Word Magazine November 2000 Page 13-14
THEOCRACY: AN ANCIENT FORM FOR CONTEMPORARY TIMES?
By Fr. Joseph Allen
The Orthodox tradition in the Christian East has always held the concept of “Theocracy” as a fundamental principle by which governmental policy is motivated. Theokratia, or Theokratos, meant “ruled or headed by God.” In Byzantium and Imperial Russia, as the Patriarch and Emperor (Tsar), the Sacerdotium and Imperium, interacted, theocratic governance was believed to be the basis of all the good that was realized for the people. However, peace and cooperation did not always prevail between these two forces, and sometimes “good” was not realized.
Nevertheless, the question must be asked: despite the fact that in the pure sense of the word this theocracy in history did not always work practically — personages were indeed involved! —could one still see its value as a moral and spiritual guide for our present age? Or is it naive to suppose that there is such a place today for this principle?
To begin, the main thrust of theocracy is rooted in scripture:
“There is no authority except from God; the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1). The very foundation of the political liberty which has so marked America’s treasured governance is taken directly from the scripture, and, of all things, it is inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).
Some, of course, will indeed claim this is naive. But those making such disclaimers do not look deeply enough into the question.
We begin by realizing that God has not done, and will not do, everything that needs doing in this world; He has left plenty for us to do. Regarding governance, after the usual political apparatus — and all it includes — has completed its electoral process, he or she who arrives at the position of leadership and authority should have to address the question: What should I now do to “cooperate” with God? In a theocratic form the principle of synergeia, “cooperation” with God, will dominate a leader’s endeavors.
But the theocratic principle for those in the Eastern Christian Tradition means even more. As we do “cooperate” with God, our function is not merely to keep American culture running smoothly. Rather, is to produce a people who are, in their daily lives and work, a sign and a witness that God has not left the world to its own devices. In this sense, those who would follow the ways of theocracy will at times be “counter-cultural” citizens. While greed, deceit, violence, falsehood, etc., come quite naturally in our world, obedience to God’s ways — rather than the world’s — keeps in place a needed tension that does not allow us merely to “settle.” Thus the life of a person of faith is, at once, a gracious reminder of who we are and an abrasive prod to be who we ought to be. Theocracy teaches this lesson, and it teaches it especially to those in the leadership positions of government.
But all this is certainly not new to the foundation of American life. Of the 55 men who attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, none was motivated by less than theocratic principles. Even Benjamin Franklin, a questionable deist, asserted in 1787 what Our Lord Himself in St. Matthew 10:29 verified: “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can be built without his aid? We have been assured in the sacred writings that “except the Lord builds the house, they who build it labor in vain.”
But what about separation of church and state? Thomas Jefferson, among others, is credited with this phrase, and at first it appears to militate against the principles of theocracy in America. However, few understand that Jefferson’s intent, directed to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, was to assure them that the government would not interfere by establishing a state religion which would persecute them. No American could disagree with this. However, this certainly did not mean that Jefferson believed less in the principles of theocracy, and the proof of it is in the Declaration of Independence, that is, in the term “self-evident.”
With the use of this term, Jefferson is invoking the teachings of the Great Apostle Paul — which, incidentally, were at the root of some great monastic debates in the 14th century. There is an intuition of the basic truths of life and they are planted in the human heart and mind by God. These are the moral and unalterable laws of God to which St. Paul points in his Epistle to the Romans: “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God has showed it to them” (1:19). The original Greek for “manifest in them” is phaneron estin en autes and for Jefferson (who knew Greek very well) it meant precisely “self evident.” In short, Jefferson knew the forces of God on a person’s life; they were “self-evident.”
Like Franklin and Jefferson, the many American leaders of that age assumed the presence of God in their understanding of theocratic principles.
All this, of course, puts American citizens in the Eastern Orthodox Faith in a rather awkward position. Often being “counter-cultural”, and yet having to live in this society, they sometimes feel like “alien citizens.” Paradoxically, that may be good, and it may carry a message to all people of faith in God. They need to affirm their responsibility for the polities of the earthly city, but at the same time realize their true polis is the City of God. Loyalty to the earthly city, according to this theocratic form, is joined to an allegiance that others who do not share that allegiance may not easily understand. However, without the “tension” between these two “cities,” the entire process of governance will remain unquestioned; everything will be acceptable, always. But not everything is.
All this was already understood in the early second century. The Letter to Diognetus captures the proper attitude which, at least for Orthodox Christianity, can reflect a healthy understanding of the place of theocracy:
Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. Although they live in Greek [i.e., civilized] and barbarian cities alike, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, still they give proof of the remarkable and extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. For they live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, but endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry like everyone else, sharing their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true: they are ‘in the flesh,’ but do not live ‘according to the flesh.’ They do busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
This early second century letter well describes how the principles of theocracy impressed the sub-apostolic age. Paradoxically, then, these principles still make for the finest governance of people seeking true liberty in their world.
The Rev. Dr. Joseph Allen, Pastor of St. Anthony’s Orthodox Church in Bergenfield, NJ, is also Director of Theological and Pastoral Education of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, Englewood, NJ.