Theocracy, that form of government in which God governs a nation directly through divine command, is hot again. Think for instance of Iran, al-Qaeda or ISIS. Closer to home, American evangelicals are busy using the White House to get a firm grip on politics and legislation. For them, Trump is God’s man who will ensure that the US will be governed again according to the moral values once established by God.
No wonder, then, that the current administration, aware of its indebtedness to the evangelical vote and seeing its usefulness, refers to God left and right. To give one example, just recently, Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General, asserted that the separation of children from their asylum-seeking parents was justified. Want to know why? Because the Bible says (Romans 13) that the government’s laws need to be obeyed. Sessions’ move was classic theocracy: calling upon an alleged divine order.
Theocracies, however, are marked by a strong inner inconsistency. Its proponents will argue that it is God who wills something. The knowledge of that will is remarkably always derived from the proponents themselves who have determined in advance what the divine will is. The theocratic elites determine, interpret, declare, and eventually enforce the will of God for the nation.
A typical derivative of each and every theocracy is the existence (or emergence, if you will) of marginal groups that, in the eyes of the elite, do not conform to the declared will of God or its standardized order. Let’s say, illegal aliens, LGBT folk, or “suspicious looking” black people. In order to deal with them, these groups are subjected to various gradations of exclusion: discrimination, loss of rights, being assigned the role of scapegoat; it all depends on God’s will.
Interestingly, God—whatever exactly the word “god” refers to—is hardly involved. She or He functions predominantly as the symbolic justification of a human hierarchy and order. God thus becomes a license to kill, a mandate to suppress, an incentive to eradicate. Somebody’s heaven is someone else’s hell!
Believers typically feel a little uneasy at such an analysis of theocracy. Because didn’t Jesus refer to a theocracy when he talked about the coming of the kingdom of God? Is it not precisely Jesus who predicts a judgment over God’s enemies when the end of time has come? Wasn’t Jesus either a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a deeply misled soul? Answer: No, not at all!
Kingdom versus Theocracy
We need to have an eye for the tremendously subversive character of Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. That kingdom is diametrically opposed to the ideal of theocracy. Jesus, for instance, said that the kingdom of God was already among the people. It was there in the form of the innocence of a child who simply accepts or a lump of yeast that transforms the entire batch of dough. The kingdom can best be compared to a powerless grassroots movement that changes the world from the bottom up instead of from the top down.
In this kingdom, the point is not that a certain desired behavior is demanded by any means necessary but rather that others are loved selflessly. Instead of political organization, there is organic growth. In it, people are not lording it over others. Rather, we find people serving the neighbor. Instead of violent enforcement, there is gentle persuasion and invitation. Lives are not exacted but freely put on the line on behalf of the weak. A bit, say, like Jesus himself: overcoming evil through weakness instead of power.
But what do we make of Jesus’ warning of the coming judgment of the Son of Man? some will ask. The key toward a good understanding of this passage and others like it we find in the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew where a cup of water makes the difference. This passage provides poignant evidence of the stark difference between the ideal of the Jewish theocracy and Jesus’ radical kingdom of God.
The first thing that strikes us is that those who are rejected are precisely those who consider themselves to be very religious. Their problem is that they have neglected to look after the weak and the marginalized. They are not welcomed into the kingdom. In Jesus’ own words: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” Take that, Jeff Sessions, and most of Western Christendom, for that matter. In the US helping illegal immigrants is considered a crime; in the kingdom, you are thrown out for not giving water to someone who is thirsty. Big difference!
Alternatives for theocracy are not atheism or the modern welfare state. Both are not forms of government, of course, but are sometimes presented either as the proper response to religion gone wrong or as the right way forward into the future for Western civilization. Both, however, have proven to be so susceptible to secular forms of theocracy like Stalinism or neoliberalism.
The best antidote is found in the words of the man in whose name many fateful theocratic attempts were made. Jesus’ idea of the kingdom is radically different and as such the best weapon in the battle against the alliance of authoritarian politics and religious fanaticism.
Evangelicals in the USA would do well to re-read Jesus. Not only is Sessions’ reference to the Bible a classical example of proof-texting, the entire idea that wants to elevate the White house as a beacon of divine authority, a city on a hill, so to speak, is through and through unchristian, irrespective of the ideology embodied there.