On the Sovereignty of Nations…and the Kingdom of God
When Margaret Fell carried the message from Friends to the new King, Charles II in 1660, declaring Friends would neither be involved in treason nor be led, as far as they knew, by the eternal Spirit of Christ to engage in war, a new chapter in history was begun. In contrast to the divine right of kings based on a misreading of Romans 13:1-7, Friends were exercising their faith in the way of Christ as led by the Spirit—refusing to go along with policies against their convictions, but also promising not to be disloyal in their dealings with magistrates. In doing so, they drew a distinction between the reign of Christ and worldly reigns of monarchs and regents, while also seeking to negotiate differences between the two. After all, the two paragraphs on either side of Romans 13:1-7 call for loving enemies and living peaceably with all, that one’s testimony to the way of Christ might be compelling.
Today a new distinction needs to be made. The divine right of kings and queens is not as prevalent a notion, but non-violent peace work faces other obstacles. A key underlying cause of war is a false view of the “sovereignty of nations” in contrast to a genuine understanding of theKingdomofGod. The sovereignty of nations goes unchallenged as a nearly sacred modern doctrine, but it is a false one. God alone is sovereign, and those who aspire to be followers of Jesus can put no other gods before him. Worse, in the name of such a doctrine atrocities are committed, even by otherwise Christian leaders; the question is why.
To demonstrate the falsity of the sovereignty-of-nations idea, consider what it would be like if our state governments operated the way national governments did. Suppose that in response toOregonreal estate being bought up by incoming Californians, theOregonstate legislature decided upon a terrorist campaign designed to keep the housing market more affordable for the locals. Or, imagine theMichiganlegislature declaring war onOhiobecause Ohioans were taking up more than their fair share of the auto industry’s job market.
These scenarios sound absolutely absurd when thought about in terms of state borders (although when it comes to football, of course, all bets are off)! And yet, if the offending groups were international, a national government might not equally be taken back by such considerations. At least one culprit is a false conception of the sovereignty of the national state. Of course, it is also problematic for nations or individuals to act in violence against other nations, so the prevention of such is what such a doctrine is designed to avert; maintaining “sovereignty” allows a group or nation to resist being imposed upon by others. Followers of Jesus, however, live by a different standard!
To put it into further perspective, it has not always been the case that national disputes within western governments have been settled peaceably. For instance, it wasn’t until the 1660s that the British system of government (on which the American is largely based) allowed for a “loyal opposition” instead of a violent one. Before Cromwell, the only way to effect a change of government was to oppose the current leadership. Any opposition, taken to its extreme expression, would have ended in an attempt to kill the ruler. Thus opposition jailed, tortured, or executed…simply as a precautionary measure.
However, someone stood up and said things don’t have to be this way. Having sought to influence Oliver Cromwell for many years, in bringing a corporate statement to King Charles II, claiming that they believed the Spirit of Christ would never lead them to take up violence against others, early Friends sought an alternative to the norm. They also suffered violence and were persecuted as a result of laws devised to counter their expansion without resorting to force or retaliation over the next three decades, leading to the establishment of religious toleration in England. This, and other factors, eventually contributed to the emergence of modern democracy and eventually systems of government which incorporate dissent into the standard process. In the meanwhile, intramural political violence has become obsolete.
I wonder what it would take for the same shift to occur globally. Currently, nation-states at times behave on the level of gangsters and ruffians, “robbing the bank” if the repayment of debts becomes too onerous, or following up on threats, as though the issuing of ultimatums justifies their being acted upon. Unfortunately, Christians have sometimes retarded the advance of peace, either due to provincial loyalties or the failure to embrace the way of Christ wholeheartedly. But the Scriptures teach that the Kingdom of God is never identical to human empires, and this distinction is needed now, in our postmodern age, as never before. Implications are as follows:
1.) All people are beloved of God, not just one’s own. While many rejoice at the amazing success of American and allied troops, we still abhor killing done in our names. We detest the killing of innocent civilians, but we also grieve for the killing of military victims… and even victimizers. To consider one’s enemy through the eyes of Christ rehumanizes the faces of God’s beloved children, who happen to be “opponents” during a particular skirmish. Within God’s Kingdom there is no division of people along national or any other sort of lines.
2.) Responsibility for one’s own extends beyond the clan. To be willing to die for a cause is often easier than to stand by passively, allowing others to suffer victimization. Living by principle is easier when it only affects us. However, leaders who would, themselves, object conscientiously to war, find themselves in a quandary when charged with the custody of others. They feel responsible to protect “their own,” and they are. However, if one’s “own” may be enlarged to embrace all members of the human family, not just one’s own clan, new possibilities for peace might surface. The Samaritan, after all, is our neighbor.
3.) Nations have no real sovereignty; only theKingdomofGodis eternal. Might does not make right, and capital offenses are not justified if done in the name of the state. There is a higher Law, an eternal Principle, whereby the deeds of this life will be judged. Institutions? They will fade away. Governments? They will be dissolved in the passing of time. But one kingdom will eternally abide: that City of God, which has St. Augustine describes as having love as its law, truth as its king, and eternity as its measure.
The sovereignty of nations is ultimately an idolatrous notion. It also bears the additional liability of being false. There is one God over all, whose power is coined in terms of truth, love, and peace. These are values desperately needed for a new world order. TheKingdomofGodis advancing in small, unattended ways, and every act of faithfulness and love furthers the way of the Kingdom. That is the true battle of the ages, and this is the battle into which Jesus calls each of us to enlist. Over the centuries, Christians have been fierce opponents on the battlefield; but if we really took the teachings of Christ to heart, we may make even better peacemakers. Humans are not the enemy; that which is against the way of Christ, whether at home or abroad, is the adversary—overcome not by evil, but by good.