Virtual Voices

Political good shepherds

Campaign 2012

As the November elections approach and difficult choices confront us, we would do well to think about Jesus, the King of kings and perfect ruler of the nations. He is not an unreasonable standard for judging candidates for American political office because He is the standard to which God, who establishes and judges all the rulers of the earth, will hold them.

It is an ancient tradition to view rulers as shepherds of their people. In John 10, Christ calls Himself a Good Shepherd and shows what that means for good government.

We see first that a good political leader is not one who seeks to be served, but one whose chief desire is to serve. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). When we hold some sort of power over our neighbors (as parent, manager, or senator), even the best of us find it tempting to serve ourselves even at the expense of those we govern, to serve our selfish interests rather than the common good. But that's the definition of tyrannical government, and the opposite of the way Jesus governs.

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Second, by the Good Shepherd standard, a good political leader is one who knows his people. The Good Shepherd knows His sheep and they know Him in turn (John 10:14). Jesus means more than academic knowledge because He cites the example of the mutual knowledge within the Godhead. It's a personal knowledge that comes from experience with one another and includes mutual affection. Government is not an abstract application of principles. To govern wisely, a ruler must know his people and have sympathy and affection for their way of life. The prospect of someone from Brooklyn governing Iowans for their good is not promising, and vice versa. Good government requires something like the bonds of friendship as opposed to a stance of enmity, distrust, or contempt. Niccolo Machiavelli, a man whose name has been virtually synonymous with the devil for almost 400 years, advised that a prince should have no other thought but thoughts of war … even in domestic government! If an officeholder sees the people simply as obstacles to his or her reelection and rising, the people should select another candidate.

Lastly, the example of Christ the Good Shepherd teaches us that a good political leader does not divide or scatter his people, but unifies them. Good shepherding gathers "one flock" out of diverse sheep (John 10:16). Christ unified Jews and Gentiles in His church, people between whom there was strong cultural hostility. An ambitious churchman in the young church, if he were a bad shepherd, could have exploited this factional divide for political advantage. Our political leaders can do this by exploiting differences in wealth, race, age, or sex. It's a sign of using political authority to serve oneself, not the people. Presidents often come to office saying they want to be the president of all Americans, not just of those who voted for them. But the selfish politics of division soon takes over.

We will never have perfectly Christlike leadership this side of the Lord's return. But through our votes, Christian citizens can encourage it to the extent we make Christ our measure when sizing up the candidates for office.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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