a demonic element to this current spasm of anti-government anger, but it’s not a cosmic struggle, it’s a struggle with each other and even a struggle within ourselves.

Satan has a lot of roles in the Bible; Satan is not “pure evil,” in fact. Sometimes Satan is shown doing God’s bidding, as in the Book of Job. Satan means “obstructor or adversary” in Hebrew, and Satan often is blamed for inciting dissention and discord among the people.

In the New Testament, Satan is not the distant enemy but the intimate enemy—one’s trusted colleague, close associate, brother the intimate enemy. This is the attribute that qualifies Satan to express conflict among Jewish groups, as Elaine Pagels so well explains.

At the deepest level, the figure of Satan and the seemingly cosmic struggle with evil he represents is always actually an incredibly intimate struggle. It is not the struggle with the enemy far off, but with the friend, the neighbor and ultimately with oneself. Satan is not pure evil; Satan is the temptation within, the human struggle to be good in a very broken and conflicted world.

This titanic struggle we are currently in over whether government can be good and a blessing, or whether government and “government run programs” are just a source of evil, is really an intimate struggle. It is not with the enemy far off, but within our society, a battle among neighbors.

Here is the challenge: we cannot create the “common good” if some of us are deemed evil and in thrall to Satan.

How do we fix this? The answer is found in the biblical prophets. Even in a broken and fallen world, we can create a more just and equitable society through good government that does justice and works compassionately.

A good government that does justice is the way forward.

St. Augustine, in his monumental work City of God, argues that the purpose of earthly government is to create justice. “Remove justice,” Augustine asks rhetorically, “and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?”

What is a Congress that is dominated by incompetence, greed, and a callous disregard of the people’s need for justice and fairness?

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President at Chicago Theological Seminary. She has written extensively on religion and politics, especially in her recent book, Dreaming of Eden: American Religion and Politics in a Wired World.

About

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • Gracefulboomer

    Thank you for writing such a well-reasoned and beautiful article, Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite.
    Thank you to the Washington Post for publishing this…

  • WmarkW

    There’s an episode of the original Star Trek series in which a world had avoided the horrors of war by turning it into a giant computer game. Because they had taken the awfulness out of war, it had gone on for 500 years.

    Shutdowns are something the political arm of government tries to avoid, occuring only in the face of fundamental conflicts about budgeting. Today’s House doesn’t think an act passed by one Congress (that couldn’t have become law during any other Congress of the last two decades) should be non-discretionary spending for all time. The President doesn’t believe there’s sufficient linkage that one issue should depend on the other.

    This is a perfectly legitimate difference, that doesn’t fault either party for sticking to its beliefs.

  • thiscapfan

    So this ‘well reasoned article’ says that everyone who does not support Obamacare associates it with Satan.

    Using the same logic if you type in Google, “Bush” and “Hitler” you will get millions of hits. Does that mean that everyone who did not support President Bush had an affinity with Hitler? All sides in issues have those with extreme views, associated an argument with those extreme views is lazy not thoughtul.

    The costs for Food Stamps has tripled over the last ten years, an unsustainable increase. Not because people might hate the poor, but because we would run out of money. Part of that increase came about because people who were not elderly and were not children and could work, were not required to at least try to get a job and/or get training. This was one of the major ‘awful’ changes that the vote on Food Stamps changed. In addition, tests for assets were dropped as a condition for food stamps, these are expiring and were not renewed. This was not a permanent feature of the program. As a result the expenditures were expected to drop approximately 5% of the total expenditure ($4B a year from an $80B a year program). While one might disagree with the decisions, it is not clear they rise to the level of biblical authority.

    The issue on the table is not as simple as good versus evil (pick good, decision made). They represent two different visions of achieving good. While I disagree with those like Thistlethwaite, I do not associated her view points with Satan and evil. That would be a cheap shot and unfair. It is unfortunate that she does not seem to agree. There might be a clause of two in the Bible about that approach also.

  • mhclupe

    One of the issues I’ve noticed with food stamps is that they can be used to purchase other than nutrious food. When the program started the user was limited to milk, bread, vegetables, meat, etc (ie, basic necessities). Now one can purchase ice cream, potato chips, candy, etc. While I agree that foods stamps may bed needed at times, their use should be limited (6 months to a year). Our daughter used them for about 6 months but got off of them as soon as she was employed and solvent. The abuse (yup there is abuse, like it or not) has gone out of control and, I believe, at this point, cannot recover.

  • allinthistogether

    To “thiscapfan” and “mhclupe:” the “fly in the ointment” in your arguments is that the extreme right that drove through the cut in food stamp funding, and has been passionately/irrationally resistant to what is essentially a business-friendly medical insurance plan ( Affordable Care Act, which may pay for itself through increased tax revenue as insurance business consequently grows) has not proposed any conscientious solutions to increasing rates of hunger among our country’s youth, increased medical costs and increased numbers of uninsured. If you are going to cut programs that are primarily designed to feed the poor and reduce the cost of medical care, you need to propose and pass laws that you think will work. It is clear that the recent financial crisis was not caused by the poor – yet they are bearing the brunt of it. How does that fit any loving moral system?

    It doesn’t matter whether you are a Christian or not, an atheist or not, etc. What matters is that you are taking away support systems that keep people alive and allow them some sort of hope for the future – and giving them no better system to help them lift themselves.

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