By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Sovereignty is about the power to rule. It is shaped by our concepts of legitimacy and is where our obligations to God and country converge and sometimes conflict. Until the 17th century the sovereignty of God was undisputed and exercised through the divine right to rule; then the Enlightenment challenged the divine sovereignty of God with the secular sovereignty of man based on the libertarian political ideals of democracy, including a social contract to rule, human rights and the secular rule of law. Those concepts are interwoven with our politics and religion and were tested in the 19th century by the U.S. Civil War, in the 20th century by World War II, and are now being challenged by the holy war and terrorism of radical Islam.
Jesus was once questioned by his critics on the issue of sovereignty. When he was asked whether he should pay taxes to Caesar, a Yes would have been blasphemous under Mosaic Law, and a No seditious under Roman law. But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. Why are you trying to trap me? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it. They brought the coin and he asked them, Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription? "Caesar's," they replied. Then Jesus said to them, Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. (Mark -17)
In his evasive answer Jesus implicitly acknowledged a dual sovereignty of God and man, with its conflicting obligations to God and country, but he never elaborated on which duties took precedence over others. Jesus never affirmed or rejected Mosaic Law as God’s law and he never challenged the legitimacy of Roman sovereignty and law, but he asserted the moral supremacy of God’s kingdom over worldly kingdoms with the primacy of love over law.
None of the great prophets, including Jesus and Muhammad, addressed the libertarian ideals of the Enlightenment since they were unknown in their time and place. The secular freedoms of libertarian democracy, including the freedoms of religion and speech, originated in natural law, not religion, but they have been embraced by all religions in the West. The resulting political sovereignty is exercised through a secular rule of law, but believers put God’s moral sovereignty with its governing principle of love over law over the political sovereignty of man.
That is not the case in Islamic regimes in the Middle East and Africa where the political sovereignty of God was never displaced by the libertarian ideals of the Enlightenment. Today Islamist regimes, some of which are democracies, enforce Islamic law (Shari’a) and deny the freedoms of religion and speech with apostasy and blasphemy laws. That denial of individual freedom under the guise of the sovereignty of God is at the heart of ongoing religious violence.
Islamist regimes are not the only examples of religious oppression in the name of God. Christian governments in Puritan New England were equally oppressive, and some kept blasphemy laws on their books well into the 19th century. In ancient times Joshua exercised the ban at Jericho to exterminate all non-Jews in the Holy Land, and today Israel seems on the verge of creating a religious apartheid in the Middle East to prevent the growing number of Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories from exercising their democratic right to vote.
There is another issue arising out of conflicting concepts of the political sovereignty of man and the moral sovereignty of God in libertarian democracies like the U.S. It involves balancing libertarian individual rights with providing for the common good—more particularly with caring for the poor and needy—which is a moral imperative in all the ancient scriptures.
Christian conservatives in the U.S. have often asserted the need to protect their individual liberty from the encroachments of big government. While they acknowledge their personal responsibility to care for the poor and needy through charity, they resist public welfare programs that make it a government responsibility. In so doing they ignore both the inability of charities to meet all public welfare needs and also the capability of democratic government to be a legitimate means for individuals to fulfil their collective responsibilities to care for the poor and needy—a means that was unavailable in ancient times, so that it was never mentioned by Jesus.
If Jesus had considered modern libertarian democracy as an alternative to the sovereignty of Caesar, he might not have made such a distinction between what we give to government and to God. Empowering democratic governments to provide for the common good includes both protecting civil liberties such as the freedoms of religion and speech, as well as providing social welfare programs that assist the poor and needy. Both are obligations to government and to God, and we can expect legitimate differences of opinion on how to best balance those obligations.
The Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an ignore individual rights and assert the sovereignty of God’s law. Jesus taught that God’s ultimate standard of legitimacy was that of love over law, leaving room for individual rights to be balanced with providing for the common good. While most Jews do not consider Mosaic Law as coercive, most Muslims believe Shari’a should be imposed as law, with one prominent Islamist cleric asserting that God is the only legislator.
On Palm Sunday Jesus made a powerful statement about God’s sovereignty. Jesus entered Jerusalem to the cheers of Jews who were expecting a messiah who would overturn the oppression of Caesar’s rule and restore the power and glory of ancient Israel as God’s kingdom. But Jesus sent a mixed message. He did not challenge Roman rule but entered Jerusalem on a humble donkey, not a white stallion, and the events of the next week would leave Jews and Roman authorities wondering just what Jesus was trying to say about the sovereignty of God's kingdom.
The teachings of Jesus say it all, and they are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. It is a common word of faith that can reconcile Jews, Christians and Muslims on conflicting issues of sovereignty and legitimacy, so long as we can love our unbelieving neighbors, as illustrated in the story of the good Samaritan. True justice requires not only sharing our resources with those in need, but also sharing the freedoms of religion and speech and the equal protection of the law for women and religious minorities in order to liberate the oppressed. That is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
Notes and References to Resources:
This blog is on Lesson #12 in the J&M Book on Church and state: Conflicting concepts of sovereignty (Mark 12:13-17).
The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 is generally considered to have ended the era of the divine right to rule under the sovereignty of God. The seminal work of Hugo Grotius On the Law of War and Peace (1625) set the stage for the secular sovereign state governed by international law.
The ban commanded Hebrews to kill “anything that breathes” in “the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 20:16, 17)
On love over law, see Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, posted January 18, 2015; on the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?, posted January 25, 2015; other related blogs are Religion and Reason, posted December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, posted on December 15, 2014; Is Religion Good or Evil?, posted on February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted on February 22, 2015; Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice, posted on March 8, 2015; and The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church, posted on March 15, 2015.
On God as the only legislator, see Religion, Legitimacy and the Law at page 14, note 52.
For a compilation of Islamic laws (Shari’a) and Jewish Mosaic Law, see the Appendices to the J&M Book at pages 469-651.
De Oppresso Liber: To liberate the oppressed, is the motto of the U.S. Army Special Forces.