Canadians went to the polls in October in a federal election, and the new government is being sworn into office today in Ottawa. Those who wanted change got their wish, and time will tell whether that was a good thing. But good thing or not, change is inevitable. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that we can't step into the same river twice. And in The Passing of Arthur, Tennyson attributes these lines to the dying king:
- The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
In the present Canadian election, where the three major parties left the gate neck and neck, the ensuing majority government was a vote not just for change but for stability — or so the voters hoped. But change is inevitable, and stability is an illusion. You can't have both, no matter whom you elect — not forever.
The apostle Paul said as much to the philosophers in Athens in about 50 A.D. when he asserted:
Acts 17:26-27 – And [God] made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us. (RSV)
What's particularly intriguing here is Paul's understanding of that political flux. The ebb and flow of empires and cultures, he says, is a function of God's providence.
Those of us who are a bit long in the tooth remember when there was such a thing as the British Empire. It served its purpose and is now a vestige of its former self. Mercifully, its decline was marked more by gentle transition than by violence. But rise and decline must one day inevitably come, to America, to Russia, to China, and, regrettably, to Canada. As with Christian societies, so with Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim societies, because the seeds of decline are within us, within the very processes that contribute to our success.
Paul says that this is providential. It's part of the divine scheme of things. But why? The morning after the election, a CBC announcer remarked, "There isn't much to learn from winning; the act of losing, however, can bring great wisdom." Paul is specific about the kind of wisdom that he thinks that the flux of populations and cultures can bring. It happens, he says, "that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him."
That, I think, was Paul's theology of history. You see its chief instance in his letter to the church in Galatia, where Paul says that "when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son" (Galatians 4:4 ESV). Paul knew enough history to recognize that the Roman Empire was "the great bottleneck of history" — building roads, enforcing a peace, facilitating commerce, establishing uniformity of law — and enabling, albeit unwittingly, the spread of Christianity across most of the known world. Paul intended to preach even as far afield as Spain.
Certainly, stable government is better than unstable government, especially if it's also wise and righteous government. But the test of any government — the final judgment on any society or culture — will be how it responds to the message that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords.
The Anglican prayer for the Queen is, by definition, also a prayer for all the same things for the new Government of Canada, and for all Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.
Prayer: Almighty God, whose kingdom is everlasting, and power infinite: Have mercy upon the whole Church; and so rule the heart of thy chosen servant Elizabeth, our Queen and Governor, and all who are put in authority under her, that she, knowing whose minister she is, may above all things seek thy honour and glory: and that we and all her subjects, duly considering whose authority she hath, may faithfully serve, honour, and humbly obey her, in thee, and for thee, according to thy blessed Word and ordinance; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, ever one God, world without end. Amen.