Russian writer Leo Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. War and Peace and Anna Karenina have inspired millions over the last century. Less well-known about Tolstoy, though is that he had a profound effect upon many due to his interpretation of Christian ethics, especially regarding non-resistance and pacifism. In 1884, he expounded upon his beliefs in What I Believe, and this work was promptly banned in Russia for its negative depiction of the state and the Russian church. After the book had spread throughout the world and garnered attention, Russian secular and religious intellectuals began attacking his ideas. The Kingdom of God is Within You, published in 1894, is a further explanation of his beliefs and a response to his opponents.
Review of Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective, by John Cobin (Alertness Ltd., 2003). 256 pages, $10.95.
Talking about politics is probably one of the biggest can of worms anybody can open, even for the Christian. Many of us may attend churches that specialize in a particular brand of Christianity with similar viewpoints as our own, yet debates still rage over things like the proper role of government, the morality of civil disobedience, or voting. Opinions about the Christian’s responsibility to the state are as varied as the biblical proof-texts uses to support them. (Proof-texting is a problem itself, but I’ll leave that for another article.)
John Cobin’s book, Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective, offers an extensive look at many biblical texts, and an assessment of their relevancy to the Christian’s life in politics today. He begins by explaining how the plethora of social ramifications makes it important for Christians to understanding politics to at least some degree. It affects us all, even Christians, and so we must be aware, if not fully engaged.
Cobin lays out and explains his “policy analysis toolkit”:
- Reactive policies – policies that become effective when they react to a violation of somebody’s rights by a nonconsensual act
- Inefficient provision of market resources – any good or service provided by government
- Proactive policies aimed at behavior change
- Proactive policies aimed at redistribution
Every public policy falls within one of these four categories. In a sense he is providing us with four “lenses” by which we can filter any particular public policy in order to evaluate them. Touring a litany of Bible passages Cobin explores the implications our reading of the Bible has for popular public policies. It is clear early on that Cobin has explored the Scriptures in-depth, and has connected the dots in ways that take much time and energy. He also provides many Bible references to aide the reader in finding exactly where the Bible addresses (both directly and indirectly) a particular policy or principle. There is no shortage of Bible references in this book!
Cobin, however, appears to be somewhat of a purist on some things, especially with respect to individual participation in particular public policies. For instance, Cobin is pretty rough on Christians who are involved in the government school system. He defends this because the education system is based on positive (or artificial) rights, it produces bad fruit (something Jesus warned us about), and the biblical principle that parents have the responsibility of educating their children. Many readers might find this (and other) positions a bit too extreme or inflexible.
Cobin has written other books that are more thorough (reviews forthcoming), but if you are looking for a book that begins to engage the biblical text with regards to contemporary politics, Bible and Government is a good start.
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