SEEK THE WELFARE OF THE NATION
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 9
Psalm 46(#30 Romans 13 : 1 – 13
Today is a day before the referendum, and two weeks before the Remembrance day. So I am departing from the prescribed lectionary to speak about what the Bible says about the country and the government.
When the mighty Babylonian Empire defeated the Kingdom of Israel, it tried to destroy the spirit of the vanquished nation. The Babylonians expelled all the elite of Israel. The educated people and the community leaders were forced to migrate to Babylon. In other words, the Hebrew exiles were forced to live among the enemies who had defeated and humiliated them. Similar incidents of forced migration by orders or by circumstance happened many times in human history. It happened to Acadians, Irish, Scots, Japanese Canadians, etc. What would you do, if you were forced to live under such circumstances? Sabotage the society of your defeaters and create chaos; or resign yourself to the fate imposed upon you and sulk?
What God said to the Israelites in such a situation is somewhat surprising. Contrary to the normal human reaction to fight back immediately and seek revenge or to quietly bottle up one”s hatred and seek revenge later, God through Jeremiah advised the exiled Israelites to build houses in the hostile foreign land and settle down. Furthermore God said to marry local boys and girls, make many children, cultivate the land, grow food and be happy. Most surprisingly, he commanded the exiles to seek the welfare of the host nation. God eventually brought his people back to Palestine. But at the time, Jeremiah did not mention any such promise.
This advice established the attitude that God”s chosen people should have towards the secular state. We, Christians, really do not belong to any earthly country, but must seek the welfare of the nation and be happy until the coming of the kingdom of God.
The relationship between God and the state in the Bible has always been tenuous. Sometimes God told his people to seek the welfare of the nation, even when it was a hostile nation like Babylon. At other times, God could be very harsh on the kings and governments not only of a hostile nation like Egypt, but also on those of his own chosen people the Israelites. During the early Christian era, the tenuous nature of the relationship between the divine authority and the earthly power continued. Paul in his letter to the Romans told the Christians in Rome to obey the pagan Roman authorities, while John in his enigmatic book called the Revelation described the Roman authorities as an ugly blasphemous demonic beast.
The book of Samuel recorded the situations during the time when the nation of Israel installed a king for the first time. It is an interesting story which traces back this love/hate relationship between God and the human authorities. For the first thousand years after Abraham founded the Hebrew nation, they had lived under theocracy: the direct rule of God through prophets and priests. It was the prophets, as the interpreters of God”s will, who appointed the judges and the military rulers, and conducted the business of the nation. Even today a country like Iran is run under such a system of theocracy.
It was only when they were repeatedly defeated by the Philistines, the Israelites realized they needed a much more centralized and secular authority to cope with war situations, which required quick decisions and actions. They decided that a prophet could not run a war. So people asked the prophet Samuel to give them a king with sovereign power over secular institutions, just like other nations. They believed that to have such a king, who would make decisions on the day to day running of the country, would be more efficient. Especially at the time of war, there would be a better chance of winning with such efficient government. Samuel did not like the idea. He thought that his authority as a prophet would be diminished by the king. But God said to Samuel, "No, that is not the case. They did not reject you. They became impatient with God. They want earthly success instead of having to wait for divine revelations. So you give them a king, but with a stern warning that such human authorities must strictly follow divine guidance."
So they got the king Saul. But the tug of war between divine authority and earthly power began from that moment in our religious tradition, because often the kings and governments did not want the interference of religious people. The history of the Judeo-Christian traditions has always been a struggle between the state, which often tried to assume all the power, and the people who believed that they had rights to check the power of the earthly authorities according to the will of God. So even when Paul urged Christians to obey the Roman authorities, he did it with the proviso that the human authorities were the servants of God. He in fact said that ultimately, "Owe nobody anything, except love." In other words, Christians should obey the authority of the state in order to love one another.
Therefore we follow the laws and pay taxes, so that the state will protect the weak and guarantee our security. But if the state begins to pursue its own interest without care for its citizens, it shows that it is acting against the will of God who gave it the mandate to exercise power and authority on behalf of divine authority. The book of Revelation described such a self-interested state as an ugly blasphemous monstrous beast (Rev. 13:1-2). And John said that such a beast was given its power from the demonic dragon, which would demand that people worship the human head of the government instead of worshipping God. John was speaking about the Roman empire in that instance, but history is full of such human authorities which exercised arbitrary and absolute authority over people. Many immigrants who came and still come to this country were the victims of such demonic powers, including some of our ancestors. And some people fall victims to such arbitrary authority even in Canada from time to time.
We must be loyal to the nation in which we live, because that is one concrete way to spread our love for neighbours through the system of the government. But our loyalty is conditional. We obey the authorities in order to love. We even give our lives to defend a state for the sake of love. But when we see the abuse of power on the part of authorities, we criticize and even reject them. This is not an unpatriotic act. True patriotism, the love of the nation and people, is ultimately loyalty to God and to people.
Jesus spoke about this peculiar relationship by using the metaphor of the sojourners or temporary visitors. He said that we, his followers, were the citizens of the Kingdom of God and in this world were only sojourners. While we live in Canada, or Scotland, or Japan, or anywhere in the world, we really only park our cars in the short terms parking, and temporarily become the guests of the land. While we are there, we seek the welfare of the family – the nation, because that is one concrete way to love many people in that land.
We may or may not like the outcome of the Referendum. But one thing is sure: no matter how it turns out, our country will not turn into an utopia, the kingdom of God, nor will it turn into a totally hostile enemy territory. In my short life time, I have lived, at least in two such hostile countries, in the war time Japan as a Christian and in South Africa as a person who opposed the system of Apartheid. I not only survived, but can also boast that those experiences of having lived in hostile territories were rich learning experiences. I loved the Japanese and South Africans. The love of the people persisted despite my critical attitudes towards the states.
Let us seek the welfare of the nation, wherever that may be and however it turns out to be. That is one way to love our neighbours as Jesus told us to do.
October 29, 1995