Citizenship


 
What does the Book of Proverbs teach us about being good citizens?
 
It teaches us, first of all, that good citizens have good hearts.
 
He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious
will have the king for his friend (22:11).
 
A citizen with a pure heart is a person of integrity. He or she is guided by the highest values and motivated by the best intentions. This integrity overflows into action, specifically speech but also action. The pure-hearted person speaks graciously about and to the people God has placed in positions of political authority.
 
I should add, however, that there are times when a person of integrity must also speak hard truths to those in political power. The Old Testament prophets are case studies of this. Precisely because they were men of integrity, they challenged the injustice their government was practicing. What matters most, then, is integrity. If the government is good, speak graciously about it. If it is bad, speak hard truths to it.
 
Second, good citizens are uncomfortable with the privileges of power.
 
When you sit to dine with a ruler,
note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
if you are given to gluttony.
Do not crave his delicacies,
for that food is deceptive (23:1-3).
 
Henry Kissinger once remarked that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. He was probably right, and that should make us wary. People in positions of political authority often become used to privilege. (One thinks of the nomenklatura in the old Soviet Union, for example, who had access to luxuries while their citizens waited in bread lines.) If you get to close to privilege, it may distort your ability to distinguish justice and injustice. In that sense, the food of rulers is “deceptive.”
 
Third, good citizens obey the law.
 
Fear the Lord and the king, my son,
and do not join with the rebellious,
for those two will send sudden destruction upon them,
and who knows what calamities they can bring? (24:21-22)
 
I suppose that there are moments where civil disobedience to and even revolution against an unjust government becomes permissible. (The Civil Rights Movement and the American Revolution come to mind in this regard.) But in general, obedience to the law is the default position of biblically minded citizens. Why? Because of the harsh consequences civil disobedience and revolution can bring about. Remember what Nazi Ernst Rohm said before he was purged by Adolf Hitler: “Every revolution eats its own children.”
 
Fourth, good citizens show deference to people in positions of political authority.
 
Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among great men;
it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before a nobleman (25:6-7).
 
Of course, deference to government was a much greater virtue (and necessity) in a monarchy than in a democracy, but I still believe it is appropriate for citizens in a democracy to act respectfully toward their elected officials, if not because of the officeholder than at least because of the office.

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