by Brian Walsh
Let me put my cards on the table right from the outset. I am sick and tired of hearing Christians who have something at stake in the status quo of economic, social and political systems of injustice appealing to Romans 13 to legitimate unswerving obedience to oppressive and deceitful regimes.
I speak a fair bit in the US and whenever I am addressing the question of the meaning of the gospel for our political lives someone invariably asks, “yes, but what about Romans 13?”
What about it? I reply.
“Well, how can you use language of subverting the empire when Paul says that we are to submit to the governing authorities?”
And for years I have attempted to be patient in my response. My patience has run out. In the light of Guantanamo Bay, the deceit of the administration in leading America into war in Iraq, the refusal of that state to submit to almost any significant international treaty, and the idolatrous protection of the revered “American Way of Life.”
In the face of undeniable evidence of the human impact on global warming, I’ve lost it. I’ve got no more patience for this appeal to Romans 13 to justify idolatry, deceit, violence, repression and imperialism.
To hell with the Romans 13 of the Religious Right! To hell with the Romans 13 of lackeys of imperialism! To hell with the Romans 13 of those who are comfortable in Babylon!
Indeed, to hell with the Romans 13 of those who somehow think that an American Revolution in 1776 was divinely sanctioned but no such revolution should happen in 2007 because we must submit to the governing authorities.
And while we are at it, to hell with the Romans 13 of those who say that we should not criticize the Canadian government for leading us into a military intervention in Afghanistan that had more to do with paying debts to our powerful neighbours to the South than any concern for either international terrorism or the well-being and democratization of the Afghani people.
Or to make my point more biblically clear – to hell with Romans 13 read out of context of Romans 12, the rest of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the life of Jesus, and the whole prophetic testimony of the Hebrew prophets.
Let’s limit ourselves to the text we have been living with all year at Wine Before Breakfast – the letter to the Romans. And let’s assume that Paul is not an idiot and that he doesn’t go about blatantly contradicting himself.
Here he has been writing a letter to a community at the very heart of the empire and from the get-go it has been clear that this is a counter-imperial gospel that he proclaims. It is the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of Caesar that these Christians are called to submit to.
It is the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of Caesar that is to shape their lives together as a unified community of Gentiles and Jews. And it is in Jesus Christ our Lord that we are more than conquerors when that false Lord Caesar imposes on us hardship, distress, persecution, nakedness, peril and the sword.
“For we are convinced,” the apostle writes, that “neither death…nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Let the rulers and powers throw at us what they will, we have the victory in Christ Jesus our Lord.
No, says Paul, we are not to be conformed to the imperial realities of the present age, because we live in anticipation of the age to come. Our passage today starts at Romans 12.2 – do not be conformed to this age – and really ends at 13.12 – “the night is far gone, the day is near.
Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” And the question that Paul addresses in these verses at the beginning of Romans 13 is, “how do we live wisely as children of light in the midst of an age of darkness?
If we are not conformed to this age, to the rulers and authorities that are the cause of our persecution, then how do we relate to these authorities in the present, before the full dawning of the day of our Lord’s coming?”
Again going back to Romans 12 we could say that the question is, “how does a community that is itself a transformed body-politic relate to the powerful body-politic of the empire?” If the Christian community is called to be…
- a body-politic that is rooted in the offering of our very bodies as living sacrifices to God, instead of participating in the pagan sacrifices of the empire
- a body-politic that is rooted in shared gifts for mutual upbuilding, not a hierarchy of imposed duty
- a body-politic which undermines the status system of honour in the empire by deliberately associating with the lowly and exercising hospitality to the outsider
- a body-politic that rejects the violence that is the very foundation of the imperial regime because it insists on blessing those who persecute them, feeding their enemies and refusing to overcome evil with evil
…then how does that community relate to a regime that lives out of a diametrically opposed vision of life, subject to a “Lord Caesar” who is the embodied opposite of the Lord Christ?
Obey these imperial authorities, of course. Limit the reign of Christ in your lives to personal life, and how we do things in the context of our little community, but let Caesar have his legitimate authority over pretty much everything else in your life. Right? Wrong!
Notice that Paul does three things in this passage. First, he undermines the self-appointed divine authority of Rome. It is not Rome’s virtue, nor is it Rome’s gods that allows Rome to have authority.
All authority is rooted in the God of Jesus Christ – the very God that Rome rejects in its persecution of Jews and Christians alike. This is not providing divine sanction for Rome’s rule, it is a relativization of Rome’s rule.
Second, he makes it clear in his very description of this state that it is diametrically different from both the body-politic of the Christian community and from its own self-perception.
You see, it is one thing for Paul to contrast a political regime of fear, wrath, violence and bloodshed with a community of love, blessing, care and non-violence rooted in Jesus Christ.
But you also need to know that Nero took pride in the fact that he had not won his empire by the sword, and that under his rule the golden age of Augustus had been renewed and that his was a time of unprecedented peace.
Paul, the Jews of Rome, and the Christian community know differently. The imperial sword is not idle, it continues to pierce the bodies of those who will not submit to Nero’s body-politic.
And third, Paul’s rhetoric here is certainly less than enthusiastic in his call for submission to the state. Live in fear, and be afraid, he says. And well we should live in fear of a regime that bears the sword.
And yes, give taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due. Why? Because you are also wise to give fear to whom fear is due and “honour” to whom “honour is due.” My hunch is that he says that we should have our eyes wide open and be fearful of the state that wields such violent authority.
And when he says “honour” I think that that word should be in quotation marks. Give imperial “honour” to those demand such honour, while you are diligent in associating with the lowly – with those who have no honour in this regime.
If I were to summarize what I think Paul is up to here, I would say that he is calling us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. The slave says, “yes Master, no Master, whatever you say Master,” obeying his Master in everything, bringing no attention to himself, as he quietly plans the escape of his fellow slaves along the underground railroad.
And that slave then sings about how his God is “a-going to trouble the water” and the Master has no idea that that troubled water is the water of liberation. And then 20th century African Americans sing “precious Lord take my hand” and the authorities are happy that these people love Jesus, but they have no idea that this is a Jesus who will take oppressed people to freedom.
Don’t be naïve about the violence of the state, Paul tells these Christians. Handle the state with care, he counsels. Some authorities really should be feared. But don’t allow such fear to be the last word on the way you comport yourself in this world.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
And sometimes, such love – even of the enemy, even of the persecutor – will require disobedience, because you are subject to the very same God that the authorities are subject to.
And when they inhibit your freedom to obey this God of liberation, then you are subjects of the kingdom of this God, not slaves of any regime – duly authorized or not.