By Lucas E. Morel
The Prayers of a Self-Governing People
We all know that the Bible teaches us to obey, and pray for, our government. We are familiar with the passage where Jesus says, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (Mt. 22:21). And Paul teaches that we should pray for "kings, and for all that are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty" (1 Tim. 2:2). But in a self-governing society, something else is required before the Lord. We should not only obey our rulers and pray for them; we should pray for ourselves, that we be watchful and wise as we assist our rulers in the common task of self-government. "We the people of the United States," as the Constitution says in its preamble, have established our governments to operate by our consent. This means that our opinions about the issues and controversies that trouble our country actually have an impact on how we are ruled. And so our prayers should be for the ruled as well as the rulers.
In January 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris to a fellow officeholder in America, commenting that the governments of Europe, "under the pretense of governing … have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep." Jefferson concluded, "Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. … If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves." Simply put, our chosen rulers need our vigilance as well as our prayers to perform their jobs well. They need us to keep them informed, to keep them honest, and above all to keep them humble.
Jesus' encounter with Pontius Pilate, in its own way, is a striking lesson on political humility (Jn. 18:28-19:22). Pilate didn't know what to do with Jesus. Finding no fault in him, but afraid of the crowd, Pilate interrogates Jesus to find a reason for punishing him, even to the point of having him whipped. When this fails to provoke him, Pilate flaunts his authority over Jesus: "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" Jesus, the Master of putting things in their proper perspective, replies, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above."
Jesus does not question Pilate's authority. He simply reminds Pilate of the source of that authority: God. Pilate now wants to have nothing to do with Jesus. The power he wielded so effortlessly only moments before now feels like the weight of the world, too heavy for him to bear alone. Which of course is true: ruling other people is a burden, too heavy for one individual, or group of individuals, to bear. This is why our rulers need our help, why they need our voices as well as our prayers.
Abraham Lincoln, on his way to Washington to assume the presidency for the first time, referred to himself as "an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people." He acknowledged that his authority was a delegated one, which must be exercised in accordance with the intentions of both God and the American people. Unlike Pilate, Lincoln understood from the outset that there were limits to what he could do to preserve "the Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people." He would go on to declare, in his Gettysburg Address, "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
"One Nation Under God" is an abiding theme in American politics. It reminds us that our politics are just as much a part of our spiritual life as any other activity or institution ordained by God (Rom. 13:1). It speaks of God's providence over our nation, which creates a responsibility in us to act as a people under God's judgment as well as his blessing. In short, we must govern ourselves according to principles of justice and right, and not merely majority rule or numerical might.
A verse related to this theme is found in Psalm 33:12: "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." Some might misinterpret this as a boast: "Look at us; God is on our side." But reading the rest of the psalm, we find that it declares the simple but all-important truth that those who worship the one true God will discover a God who seeks out all human beings, to bless them richly with his presence and supply. Historically, the people of Israel were chosen by God to be a blessing unto the nations. With the coming of Christ, and his rule over the church, the nations witnessed a new and growing people of God, drawn from all tongues and tribes, and called to be a blessing to all nations by teaching them about the present and future rule of the Lord Jesus Christ.