24 January 2011

Government's divine mandate

I am not a fan of most politically-oriented sermons, especially when they undertake to pronounce on the specifics of public policy. However, a week ago our pastor, the Rev. Dr. W. J. Clyde Ervine, gave us all an excellent example of the right way to preach a political sermon. The title was King Solomon's Charge, based on I Kings 2. This is part of an ongoing lectio continua series on Solomon's reign. The Old Testament lesson recounted the circumstances that brought Solomon to the throne, including the execution of his father David's chief of staff, Joab, and his own half-brother Adonijah.

The episode raises a difficult issue: "is Solomon to be morally excused for killing the enemies who might have wanted to kill him?" Ervine admits that not everything scripture recounts does it necessarily approve. Yet he raises another possibility that ought not to be glossed over:
David is king and head of government, giving a charge not so much to a son, but to the incoming head of government. What he says is this: “Solomon, as king, you must deal with the State’s internal as well as external enemies. You may not want to, but you must confront those who mount treasonous attacks against the kingdom”. David mentions Joab as an example, while Solomon will later place Adonijah in the same category. Put like that, the issue isn’t whether or not Solomon was brutal, but whether the State may legitimately use force against its enemies. That’s the issue I Kings 2 poses; its answer is affirmative. I Kings 2 wants readers to conclude that Solomon was justified in hunting down State criminals, and further suggests that Solomon’s punishment of those criminals was endorsed by God. At verse 22, we’re told that as Solomon contemplates the punishment he believes Adonijah deserves, he says: “So may God do to me, and more also, for Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life! Now therefore as the Lord lives, who has established me and placed me on the throne...Adonijah shall be put to death”.The text presents Solomon’s blood-letting, not as the violence of a private thug but as the legal action of the head of state.

This, of course, raises the larger question of whether the state legitimately uses force, even to the extent of taking life. Although there is a long and honourable pacifist tradition within Christianity, we must nevertheless take seriously those biblical texts assigning the power of the sword to government.

Having been present as Dr. Ervine delivered this sermon (which can be heard here), I can testify that the congregation was unusually quiet throughout, perhaps wondering where he would be going next in his argument. It somehow felt like a controversial sermon, although his conclusion is entirely biblical and falls squarely in the centre of the larger Reformed tradition.

A powerful preacher, Dr. Ervine's sermons are worth listening to. If you are ever in the neighbourhood, please do come to Central Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, Ontario, at 10.30 sunday morning.

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