November 2nd, 2008
My church is one in which politics are checked at the door. Some church members wear their politics on their yard, or on their blog — and just about every opinion is represented in the church. But you rarely hear politics mentioned in church. When it is mentioned, it’s issue-oriented rather than candidate-oriented or policy-oriented — we’ll hear updates on efforts to create a peace tax fund, for instance.
But today, hearing about politics is just about unavoidable.
The relationship between Christianity and government has been uneasy and troubled all the way back to the religion’s founding. Many Christians, and I count myself in this, believe that our first loyalty is to Jesus, and on those grounds, refuse to say the pledge of allegiance. What, we wonder, would our word be worth if we were forced to disobey our government because of a law that was unjust or immoral? How could we even say the words “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all” when those words were written at a time when the KKK was active, lynchings were common, and are said today at a time when people treat Muslims and immigrants with modern disdain?
In short, we believe we are called to be citizens of a different kingdom first.
So, today, our pastor deliberately picked a difficult scripture passage for us: Romans 13:1-7, which reads, in part:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities. . . The authorities that exist have been established by God. . . Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. . . Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
What an extraordinary set of statements. This was written during the time of the Roman Empire, which could hardly be said to have been a just and benign government. It’s hard for me to imagine the Roman Legion being established by God.
In more modern times, it would seem to denounce the American revolution as a rebellion against authority and therefore a rebellion against God. It would also seem to denounce the protests that we see all over the world — striking workers in France, human rights seekers in Burma, war protesters in the United States. Would it even have condemned the protests in the 1960s over civil rights in this country, or the protests against war today?
One commentator notes that “Paul is not stating that this will always be true but is describing the proper, ideal function of rulers. When civil rulers overstep their proper function, the Christian is to obey God rather than human authorities” — a theme Paul mentioned more than once in Acts.
What relevance does this have for us today? It seems that we are to help our rulers act in a just way, even if we disagree with them — no matter who wins the election. It is also a reminder that a superficial reading of the Bible, taken out of context and without a deep understanding to understand the author’s point, can potentially lead to very strange conclusions.
The American National Council of Churches has issued a non-partisan voting guide, which we found in our bulletin today. It is an interesting read, and probably not what you think; it begins with, “War is contrary to the will of God.” Thought-provoking stuff.
I find it interesting that there are a lot of people out there that say that religion is responsible for a lot of ill in this country, then proceed to hold pretty much the same opinions I do for pretty much the same reasons. I just point out that the Bible is deeper than intolerance and submission.