Of, by, for

Of, by, for October 25, 2016

I’m wrestling with something that seems to me like a hiccup in American political theology — across the spectrum of political and religious perspectives.

Think of any of the classic biblical texts cited by those musing about political theology. Psalm 72, for example. I love me some Psalm 72:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor. …

Or consider the big one — Romans 13:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.

Reading Psalm 72 in America in 2016 requires a bit of contextualization. We don’t have a king. We don’t want a king. That’s kind of our organizing principle. But we do have a president. That’s not nearly the same thing — presidents’ powers are limited by the Constitution, and sometimes even their constitutional powers and constitutional duties are limited by other branches of our government (*cough* Merrick Garland was nominated seven months ago *cough*).

Still, though, the president is the head honcho. The buck stops there. And so when we read passages like Psalm 72, describing the responsibilities of a just king, we tend to substitute thoughts of our president. We tend to do the same thing when we read something like Romans 13 — “governing authorities” makes us think of presidents, Congress, senators, governors, mayors and the like.

But that’s not how our system works either. The idea, rather, is what our greatest president described: “government of the people by the people for the people.” We do not have a sovereign king or emperor — we have a sovereign people.


That’sallwellandgoodintheory we rush to say, as good sophisticated cynics, but in practice it’s always been — and here we can insert any one of a number of popular competing critiques for why stuff is effed up and bullstuff and why representative democracy has never been representative nor democratic, etc. etc. That lofty phrase from the Gettysburg Address might as well be Patti Smith singing “The People Have the Power.” It’s all just naive hippy nonsense. (Patti was more punk than hippie, but, you know …)

And those critiques are not wrong, either.

But notice what has happened here. We’ve gone from talk of responsibility to talk of power. And because we can argue — convincingly — that “the people” have been denied substantial access to power, we slide quickly into the idea that we the people are thereby exempt from responsibility.

It works something like this:

  1. God holds the sovereign responsible for justice for the poor.
  2. In our system of government of, by, and for the people, we the people are sovereign.
  3. Therefore, we the people — all of us — are responsible for justice for the poor.

But we never get to No. 3. We get hung up half way there disputing the legitimacy of No. 2. And we have a ton of really good, really strong arguments to do that. These are righteous challenges of The Powers That Be, based, in part, on our accurate contention that The Powers That Be are failing in their God-given responsibility to do justice for the poor.

We thus end up arguing that the sovereign Powers That Be must do a better job of fulfilling their sacred responsibilities. We end up arguing that someone other than us needs to be responsible. Our argument that, wellactually, government has never really been for the people winds up also being an argument that government is not and should not be of or by the people. The line between “the government” usurping power from the people and the people abdicating power to “the government” becomes a blurry mess.

This wellactually dismissal of the idea of government of, by, and for the people is so ingrained that a statement like “we the people are responsible to defend the cause of the poor” reflexively strikes us as an argument that this is the duty of “the people” rather than “the government.” We’re that resistant to accepting the idea that — yes, really — “the people” is “the government.”

And that’s a big part of why it strikes us as naive to believe that “government of the people by the people for the people” refers to anything real. We read Psalm 72 or Romans 13 and we apply them to presidents and members of Congress. We defer to them when it comes to responsibility, and thus when it comes to blame, and thus also when it comes to power.

What if we started reading them as applying to us? Give the citizens your justice, O God …


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