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Two things you’re not supposed to talk about at dinner parties or polite company, in general, are religion and politics. Here we are talking about both of them!
Really though, it’s not so much about religion and politics as it is about a life shaped by grace and civil authorities or government. We continue to ask the question, “What does it mean to live a grace-shaped life?” Last week we heard what Paul had to tell the Christians of Rome and us about what the mercy of God means for life together. The focus then shifted out to the wider community, particularly in terms of people who would be persecutors or enemies. The focus continues to be shifted outward here as Paul turns his attention to governing authorities. This is a difficult passage, and I’m glad we’re getting a chance to look at it. There are two things that present difficulties here:
The first is that Paul is writing in a time and place that has no concept of universal suffrage – the right to vote – or representative democracy. The experience that Paul and his listeners have of government is that of Empire. It was an Empire that had lasted hundreds of years and would go on to last for a few hundred more in the west (and another thousand years in the east). There was no concept that government could be changed and that citizens could play a role in changing it.
The second difficulty is that this passage has been used to justify regimes like the National Socialist one in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, or policies like apartheid in South Africa. A group within the Protestant church in Germany which called itself “German Christians,” used this passage to justify their claim that Christians owed allegiance to Hitler. To further support this position, they pointed to Martin Luther’s interpretation of this passage in which he wrote: “Christians should not refuse, under the pretext of religion, to obey men, especially evil ones.” As someone has asked, “Is the Christian under obligation to support whatever policies the governing authorities may deem appropriate, whether those policies are for the good of the people or simply for the purpose of keeping those governing authorities in power?” The situation becomes further complicated when we consider the many different forms of government under which followers of Christ live today – from despotic regimes to one-party states to liberal democracies. The situation becomes further complicated still when we consider our own situation in the West; how trust in government and its institutions (even supposedly non-partisan ones like the courts) and politicians, in general, has eroded.
What do we do with this passage? What don’t we do with this passage? The first thing we mustn’t do is make any kind of absolute out of Paul’s words, in the way of the “German Christians” of the 1930s and 40s. As I said, Paul is speaking to a people living under the Roman Empire, which was very far from the universal right to vote and representative democracy. What we must do is consider this passage in the larger section of Roman in which it sits. Paul is writing about what it means to live in the mercy and grace of God. We have just heard, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (12:18-19) If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Following Christ touches on every aspect of life, including those who govern us. We are not called to radical separation or disengagement from any aspect of society. Being freed from the law by the grace of God does not mean that we are freed from obeying civil authority. Live peaceably with all, including the state. Listen to Jesus’ words here in this story from Matthew 17:
24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax[a] came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’[b] 25 He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take a toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ 26 When Peter[c] said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. 27 However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin;[d] take that and give it to them for you and me.’
We might file this under “Just because you don’t have to do something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.” Children of the Kingdom are under the rule of another King. Pay your taxes as a witness. “Give therefore to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s,” is how Jesus put it in Matthew 22. We do well to keep these words in the background here. Be a good citizen. Pay your taxes. Be nice, clear your ice, even if you think you pay enough taxes for the city to do it. Willingly submit yourselves to governing authorities. This is an imperative on Paul’s part, not a statement. He’s not saying, “You are inferior to governing authorities” or “Anything that governing authorities say goes and should be supported, and that’s that for all time and for all situations.” He's stating two truths here. The first is actually quite subversive for those of us who are more subversive. “There is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” However, the Roman Empire described where it obtained its authority; it was not from the God revealed in the Hebrew scriptures, and the God revealed in Jesus. To say that they rule because of God’s authority is not to say that everything they do reflects God’s will and God’s ways – it is rather to say that oppression, militarism, oligarchy, kleptocracy, are opposed to God’s will and God’s way and will not have the last word. To say that all authority is given to God is to say, in the words of MLK Jr, that “The arc of history is long and bends toward justice.” It is to say remember Jesus’ words as he stood before the representative of Roman authority before which he was about to be sentenced to die “You would have no authority if it weren’t given by my Father.”
The second is that governing authorities exist to maintain order. When Paul writes, “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad” or “It is God’s servant for your good,” he’s not describing all government for all time, but rather the good and benevolent purposes to which all governing authorities should put themselves. Governing authorities are in place partly, at least, to keep in check the evil which we would do to one another. God is not a God of anarchy. This is why we pray that our governing authorities have wisdom and discernment in governing this way. There is an ancient rabbinical prayer that goes, “Pray for the peace of the ruling power, for without it men would have swallowed up each other alive.” Early church father Irenaeus said this: “So then earthly authority has been established by God for the benefit of the nations. It has not been established by the devil, who is never at peace himself and has no wish to see the nations living in peace. God’s purpose is that men should fear this authority and so not consume one another as fish do; his intention is that the imposition of laws should hold in check the great wickedness to be found among the nations.” Paul is writing here of the benevolent purpose to which civil authority should devote itself. He is not giving a description of every civil authority in each time and place. We are not to absolutize Paul’s words here. We remember at the same time the words of Peter and John to the Temple authority in Acts 4:19. The disciples have just been commanded to stop talking about Jesus, and we read this – “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Again, they are brought before the council, where the high priest reminds them of the order that had been given. Peter and the apostles answer, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29)
Someone has said of Jesus (and by extension, we can apply these truths to ourselves) - “Jesus is neither a revolutionary zealot nor a servile subject of those who rule. There is not so much an overtly hostile approach as there is a critical distancing.” Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s and to God what is God’s sets up a hierarchy in which our primary allegiance is to God. No matter what we think politically, any system or party or form of government which claims or takes the place of God as foundational to our lives is not giving to Ceasar what is Ceasar and to God what is God’s. Any calls for allegiance to nation, nationalism, ethnicity, empire, constitution to take the place of God in our lives should be viewed with suspicion at least and outright rejection at most. Critical distancing on the part of the follower of Christ to forms of governance. We might even consider it strange when buildings where laws are made or governing documents like constitutions are described as sacred or hallowed. Is this the kind of language that should be reserved for God? Paul is not so much giving specific instructions in this section of Romans as much as he is posing the question, “What does a grace-shaped life look like here?” What does living in the mercy of God look like here? What does living in the love of God look like here? What does love of God and humanity and creation look like here?” These are questions that need to be ever before us, and oftentimes, there are no easy answers. “Pay to all what is due to them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.” It would seem that this instruction would rule out F Trudeau banners or F Trump video messages of chants of “Let’s Go Brandon.” These are good words in these days of partisan politics becoming ever more polarised and ever more vicious.
The more difficult question is, what do these words of Paul and Jesus mean when governments are doing the exact opposite of what they are called by God to do? What happens when governments are terrors to good conduct? What happens when governments rule by the sword and fear and coercion? What happens when civil authority clamps down on human rights or even goes as far as genocide? The answers have varied and will vary widely depending on circumstance. For Karl Barth, opposing the Nazi regime meant writing against it in the Barman Declaration – a 1934 document which was a call to resistance against the theological claims being made by the Nazi state and “German Christians.” For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, endeavouring to live peaceably with all and in the love of God meant taking part in an assassination plot. For Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights leaders in the US, it meant non-violent protest. For Franciscan nun Rosemary Lynch, it meant taking part in protests against nuclear testing in Nevada. Here’s what she had to say about her methods in an article I came across: “When I asked how she justified breaking the law, she replied: “The real evil is perfecting methods of killing people and destroying God’s creation. Breaking a trespass law — crossing a white line in road miles from the test site — respects the essence of civil law and is obedience to the higher law. Sometimes the law needs help.” Even here, Sister Lynch sought to live peaceably: “Rosemary always urged those who commit acts of disobedience to respect those who may feel threatened or be inconvenienced by such actions and to carefully avoid sarcasm, abrasive words, or rude gestures. “It is our policy never to have the kind of blockade where people go limp and thereby compel the police to have to carry us away. We don’t want to call forth hostility in other people. Sometimes people kneel down in the roads to pray. Sometimes we hold up the cross. But when they ask us to stand up, we do so.”
So let us continue to pray together and seek to discern together what it means to give to God what is Gods and give to the emperor, what is the emperors. For myself, this would include questions like “Is spoiling my ballot to signal that I don’t like any of the people or parties running a grace-shaped response?” The call on our lives is not disengagement. We began this section of Romans in chapter 12, looking at personal transformation. We went on to look at communal transformation – growing in genuine/unfeigned love of God and one another. This transformation is meant to extend out into the societies in which we live. In the world but not of the world. Exiles, but following the words of the prophet to an earlier group of exiles – 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer 29:7) May God help us to live as His people. Amen