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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Role of Government
distributed 7/3/03 & 7/4/08 - ©2003, 2008

Preface to the 2008 distribution: The spirit of a holiday weekend has implanted itself within me, and the notion of a "rerun" issue of Eco-Justice Notes has become irresistible.

The words below were first distributed on July 3, 2003. On the occasion of Independence Day in this election year, may our reflections about the appropriate role of government take into special account the ways in which governments and elected officials -- from local to national -- can best address the great environmental crises of our day.

The first reading for this Fourth of July weekend is taken from the Declaration of Independence, chapter 1, verses 3-4:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The second lesson comes from the They Misunderestimated Me! calendar for June 7-8, 2003:
The role of government is to create an environment that encourages Hispanic-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, anybody-kind-of-owned businesses.
      (President George W. Bush, 3/19/2001)

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Dearly beloved, we come together this holiday weekend seeking not only fireworks and grilled food, but also fresh insights about how we are to live as people of faith in a complicated world.

Across much of this fair land, governments begin a new fiscal year with the political turmoil born of deep budget deficits. Clashing visions spawn legislative controversy about taxes, health care, environmental protection, national security, foreign policy, welfare, education, international trade, agriculture, transportation, criminal behaviors, human rights, and more.

The issues are complex, and the politics are convoluted. How many of us, my friends, have real knowledge about all of these issues? As the action alerts flood into our computers, how are we to respond, if we want to avoid having our knees jerked entirely from their sockets?

The tendency of our knees to jerk toward the conservative or liberal side is shaped by the way that we answer one question, the question at the heart of today's two texts: "What is the role of government?" Because the answer to that question has such a decisive impact, truly it is important for us to answer it faithfully and well.

Is there some divine word that will guide us toward an answer? The answer, my friends, is "No!"

Whether we turn to scripture, or to the rich theological heritage of the church, we find a cacophony, a dissonant clash of voices.

So it is that Samuel did his utmost to dissuade the people of Israel when they clamored to have a king appointed over them. But Paul instructs the Romans to be subject to the governing authorities, who have been instituted by God. Across the years, people of faith and good will (together with the self-interested and the genuinely corrupt) have invoked the blessing of God upon monarchy, democracy and anarchy.

In all their diversity, though, these voices have held to a common theme. They have reminded us that goodly government will support and reinforce God's intentions in the world. While the language and functioning of a government may be wholly secular, still our notions of the role of government are grounded in our broadest sense of God's will.

Ah, my friends, the temptation is great to claim the authority of this pulpit, and to declare that the will of God is in perfect harmony with my own political leanings. Yet, even as I am convinced that the spirit of divine inspiration has filled me with genuine wisdom about the true and appropriate role of government, I am touched at this moment by a contrasting tinge of humility, which suggests that maybe my personal inclinations are not quite conformed to those of God.

And so, as we enter into the somber and reflective spirit of the Fourth of July, I invite you to seek God's spirit within your own hearts and minds. Prayerfully ponder the ways in which government functions to enhance or inhibit the working of God among us. Consider anew whether government seems to be an agent of good in a world of competing powers, or whether it tends to infringe on individual freedom. Reflect on taxes -- do they take away what is yours, or do they act to distribute the shared goods of the community? And, for that matter, where do the various desires of individuals, communities, businesses and institutions fit into the equation?

Not only on this holiday weekend, my friends, but in all times of competing political demands, may we deliberate and discuss the appropriate role of government. May that theologically important -- yet potentially ambiguous -- question be a guide for us as we deal with the myriad issues that citizenship calls us to face.

And as we join in public debate and discourse, may we name not only the details relevant to a particular issue or policy, but may we name our philosophical assertions about the role of government.

Go ye forth to pray and to ponder. And don't forget to refrigerate the potato salad.

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To inspire your reflections on the appropriate role of government, check out a website where the six registered political parties in California describe, in their own mercifully brief words, what they stand for and what their priorities are. In the 3 or 4 sentences from each party, there are astoundingly diverse perspectives about the role of government.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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