Theocracy, anyone?

by “Khanya” (Orthodox Christians from South Africa)

Someone pointed me to an interesting article on theocracy recently ‘Of Course Christians Are Theocrats’, by Peter J. Leithart:

In the final analysis, “human affairs” and “things divine” won’t stay put in their neutral corners. This is why I prefer Stanley Hauerwas’s straightforward confession: “I often enjoy making liberal friends, particularly American liberal friends, nervous by acknowledging that I am of course a theocrat.”

That “of course” is the kicker. For Hauerwas, it’s obvious that a Christian must be a theocrat. He’s right. “Theocracy” means “rule of God,” and the Christian gospel is, in a literal sense, a theocratic message: Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom of God. Against the Roman conviction that “Caesar is lord,” Christians proclaim that “Jesus is Lord.”

I thought it was worth reading, and on the whole I agreed with the sentiments expressed.
I recalled the ending of the account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp;, which I have often quoted, where after listing all the secular rulers and authorities at the time, the author goes on to say “but the reigning monarch was Jesus Christ, who rules for ever and ever.”
That “but” is important.


Yes, it is theocracy in the sense in which Stanley Hauerwas and Peter J. Leithart speak of it, but it is not what most people mean by “theocracy” when they use the word today. The “but” makes a clear distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men, in a way that “theocracy”, in its current English usage, does not.

Now the blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the first part of the month Xanthicus, on the seventh before the calends of March, on a great Sabbath, at the eighth hour. He was apprehended by Herodes, when Philip of Tralles was high priest, in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus, but in the reign of the Eternal King Jesus Christ. To whom be the glory, honor, greatness, and eternal throne, from generation to generation. Amen.

One cannot determine the meaning of words in current usage solely by etymology, which the First Things article does, So my response to it is both Yes and No, and the No comes from C.S. Lewis, with whom I also agree:

I am a democrat… I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt.[1]

And it is also worth bearing in mind the Grand Inquisitor, from Dostoevsky.

In the days when Roman Emperors were pagan, there was less of a problem. There could be a clear distinction of church and state, between eternity and time. It was easy to be theocrats in the Hauerwas sense. But when Christian kings and emperors came along, a notion of Christian kingship.developed, which has never really worked out in practice.

We pray:

  • hallowed be thy name…  on earth as it is in heaven
  • thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven
  • thy will be done… on earth as it is in heaven

So Christian rulers have a responsibility to God and not for him. They are to make their rule an icon, an image, of the kingdom of God and God’s justice. It is when Christian rulers think that they have a responsibility for God, and not tohim, that things go horribly wrong. All too often they fail. And it is the failure to recognise the failure that, as C.S. Lewis points out, is the greatest failure of all.

The Bolsheviks thought they recognised the failure, but were trapped by precisely the same thing. They thought they could build the kingdom of heaven on earth,  without God (ie astheistically), Call it, if you will, as Philip Pullman did, the Republic of Heaven. But they too failed to recognise their failure, and thought that anyone who pointed out the failure and failed to recognise the Bolshevik earthly paradise must be mad, so they locked dissidents away in lunatic asylums. Even an atheist theocracy remains a theocracy, subject to all the weaknesses C.S. Lewis points out.

Beware the politician who thinks he knows the will of God, or, in the absence of God, substitutes his own will.

On balance I think I agree with C.S. Lewis: theocracy is the worst form of government.

[1] Lewis, C.S. 1966. Of other worlds: essays and stories. London: Geoffrey Bles; p 81.
For more on this and related topics see also:
Religion, spirituality and politics | Khanya
Mere Ideology: The politicisation of C.S. Lewis | Notes from underground


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