In the midst of today’s news. I appreciate more than ever the words of the poet-musician Michael Kelly Blanchard:

“In these days of confused situations, In this night of a restless remorse, When the heart and the soul of a nation, Lay wounded and cold as a corpse, …”

We’re not at all the first Christian folk to have to cope with political realities that have so often been confusing and non-congenial. In my own Reformed and British heritage there was the episode in the 17th century when the British monarch, was a wretch and was engaged in many harsh assaults on the growing populace of Reformation Christians, to the point where it seemed so unbearable to them that they organized an army under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, captured he king and relieved him of his head. Then they established Cromwell as Lord Protector and began the process of creating something of a more representative government, ultimately of a constitutional monarchy, with elected Parliament and all that followed. After a few years the monarchy was restored though chastened and restricted—Winston Churchill made the point that the monarchy was never the same again, and never again able to engage in such royal excesses.

Part of their initiative, in those several years under Cromwell, was to assemble a select group of the best Protestant minds together in Westminster Abbey (they weren’t too cool with Roman Catholics, admittedly) to draw up a unified statement of faith and practice of the nation. If one has ever been in a company of bright theological minds trying to cooperate on such a project, it is to realize that it was something of a miracle that it ever was completed. The fruit of that assembly was the venerable Westminster Confession of Faith, which has been something of a standard for Reformed Christians of the U.K. strand (from which I take my heritage). The Westminster Confession is held in high esteem these centuries later, but seldom read or referred to, … but at an early moment in my own church leadership during the emergence of civil rights protests and school integration, there were those segregationists within my own Christian congregation who challenged the government’s right to impose such policies. I think it is the only time I ever have had to refer the congregation to that vow to be guided by the church’s confessions, and its authority over our behavior.

There is a marvelous chapter in that confession in which the Westminster theologians dealt with their own existential crisis, like: by what authority are we to be guided? What is the role of the government? What is the function of the civil magistrate? The chapter: Of Civil Magistrate (chapter XXV) is a jewel. It states that the role of the civil magistrate / government is the glory of God and the common good. It is for the encouragement of those who are good and the punishment of evildoers. This Westminster view of government played something of a subtle but influential role as it came into the American constitutional convention, especially through the larger-than-life role of Princeton College and the influence of that theological stripe (John Witherspoon, etc.).

Such simple guidelines as: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” or “Peace, order, and justice” flow out of that Westminster influence (and, admittedly also out of deist John Locke). But it is the role of government, and those who make up such government, to always be seeking the common good, to be engaging in those humanitarian policies that do not ignore injustices, or oppression, or suffering, … and likewise does not allow those of wealth and power to use that to make life more miserable for those who are voiceless, weak, homeless and struggling. Who, of those seeking leadership, manifests this God-given sense of the common good? We’re not the first to be engaged in such a quest “in these days of confused situation.” But this is our day!

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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