God’s Two Sustaining Hands
Pray. Pay. Obey. Pray for your leaders. Pay your taxes. Obey the laws. For many of the German Lutheran peasants who emigrated to America, this pretty much summed up their responsibilities as citizens. They had little experience in how to live in a participatory democracy when they started out their new lives in America (although it might be noted that Luther did not refrain from giving advice to the princes and rulers of his day—but that’s a topic for another day). And on top of that, when WWI and WWII came along, those who were not soldiers overseas supported America by buying war bonds and keeping their heads down.
Lutherans have typically viewed their life of citizenship within the framework of the distinction between the two realms. God governs civil affairs in the left hand realm through the law, and governs the church (gathering of believers) through the gospel. Melanchthon brings this out clearly in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 16. The spiritual realm is about the Gospel. The Gospel is not about establishing new laws in God’s left hand realm. And so the Apology also assures Emperor Charles V that he can have no better citizens than Lutherans, for Lutherans unlike others (Anabaptists, monks, etc.) do not seek to withdraw from participation in the world but readily enter it as the realm in which they live our their lives.
Lutherans frequently describe church and state issues using the “Two Kingdoms” distinction: God’s reign is active both in the church (Kingdom of the right hand) and in the world (Kingdom of the left hand). However, we must be careful not to confuse the two realms/reigns distinction with the American separation of church and state. They are not identical. For Lutherans, the church (as an “association of external ties”) also exists in the left hand realm, the realm of the wider human society. Here the church uses, as an institution or organization in the left-handed realm, the law for the regulation of its affairs. But in the right hand realm, where it lives from the Word and through the Word, it exists as a gathering of believers. In the left hand realm it manifests itself as an organization that abides by the laws of incorporation and governance.
Yet I wonder if sometimes the distinction between the two realms has been two narrowly construed, especially, when considering God’s left-hand realm. If we think of the left hand realm primarily or even exclusively in terms of the first use of the law, we will think of this realm as dealing primarily with the restraint of destructive human behavior. However, we might then view God’s left hand reign as primarily negative He reigns solely as judge, as punisher. When we think this way, we will tend to think of government as a burdensome thing, as more a necessary evil than an honorable form of service. This can lead to an unhealthy view of the vocation of service to society through government. For who would want to get their hands dirty with “the government” when we can serve God in the church and focus our work exclusively on the Gospel? To put it personally, how many of us would encourage our children to pursue a life in politics? Do we reflexively regard the left hand realm as “secular” and the right hand realm as “spiritual,” which translates into our our American context as the view government is bad and a threat to Christian values? This may indeed occur, as the history of the church has unfortunately, on occasion, demonstrated. But it is not the case that God has abandoned government; he may indeed, and often has, exercised his left-hand reign through good government.
What if we broadened the framework in which we view our two realms distinction? Where the terms “left hand” and “right hand” realms are a bit abstract, we have in our theology the biblical/creedal framework of “creation” and “redemption.” If we think of the “left hand realm” as part of God’s creation activity, it might acquire more positive connotations and images for us that expand our thinking beyond only the restraining of sin to include also the positive activities of preserving, promoting, and supporting of creation and creaturely life within it. Consider two points.
First, if we think of the left hand realm of God’s rule in terms of creation, it immediately prompts us to expand our imagination beyond only a passive approach to government. Luther’s Small Catechism models this. The second half of the explanation to the first article of the creed indeed focuses on the protecting, guarding, and defending of life. But the first half of the same explanation to the first article embraces the positive side of God giving, providing, and supporting of creation and creaturely life. In other words, God rules creation so that life within creation may flourish in spite of the sin and destruction that we have brought to it. Amazingly, God continues to bless his creation by bringing forth new life ever day despite our society’s best efforts to destroy it. And how does he do it? Through his creatures. This bring us to one of my favorite texts in the Large Catechism. Creatures are the hands, instruments, and means through which God bestows all blessings… (LC I, 26). So God is at work restraining sin and keeping sinful creatures from destroying life even as he is at work in giving, providing, and sustaining that life. And so government has a role in attending to the well-being of creation and its citizens. This is not to say that government always gets it right any more than parents or employees always get it right. But it is all the more remarkable that God is willing to work through creatures—even sinful creatures—to carry out his creative work!
Second, if we see our lives within that larger framework of creation, might we see a more positive role for our lives in the various arenas of creation—including a life of citizenship and work in government. In the first article of the Large Catechism, Luther speaks of good government as one of the creaturely gifts of God. And so citizenship becomes one of the arenas in which we carry out our vocations. Government and citizenship provides the larger context in which we carry out our other vocations in the family, economy, and the church. The latter three need and depend upon the government (perhaps this is why Melanchthon suggests that military affairs is superior to agriculture or eloquence/statesmanship is superior to architecture in Apology 23, 38-40) and vice versa. Government looks after the well-being of creation and its citizens and protects the boundaries so that all may flourish (and we do depend upon the well-being of creation for our own well-being not to mention the conditions of peace).
Here we may need increasingly to see our citizenship as more than voting and participating in political parties/causes. It also includes community engagement and involvement. One of the major forms of citizenship in the twenty-first century may take place through NGOs (non-governmental organizations). I once read that there were fewer than 900 in the 1950s but more than 20,000 today. They may become an important way by which God tends the needs of society and creation in our century as well. Consider, for example, the work of Lutheran World Relief and the Lutheran Malaria Initiative For they can work both with governmental agencies and corporations alike. These can also provide great opportunities for Christian witness as we rub shoulders with and work with those who are not Christians.
When we view the left hand realm as the realm of God’s ongoing creative activity (creatio continua), we might gain a greater appreciation not only for all of the various creatures who serve as the gloves on God’s hands for our benefit, but for our role as his co-workers for the benefit of His creation. In some ways, it will take us back to God’s original commission for us to look after his creation (Gen 1:28). Indeed, we need to see ourselves as “redeemed and renewed co-workers of God.” For in the right hand realm, God rules by re-creating and renewing his relationship with his human creatures. But he does not then remove from this world; instead he sends us back into his realm of creation, into the various arenas of government, citizenship, family, economy, and community. Living as new creatures within these walks of life, Christians can go beyond a minimalistic understanding of life in creation as merely restraint of sin or doing the bare minimum and instead go “above and beyond the call of duty,” so to speak. We can go crazy in a life of activity for the well-being of creation and all who live within it. And isn’t this the pattern of the Luther’s explanations in the Ten Commandments? He starts out with the prohibition (don’t harm our neighbor in his body), namely, the bare minimum. He then proceeds to the instruction, “help and befriend in every time of need.” And we do so in anticipation of the final renewal of creation when Jesus returns.
All of this is not to say that governments always act according to God’s will or carry out his will. Those who hold public office—as those who work in corporate boardrooms or pastors’ studies—are sinners and often have only self-interests in view. And so often those who govern and those who are governed act counter to and contrary to his vision for life within creation. For that reason, Christians need to be active participants in government and its workings for the well-being of the present creation and for the witness it gives to the new creation. Fortunately, we have been given this opportunity with our participatory democracy, whose birthday we celebrate this week.
For further reading, be sure to check out one of the very fine CTCR report on this subject, “Render Unto Ceasar.” It’s one of the better resources on this topic.