‘Covenant’ as a Biblical Anchor: Some thoughts for the upcoming Social Statement on Government and Civic Obligation

Currently, the Task Force on Government and Civic Engagement is beginning the process of creating a social statement on faith and civic life.   The Journal of Lutheran Ethics has invited short pieces from ethicists on this subject for the December 2022 issue.  To start this process, Stewart Herman has offered the following which also fits the topic of the October, 2022 issue on the nature and vocation of the church today. To learn more about the social statement process, go to elca.org/civicsandfaith.

[1] Democracy—as in self-government—is under threat today, as the divisions between red and blue, Republican and Democrat, harden in mutual ignorance, suspicion, contempt and even hate.   The duty of the church is to speak to this division, to offer a clear and hopefully simple way to re-frame our national political community in a way that might be appealing and reconciling to both sides.

[2] As Lutherans, we need to start with a Biblical approach.   We have Luther’s two-kingdoms framework, a sturdy if problematic means of conceptualizing divine grace and earthly government.  Indeed, I made it central to the “Government and Civic Engagement in the United States” social message that I helped draft for the ELCA.[1]  Still, I think deeper Biblical rootage is needed, and no image has deeper political roots than ‘covenant’.  What do we need in our politics?  In essence, we need a renewal of the covenant that once bound and should again bind us together.

[3] A covenant is a device through which parties seek to render each other trustworthy.  While it can be nailed down in the legal stipulations of a contract, covenanting—as a process—typically involves an evolving relationship, where trust is generated and sustained by the gestures the parties make towards each other.

[4] For the authors of the Old Testament, political community started at Sinai, when God “cut” (Biblical term) a covenant with a ragtag band of dispirited ex-slaves from Egypt.  God promised protection in exchange for obedience.  That covenant, highlighted by the Ten Commandments, provided a structure for their communal life.  The covenant is, I would argue, the defining image of political community in the Old Testament.  It worked then, and it can work now, because its aim is the protection and flourishing of the covenanting parties.

[5] The legitimacy of government rests, then as now, upon mutual promises to which sovereign and people are both accountable and establish trust between each other.  Think of the stern warnings which the prophets sent to Israelite monarchs, holding them to the covenant.   Covenant provides a moral and legal framework through which sovereign and people work out their differences.  The enormous change we face is that in our world of self-governance, the sovereign IS the people.  So covenant is a mutual understanding among political equals.

[6] What we have lost in the American political context, of course, is that sense of mutual promises that was the core of early American politics.   Covenant provides us a way to speak delicately about the breakdown of politics during the past thirty years.  My main point here is that if we are serious about a biblical grounding for a Lutheran view of politics, government, etc., I don’t think we could do better than try to develop a Lutheran understanding of this venerable concept for explaining relations with God and within a political community.

[7] Covenant is not a developed political concept in Lutheranism as it is in other reformed Protestant traditions.  But consider—and this is where it gets interesting—how some of the main features of Lutheran theology express covenant.  Indeed, we live within multiple covenants.  Think of baptism, which is God’s comprehensive covenant with us for our entire lives.  Think of marriage, which is a set of binding promises of love and commitment between partners.  Think of the Eucharist as the re-embodiment of God’s covenant with us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.   Congregations are held together by the promises members make to the church.  Covenant is hardly foreign to Lutheran theology and ethics; it simply needs to be extended into our political theology and ethics.

[8] Consider how covenant as an idea works.  It can be used as a verb as well as a noun.  The need for covenant-ing arises whenever different parties find themselves in relationship and that relationship needs to be explained, clarified and made the basis for future relationship.   It invites development in a variety of contexts and provides a basis for mutual expectations that enables people to live together.  The common feature is promises made and kept by both sides.

[9] The idea of covenant should not be idealized, of course.   Covenants are evil when they exclude.  Covenants in real estate embedded discrimination in the housing market. The theology of South African apartheid rested upon an exclusive covenant between God and whites.   The religious sanctions for slavery, oppression of natives, South African apartheid, etc., all involve dividing lines based upon weak or perverse Biblical warrants.  A Lutheran theological perspective would affirm the idea that covenants need to be inclusive.  It would take note of the resilient if interrupted progress towards expanding the covenant, in both Old Testament and New.  Pentecost, of course, was one of the breakthrough moments.  By now we realize that there are no grounds for excluding anyone from God’s covenant; therefore, earthly covenants start with a bias towards inclusivity.

[10] What does this mean for earthly politics and government, from a Lutheran perspective?  Politics, in my super-simplified definition, is the art of holding a people together in some sort of community.  It requires identity, some idea of who a people are.   Our language of individualism sorely lacks the capacity to explain this relationship.  It can explain what is good for me and mine, but not what is good for us.

[11] Covenant, in contrast, is an inherently relational term precisely because it focuses on who is included, and the quality of relationship.  It is a way of explaining and prescribing how people might live together in harmony.  On the flip side, it is also a prophetic term, providing a biblical frame of reference to explain where inclusivity has failed.  What are racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and hostility to LGBTQ+ persons at root other than the conviction that some categories of people are simply not included within the national covenant?   What are ecocide, biocide and even genocide other than the willful destruction of life which God has included within the creation covenant articulated in Genesis?

[12] Of course, qualifications are needed when covenant is used in the political sphere.  As far as government is concerned, a distinction may and needs to be drawn between residents and citizens for defensible public purposes, but the Lutheran bias (as seen in the social message) would be towards inclusion, particularly where that distinction serves to disenfranchise or disempower residents and undocumented aliens.

[13] Worse, all covenants fail at some point, and so they need to be renewed; that is a doleful Biblical truth that runs from Sinai to the Cross.   But covenants need not be brittle constructs which simply crumble, like broken contracts.  They rest on the capacity of the parties to recommit themselves.  Why else would God keep calling the wayward people of Israel to return to the Covenant?  Or why would Jesus present himself as a sacrifice for the future of humanity?  Covenants are renewed as one or both parties commit themselves in order to elicit a reciprocal commitment from the other party.   As such, covenanting has a dynamic, resilient process.  It is a tool, a device, for creating and sustaining relationships.

[14] The American political covenant is now broken; I doubt many people would disagree.  We need to proceed with deep conviction that it can be restored.   So what if we Lutherans really believed in our hearts that God’s covenant extended beyond baptism, eucharist, marriage, friendship and all the familiar forms of mutual promise-making and promise-keeping to include our national life?  What then might we empowered to say?   This, of course, is the challenge to the church as a whole—and to the Task Force that is drafting the document. If the Task Force is looking for a simple, Biblically grounded way to frame our political crisis, I suggest they might want to consider the idea of covenant as the central frame for understanding American government and civic obligation.


[1] https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Government_and_Civic_Engagement_Social_Message.pdf

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, after having retired from the religion department of Concordia College in 2015.  His Durable Goods (University of Notre Dame, 1997) offers a covenantal account of the relation between management and employees.