In many nations in the world, the idea that people can have any influence in what government there is, is no more than a dream. Although in western-styled of influenced countries, there ordinarily is some element of demoocracy.
Israel was a theocratic nation, the church following under the rule of Christ. So that the society within each can’t exactly be compared in terms of other societies in the world. Israel of old, when one looks at the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) has laws to bring about a more just society, with an emphasis of providing for the poor beyond what the poor can provide for themselves. The church is different in that it is scattered throughout the world, but in its enclaves, it too is to have an emphasis on helping the poor, especially its own poor. The law (Torah) given to Israel and fulfilled now in the church is to be a light to the nations, pointing them to Christ, and to God’s will in Christ, a light to help them, but which in the end will judge them.
For too many Christians, the short passage on the state in Romans 13 is the sum total of what the state should be doing. That idea works well in an individualistic framework which is the heritage of the Enlightenment as in individual liberty, so that whatever good done within a nation, they suppose, should be done only out of the goodness of one’s own heart, and not something imposed by the state, forcing people to do what they don’t want to do, so that whatever good is done is actually not even accepted by God, they think.
Such a notion is far from the vision we find in the Bible even for this present life. The state should encourage and make room for the help from individuals, which should include allowing them to do so in terms of their faith. The state itself (and I think Miroslav Volf is right on in this if I understand him correctly, and a great gift in his thinking for the church and for the world) should not sanction any one faith, at least not as the faith people must embrace, even if the state is more influenced in its actions by some particular faith. It should make room for everyone, precisely because it is not a Theocracy, not a state directly ruled by God. Imagine if all the countries in the world thought they were states ruled by God. The vision in the Revelation sees that day coming under Christ’s rule, but not so now. Already there is and has been a big problem toward justifying state actions on the basis of that kind of thinking.
So the goal of nation states now should be to arrive at a consensus as to what is good not only for the indivividual, but also for society as a whole. In the case of America, I think the foundations of the Enlightenment along with scripture, that odd mix, actually have some value in the make up of this nation, which was the first and in its way, the only nation to go precisely that direction. The problem comes when we lionize any such state. We can appreciate the unique contribution America has made without thinking that it is the only way a nation state can do well in this world.
What we have to hold on to as Christians is the light given to us in scripture and the gospel, and carried out in the tradition of the church on how under God we are to live with each other. In that context it is not at all about individual liberty, even though each one is to follow Christ. But to do so in the context of one body, or the whole. Instead it is about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, in the context of loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, strength and mind. And there is present in the church the dynamic of the Spirit in Christ to make this work, especially in terms of the fruit of the Spirit in helping us to live well in community, along with the gifts meant to help each other grow toward the flourishing of true humanity in Christ.
Nation states in the world can’t have that same dynamic, but they can learn from the church, and incorporate something of that in just laws which hold people accountable, and punish evil, while encouraging good. Nations will be judged on how they took care of the poor and helpless in their societies. Consider the sin of Sodom.
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.
Of course how a better society is achieved is hotly debated here in the United States. But make no mistake about it, there does need to be work done towad a better society, which has to include not only the possibility for some prospering, but help for those who do not, to the point of not even surviving, or lacking what is necessary for the basics of life.
We long for true justice to come in the coming of King Jesus, andd we seek to live out more and more of that same justice in our own midst as God’s people in him. And we long for something of that to be inculcated in the societies in which we live, as we pray for those in positions of governmental authority, that a peace might be in place in which we can live as a witness to the one through whom the lasting peace in shalom will come. A peace which necessarily in biblical terms includes justice, what is right in God’s eyes. Even as we await the day when that justice will forever be the rule of the day in God’s love in and through King Jesus.