The Two Things You Should Never Talk About at the Dinner Table, Part Four
“Most American christians don’t know how to read the bible well. And they don’t know how to read the bible well because they’re Americans before they’re christians.” -Stanley Hauerwas
Submission to Government, as Peace and Protest
So we finally arrive at our primary passage concerning our relationship to governmental authorities, Romans 13:1-7. Recall from the previous post that Paul is writing to a small community of believers who live in the shadow of the Caesar with the purpose of showing them how to reflect the reality of Christ in word and deed, culminating with the imperatives “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (12:14), and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21). These become the Very Large Truths through which we approach the difficult passage at hand. Their preeminence suggests they are the unbendable realities of Kingdom living, so it is our work to figure out how they subvert our assumptions about interacting with the political sphere. I want to break this passage down into three sections, highlighting three imperative words. First:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (13:1,2)
To establish is to categorize and organize according to one’s purposes. The Greek term, tasso, means “to put in a certain order” in addition to the definition often applied here “to appoint or ordain”. The subtle difference in translation is important, as the latter can lead us to some troubling conclusions about God and His movement in the world. We often have no trouble in applying God’s ordination of a government for His purposes to our own country, but what about the North Korean regime? What about the Taliban in Afghanistan? And the ever-present case-in-point, what about Nazi Germany? This passage specifically was certainly used by some in the German church to throw support behind Hitler. If our definition of this term is true for one state, it would be true for all. One cannot get around this fact. God sets up His armies at opposing ends of the battlefield, then smashes them together for His glory.
If “establish” is actually more akin to “ordering or categorizing”, then we see a different perspective on how God operates, and it leans heavily on an idea from the previous post: God’s sovereignty is His ability to turn curses into blessings. God established free will at the core of the human definition, and built into that is the reality that humans will use their free will to arrange and rule themselves however they see fit. The genius of God is His ability to categorize varying degrees of goodness in the panoply of human governments to His ultimate purposes. He orders the world through His reflected good (whether it is recognized as Him or not) and brings good outcome out of intended evil events. It does not mean that He affirms or authenticates the systems of man; in fact, all human governments will be subjected to the standards set by Jesus himself, for he determines “right” and “wrong”. Which leads us to the second point:
“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (13:3-5)
Submission is the active pursuit of considering another person more highly than oneself. The radical nature of the message of Jesus is that his followers are against no one. Elsewhere Paul says, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). This means, while christians stand up against the unholy trinity of the Flesh, the Enemy, and the World, we do not position ourselves against our fellow man.
Submission does not imply passive agreement or subservient obedience, but sacrificial love. This is where the idea of submission has often derailed, especially in passages such as Ephesians 5:21-6:9, where it has been taken in an authoritarian way to oppress someone in the name of order (consider how the preamble “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” dissipates any kind of oppression that can be drawn out of Paul’s reinterpretation of the household rules). This is what it looks like in practice to live according to a Spirit of advocacy and not accusation: it gives us freedom to be true to God’s character when it is upheld by human governments (especially in establishing order and care for citizens) while also challenging, with love, laws and systems that do the opposite. It is our advocacy in all measures than defines our ability to think like Christ.
Jesus demonstrated this perfectly in the Sermon on the Mount: ““You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person…If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:38,41). The law of the day permitted a Roman soldier to ask a local to carry his military pack for him whenever he demanded, but only for one mile. This was considered a “humane” boundary, as was the “eye for an eye” model from the Torah. But Jesus subverts these laws by employing his followers to go above and beyond as civil protest. To carry a soldier’s pack for two miles would invite a holy shame that forces him to reconcile with one’s humanity; that you are a person desiring dignity, just as he is. This is the perfect meeting place of submission and protest, it advocates for a common humanity than can begin with dignity. This leads us to our third term, quite similar to the concept of submission:
“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (13:6,7)
Honor always affirms and cherishes humanity, in all circumstances. Civil disobedience is the way forward when it comes to seeking radical change in governmental authorities. Consider the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote,
“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
It was King’s advocacy of God’s law, and the dignity of all mankind, that led him to civil protest against unjust laws in American society. In fact, it was the call to remain true to the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” that spurred the movement. In their words and deeds, King and his followers stepped into the prophetic vocation first described in the Old Testament; the voices ordained by God to speak truth to power.
It is fascinating that Paul mentions here paying taxes, as it is one of the few directly government-related issues that Jesus also speaks to. Trying to set him up as guilty of treason, the Pharisees present Jesus with a hotly contested debate in their culture: should we pay extra taxes to the Roman government, on top of already existing Jewish ones? After they hand Jesus a coin,
he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:20,21)
Jesus is not simply implying we should follow the rules, but making a much larger claim about image and identity. Money, and by extension human systems of governance, are patterned after the images of kings, but human beings are the image of God. That is the grounding of our value, and the compass by which the followers of Jesus relate to their surrounding culture.
In the spirit of reading Paul in context, we find a perfect bookend to his discussion on how we conduct ourselves in the public sphere: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (13:10-12). If that is not an invitation to step out of the cycles of violence and choose to believe in a new way, I don’t know what is. We must have the courage to cultivate a divine imagination, drawn up by Christ and animated by His Spirit, to address the world as it stands today. But it begins with us realizing that the day is almost here. There’s direction to the universe, nothing is stagnant. There is going to be a way upwards and outwards, and it’s been called Love.
Next we will consider some of the more contemporary applications of the message of Jesus in our current political climate.
Reflect and Pray:
- In your past, have have you been taught to maneuver the separation of Church and State? Has it led you to keep faith out of political discussion altogether? Pray into specific political debates, inviting God to reveal to you His heart for humanity.
- What are your initial reactions to Paul’s command to submit to and honor the governing authorities? Where on the spectrum of obedience to rebellion might you naturally fall? Invite God to show you the way of love that transcends those attitudes.