The Perils and Contingencies of Statecraft

January 14, 2015

Editor’s Note: Canon & Culture is beginning 2015 with a Symposium on Statecraft and political theology featuring six essays from Research Fellows of the ERLC’s Research Institute.

You had all these advantages in your ancient states, but you chose to act as if you had never been molded into a civil society and had everything to begin anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.[1]

So begins Edmund Burke’s scathing criticism of the French Revolutionaries. In disposing of its political tradition and all the institutions founded upon it, the self-anointed republic attempted the impossible. Revolutionaries, led brashly by Robespierre, sought to craft the French constitution entirely from scratch, assuming all the while that they could, like God, create something ex nihilo. Burke’s prediction that the episode would end in spectacular calamity was uniformly prescient. It turns out constitutions are indeed inherited; gifts of the past received as an authoritative body of wisdom. “Revolutionaries do not make revolutions!” reminds Hannah Arendt. By which she meant that the reshaping of political life through violent means always ends in disaster. Real, enduring change in politics is always imperceptibly gradual.

When the question of “what the ideal American polity would look like from a Christian perspective?” was first put to me, Burke’s Reflections came immediately to mind. Statecrafting is not a task humans assume with great competence. As is the case with so many of our aims, sometimes ambitious projects spiral into abject failure, while at other times our modest, simplistic projects flower surprisingly into astonishing success. There’s often a persistent disjunction between our intentions and achievements, and the same truth applies to objects of state.

The theoretical point is, in my view, an unprofitable line of counterfactual speculation anyway. The option to start over, to hit the reset button, does not fall to us. If however, as I have intimated, the shaping of politics occurs gradually because citizens undertake distinctly political projects in public, then any “crafting” of the state is for the Christian a result of faithful, prudent, and patient contributions to the fabric of public life. The real and lasting effects of those activities will remain unknown until seen in retrospect, so we must hope that public acts carried out in faith and love do in fact leave an enduring impression.

The Reformers, for good reason, associated this gradual transformation of politics with the theological notion of vocation. Part of what characterizes our vocation is the fact of having a political citizenship to which we are in some sense responsible. Some are called to farming, some to trading, some to building, and some even to governing. Vocation defines the mode and scope of one’s contribution. Remaining faithful to our vocations, minding our own affairs (1 Thess 4:11), gives to God what only God as sovereign Lord of all can do—to alter the state of politics as such. As is so often the case, Augustine perhaps puts it best:

…let us not attribute the power to grant kingdoms and empires to any save the true God. He gives happiness in the kingdom of Heaven only to the godly. Earthly kingdoms, however, He gives to the godly and ungodly alike, as it may please Him, whose good pleasure is never unjust. [2]

1.) God in his sovereignty rules the political order. It is impossible to square the imperatives of Romans 13:1-7 with the impulse to replace real political orders with ideal ones. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, instructs Paul (13:1). Not “overthrow all authority.” Not “submit, but plot a political substitute.” Not “you are the governing authority.” Recall that Romans 13 is but a continuation of Paul’s cautionary remarks at the end of chapter twelve to “live peaceably with all” and “never to avenge yourselves,” prompting the community to question just how they are supposed to react in the face of insurmountable and unbearable injustice. Paul’s response is that the authorities have been appointed by God to remedy such wrongs. The one in authority is the one God appointed as—and this is Paul’s word—a servant to execute judgment. Either Paul is correct and God does indeed appoint civil authorities, or Paul is incorrect and sovereignty ultimately resides elsewhere. I’ll opt for the former, particularly since Paul doubles-up in verse two, removing all doubt as to meaning—for there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been appointed by God (13:2).

2.) God appoints people, not procedures. On this point there is rather wide disagreement and I readily concede that my view may represent a very small minority. I believe the personal language Paul deploys in Romans 13 in reference to “authorities” cannot be interpreted as institutional. In other words, I don’t think the “authorities” Paul refers to in Romans 13 are the constitutions, procedures, or processes of the state, but to the personswho rule that state as God’s “servants.”[3] Sometimes God gives us the rulers we need, and sometimes he gives us the rulers we deserve; that is the Divine prerogative. Israel pleads for “a king to judge us” so that they may be “like all nations” (1 Sam 8), and they are given Saul. The church would I think do well to heed the theological lesson here and resist the temptation to hope in a state that cannot possibly achieve what God achieves in Christ. We are but pilgrims longing for our true Home.

3.) What, then, are we doing when we vote? A question I ask myself repeatedly, especially around election time. The answer depends almost entirely upon what we think we are doing when we vote. When we vote we are casting a ballot in favor of the candidate whom we believe will do the best job of governing. We vote in favor of someone, even if we mean it only symbolically. To undertake this particular activity—voting—the Christian must be convinced that the ballot is cast as an obedient response to the command of God in discipleship. The question any Christian must put to himself, therefore, is whether God has commanded he vote as an essential step in his ongoing walk in the Spirit. One participates willingly in democratic elections as a disciple or not at all.

4.) Voting is comparably less potent than another, fully potent form of political activity: prayer. It is indeed rather distressing that a church so confounded and horrified by the current political atmosphere prays so irregularly for the authorities that preside over it. Our most powerful political activity is perhaps the least engaged. We’re far more ready to effect political change in the booth than in the closet. Writing in the face of tremendous persecution, a very early (anonymous) writer of the early church remarks, “I will pay honor to the emperor not by worshipping him but by praying for him.”[4] And indeed it seems the basic posture of the early church was deeply intercessory.

5.) Rather than focusing on whether or how to craft a state, we would do better to give our attention to the callings God has uniquely given us. Carrying out our vocations is political by definition. We are, after all, citizens of two cities, one earthly and one heavenly. We have no biblical reason to expect, much less to seek, the ideal political state this side of the eschaton. We sojourn toward it but we will not behold it until the coming of the Son in judgment, when evil and injustice are inevitably and finally expunged. On that day we will relish the truth that concludes John’s Revelation:

There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need not light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign forever and ever. (Rev. 22:3-5)

“Yes,” you might ask, but what are we to do now in our current contexts? In the meantime, I suggest, our task is to carry out our vocations faithfully and obediently, heeding the word of Christ and bearing witness to the truth of his rule. Some individuals will be called expressly to political office, to minister to society as God’s servant. That calling is, of course, for God to decide and the task is carried out no differently than the butcher’s or baker’s. The magistrate punishes evil and rewards good, remaining eager to maintain conditions for mutual flourishing. Nevertheless, regardless of our specific vocations, we undertake them faithfully on the assumption that in bearing witness to the rule of Christ we manifestly alter the political sphere. Walking in the Spirit changes things. Any “crafting” of our state is achieved through the power of the Spirit, our eyes are ever fixed on Christ. Prior to any crafting of state is the crafting of the Church into people able and eager to live as Christ’s body and to carry his message of good news to all who will listen.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

[1] Edmund Burk, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Thomas H. D. Mahoney, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberal Arts Press, 1955), 40.

[2] Augustine, City of God. R. W. Dyson, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 227.

[3] The crucial question related to appointment of evil rulers must be set-aside for now, but I do hope to address it directly in the future.

[4] O’Donovan and O’Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 14.

Matthew Arbo

Matthew Arbo has a Ph.D. in ethics from the University of Edinburgh, currently serves as a research fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC, and has taught at Southeastern, Midwestern, and Southern Seminary in Christian Ethics and Public Theology. He has formerly held a bioethics fellowship at the Paul Ramsey … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24