Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Authorities are God's Servants For Your Good

I think it is fitting that it was exactly six months ago tomorrow that I announced, right here on this blog, that I had decided that I needed to withdraw from our political system. I spent the next six months studying about the underlying concepts of the State, the ideas and presuppositions that form its foundation, and that "make it go". Not surprisingly, it appears that one's warmth of feeling toward the American system of government varies a lot from person to person, depending on how strongly one senses one "belongs to" the system, or the system "belongs to" to one.

During that time I struggled somewhat with Jesus' famous teaching (delivered in the midst of a very tense moment, in the last few days before his death) "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's." But let's face it-- there is pretty much nowhere in the Gospels that you get the sense that Jesus is a buddy of The System. Quite the contrary-- he is constantly clashing with members of the Jewish ruling class.

The bigger problem was the single most famous passage in the whole bible dealing with government: a portion of Paul's letter to the Romans-- chapter 13 verses 1-7. I will quote it here again:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
That's pretty tough, for a revolutionary-type to swallow: "...whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed." But it doesn't really contradict what we get from Jesus, either. There was exactly one time, in Jesus entire life, where it is reported that he used physical force against anyone or anything, let alone against "the governing authorities"-- the episode of his "cleansing of the temple". It doesn't take too much deep thought to understand what really got Jesus mad, and it was what got all Jews really mad: it was the incursion of "the world" onto "God's property". He was furious because the world's system of domination of the weak by the strong, and of the rich taking advantage of the poor, was alive and well, right inside the outer court of the temple. The temple cult was "just business": just one more "show" that you have to pay (and pay dearly) to see. It was a travesty of everything God stands for.

I've restated the standard anti-government lines from time to time over the last few months, but I think my last post sprang from a sense of restlessness with the stalemate I was having in my own mind with the "other anarchists"-- the ones that stand with the poor and view the problem with the system as an issue of government being in the pocket of the wealthy, not that government is not sufficiently respecting property rights. That post led to some productive sparks in the comments, and I finally bit the bullet and acquired the feminist book my sister had exhorted me to read-- The Autonomy Myth by Martha Albertson Fineman. I was finally ready to hear the message that "the State" is not, per se, the cause of all our ills. "The State" is one collective organ of society, "The Market" is another, and "The Family" is largely left to struggle haplessly as the other two duke it out decade after decade and century after century.

Anyway, I had to revisit Romans 13. I now believe that what Paul is saying is actually very important. He is saying that while we struggle mightily to spread the news about God's kingdom, and work to see God's "cleared territory" (to use a modern anti-insurgency phrase) on earth expand ever further, there is a place for the use of deadly force. And not only that, but that those who are professionals in the use of force, are acting in the capacity of servants of God, and need to be paid for what they do. And then, at the end of the passage (verse 7) we see that Paul and Jesus are on the same page, after all! Paul makes it concrete ("taxes... revenue... respect... honor..."), Jesus leaves it more vague ("...what is Caesar's... what is God's"). Paul is speaking as a good Roman citizen, who is able to appreciate the "Pax Romana", Jesus is speaking as a devout Jew, who knows that God is sovereign over all creation, and has merely allowed Rome temporary jurisdiction over the lands it has conquered (see his statement to Pilate, at the time of his trial: "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above...", John 19:11). When we're in Caesar's jurisdiction, we give to him "what is his". The difficult question of when we're in that jurisdiction and when we are not, I'll talk about more in the future.

Paul and Jesus are speaking from two quite different viewpoints, but have the same opinion about government-- leave it alone, give it a wide berth. Focus on doing the good things God is leading you to do. Jesus' statements are tinged with the resentment that comes from a fundamental identification with the poor and oppressed, and a knowledge that the rich are "the system". Paul is more concerned in this passage, I believe, with the problem of tamping down what was almost certainly a widespread sentiment among the Christian church of the first century: "Why should we tolerate the oppression of pagan Rome? We are children of the King, and shouldn't have to be subject to these enforcers of the worldly system." His response, especially in the light of what immediately preceded this little discourse, at the end of chapter 12, is: "It would not be wise to oppose Rome by force. God has instituted Rome to serve a purpose for this time in history, just as he has instituted that a stone shall fall to the ground when you drop it. And besides, we do not accomplish the aims of the Kingdom by violent means."

So what is the upshot of all this? The upshot is that you will no longer see much anti-government rhetoric in my future writings. I now believe that there are very few passages in the bible that speak directly about government, for a good reason: government is not the problem. Just like the poor, we will have "government", in some form, "always with us". Government is essentially a clean-up device, for dealing with things when they go wrong. What that means is that if you try to use government to effect positive change, it will backfire spectacularly, and spawn more problems than it purported to solve. But also, I have come to believe that throughout history, governments have been God's tool for bringing devastating judgment for the evil deeds of people, and the current American government is no exception.

Instead, I will spend more time talking about the rest of the bible, that tells us all about God's plan for humanity, and how we can bring that plan about in front of our eyes, slowly but surely. That plan calls for cooperation, reconciliation, truth-telling and sharply wielded reason. There are ways of doing Acts 2:44 ("All who believed were together and had all things in common..."), in our time. We need to start doing them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say that God is using wicked government in our day too for his purposes. I told Bob this morning that as I look at the ridiculousness of what is happening in WAshington I can only conclude that God has blinded the eyes of those in power for his purposes. It is too insane what is happening. And although I don't know his purposes clearly I am sure they have something to do with building his pure and spotless bride.

10:16 PM EDT  
Blogger Anthony said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:52 PM EDT  
Blogger Anthony said...

If I may, here is another "libertarian" take on the topic:

2:53 PM EDT  
Blogger Antijingoist said...

Hmm... I've taken Romans 13 in the context of its surrounding passages, Namely Romans 12: living peaceably with all men as much as possible.
In this light, as someone who is trying to spread the Good News, we probably should not spend our time actively and violently trying to destroy the state. God can handle that.
Also, depending on the situation, you may or may not want to pay taxes. Jesus paid a tax that He did not have to only because if He did not, it would have had a negative impact on His ministry (peter had already said Jesus pays that tax, and the money was provided from the mouth of a fish).
I was also talking with a pastor that spent some time in Isreal. He mentioned that one hebrew concept is that when something exists, it is attributed to God making it exist. So, the state existing would be said that God put the State in power, even though God just allowed it to be in power.
But even then, God can use anything for His glory, including the State.
But, even then, I don't have much to say about the rest of romans 13. :D

8:06 PM EST  

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