Christianity, Legitimate Authority and Romans 13

21 06 2009

Well, why not just start this off with the chapter of Romans 13 in its entirety (ESV):

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay your taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besdies this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Verses 1-7 (the first paragraph here) are probably among the most contentious things one can find in the New Testament. These seven verses have been used throughout history to justify all sorts of evils. When Hitler took up power, the churches quoted Romans 13 to justify Christian subserviance to the Nazi regime. Romans 13 seems to be a convenient way to justify just about anything, the State can claim its power, and Christians are just supposed to honor it.

Though, of course, one will be hard pressed to find many Christians who will apply Romans 13 equally and universally, I doubt I’ll find any of my co-religionists who will insist that Romans 13 can justify the old Jus Primae Noctis (Right of First Night) whereby the king had the right to sleep with his subject’s bride on the first night of their wedding. For example, where were the Christians who quoted Romans 13 when America attacked Iraq? The Bath Party was the fully legitimate governing authority of Iraq, and yet so many Christians here in America were so very comfortable with just waving a damned flag and supporting the Bush Administration in its war campaign. Ironically, sometimes quoting Romans 13 in order to justify American Christian support of the American war machine. Where are the Christians in America who would argue that we must still be subservient to the British Crown? After all, King George was the governing authority of Britain and all her colonies, our bloody coupe against the Crown seems to be powerfully at odds with what the Apostle here has written.

The usual line of objection, of course, is that when the State goes against “God’s laws” then we as Christians do not have to obey. But this line of reasoning is total junk. Paul was writing about Nero’s Rome. You know, Nero, the emperor who was said to have played his lyre as he watched as the Eternal City was ablaze? The same Nero who blamed the Christians for the fire and then had them rounded up, hung up on pikes and then set on fire to light his imperial gardens. This was Rome, who treated her past emperors as near-gods, who worshiped Jupiter and Mars, who at various times treated Christians like fugitives and outlaws, and–you know–had our own Lord Christ crucified. So we are only to obey the State when the State is in line with God’s laws? Since when has any empire, nation or principality been in line with God? The same God who says, “Do not kill,” and “Do not steal,” — empires, nations and principalities always kill and always steal. That’s what they do. In our own history we stole from the Native American peoples, we took away their land, their dignity, we tried to rob them of their heritage and even of their very humanity; and we killed them when they refused to sit quietly and just accept our doctrine of Manifest Destiny. And, not the least of which, such a line of argumentation can’t be found within the text in question, Paul doesn’t leave us with that sort of loophole here. So, in point of fact, this objection–that Christians are only to be obedient to the State when it is line with the ways of God–is a junk argument. Rather, our application of Romans 13, as per the usual interpretation, is entirely arbitrary. Christians should have opposed Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia because it was “godless”, but Christians should support America because it is “blessed by God”. What a load of mindless, self-indulging, trite shit.

I think, if we allow ourselves to be more sincere, we’d begin our reading of Romans 13 within the context of the epistle. That is, at least immediately, as it follows Romans 12. Here the Apostle lays down how Christians are to live neighborly, resounding quite clearly the teachings of Christ on the matter: loving our enemies, refusing to persecute, curse or do violence to an other, living generously and charitably, pursuing the path of peace with all. Only after laying this down, does the Apostle take up the case of Christians living under the State. In this sense, Romans 13 almost comes across as St. Paul instructing the Christians living in Rome to refuse outward acts of aggression, or intentional rebellion. I.e. Christians are to be peaceable and doers of good, which I think is helped supported by the Apostle in ch. 13:13a, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime,”.

Without really attempting to resolve the problems that arrise from Romans 13, and simply trying to temper them with Romans 12 (sort of a contradiction, given my hypothetical reading as briefly described above); I think that, given the witness of Scripture and the historically embedded Christian experience, there is a lot more to bring to this table of discussion than those seven verses.

I cannot call Jesus kyrios at the same time admitting the lordship of Caesar or any other. How can I? The term kyrios is, objectively so, a title of political allegiance. If Christ is lord, then how can we, who confess this as so, call anyone else lord? Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6,

“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’–yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

When we read the Gospels, we have Jesus who presents for us a kingdom that is radically other and alternative to the systems of governance in this world. Christ offers not just some “spiritual” kingdom, but rather He challenges the very cosmic order of the world. Jesus does not offer us an improved set of ethics by which to carry on with the way things are, but rather establishes a new order and calls us to come and live with Him in that new order, and offers for us a set of ethics which demands nothing less but a total metanoia (translated in most English translations as repentance), a total overhaul of the mind (c.f. Mark 1:14-15). This Jesus says in His Sermon that it is no longer acceptable to even be angry with our brother, or to return an eye for an eye; but rather to turn our cheek, to love our enemy. Indeed, He says, that by loving the one who seeks us harm is how we show ourselves to be children of the Father; in Luke’s version (the Sermon on the Plain, Luke 6) He doesn’t merely offer the blessings for the poor and the hungry, but goes on to chastise the rich and the full. This is the same Jesus who said that prostitutes enter the kingdom ahead of us. The same Jesus who in Matthew 25 proclaims that Final Judgment will depend entirely on how we treat “the least of these”. The same Jesus who said that the least one is the greatest in the kingdom. At every turn, without skipping a beat, Jesus presents for us a political alternative, the kingdom of God. Upside-down, backwards, counter-intuitive, and comprehended through faith, not sight. This is an alternative polis, a new sort of city and human community; this is the ekklesia, called out of and gathered outside of the old city.  This Church is to be salt of the earth, and a city on a hill, so radically different than everything else that it’s light “so shine[s] before all men so that they praise your Father in heaven,”.

This is the foundation of the Christian experiment, Jesus who not only taught us how to live but showed us how to live, truly and really, whose life of kenotic obedience and servitude was such, says St. Paul, that He was obedient unto death, “even death on a cross.” I believe the Apostle is sincere in his commitment to that vision and experiment, and when he gives instructions to the various scattered communities of Christians across the Roman world, it is in this context: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:5~). As Christ has kenotically given Himself in service to others, so must Christians do the same.

In this mind and in this attitude, Christians are not to be a bunch of rabble-rousers or insurgents, as though through act of force overcome and overtake the principalities and powers under which we find ourselves. This does not mean complacency, or contentment with the Powers. It does not mean faith in or acceptance of the Powers. It most certainly does not mean allegiance to the Powers. It means faith in a God who alone is legitimate, whose justice is a genuine justice. Jesus, who was crucified, has disarmed and put to death every principality and every power “making a public spectacle of them” (Colossians 2:15); God has vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead, demonstrating Caesar’s true impotence. Whom God raised, He made Him “both lord and christ” (Acts 2:36); this Jesus is true lord and true king. Indeed, in the Johanine apocalypse He is called “King of kings and Lord of lords”.  Therefore God has already overturned, overcome, and overpowered the Powers, not through the sharp edge of the sword, but through the paradoxical victory of the broken Jesus. Furthermore, in our confession and longing, we hope and have faith that the Same who was crucified and who was risen shall come again. God’s victory over the Powers is not enabled through violent power, He has with completeness trampled the Myth of Redemptive Violence, as yet another element of our cosmic order of things which needs to be turned over on its head.

And it is within this that much of the ancient Patristic witness becomes intelligible. Against Celsus’ complaints that Christians refused military service, Origen writes that Christians do a much better service through prayer than through soldiering. Years earlier, St. Justin had written in his Apologia that Christians were a people who, as the Prophet Isaiah once foretold, have turned our sworsd into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, forgetting the ways of war and of violence. Tertullian writes that when Christ disarmed Peter in Gethsemane, He has disarmed every soldier. St. Martin of Tours, decades after the effects of Constantianism had begun to show themselves, said quite distinctly, “I am a soldier of Christ, I am not permitted to fight.”

This is not mere pacifism, this dedication to nonviolence represents a fundamental aspect of Christian theological and ethical thought. Violence is an act of faith in the legitimacy of Powers that wield the sword, Christian nonviolence is not merely a personal ethical decision, but a corporate ethos rooted in the deep conviction in and commitment to the truth of the Christian Gospel. We do not take up arms against another, for we have no faith in the power of the sword and the Powers that wield it; rather we take up the burden of forgiveness and the outstretched hand of reconciliation in faith of the God unveiled in Christ and who has overcome the world through Cross and Empty Tomb. A conviction that can, when taken seriously, take us toward real hope in that future of God’s Tomorrow as the Prophets so often spoke of, that Tomorrow which we confess in our Creed, “We believe … in the Age to Come. Amen.”

Our commitment to the poor, the hungry, the outcast, the rejected, the unloved, the unwanted, the hopeless, the sick, the sinner, the beggar, the wasted, the junkie and the murderer is a commitment we make in the illuminating shadow of the Cross. In its wake worlds crash down around it and the God of Jesus Christ tasks us with the work of building up the world. Going into the dark, lonely places, abandoning our lives for all others. With this we wear the shoes of the gospel of peace, bringing it wherever we tred. Bearing good news and hope to any and all. Because we have become convinced of the truth of God and His Son, because we no longer swear allegiance to the Powers that would divide and separate us. We can swear no oath to the systems of governance and restraints that would compell us to fight, to compete, or to steal and destroy.

Romans 13 should never be used the way it has been used. To do so is to abandon all faith and hope in the God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To use it to justify the Powers is to once again turn away from the Way of the Cross-Bearer and instead toward the Way of the Cross-Causing. We do not execute, we endure. We do not kill, we are killed. We do not demand retribution, but offer reconciliation. We put away all swords and fists, and extend ourselves to others, to find ourselves in others, to love ourselves in others, to be ourselves in others. We are in the world, not of it.

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