“Be subject to the governing authorities…”

Friday, February 10, 2012 — Week of 5 Epiphany, Year Two

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 947)

Psalms 88 (morning) 91, 92 (evening)

Genesis 27:46 — 28:4, 10-22

Romans 13:1-14

John 8:33-47

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. Romans 13:1-3a

It is easy to understand these admonitions in the context of the early Church’s life in the Roman Empire. As followers of one who was executed as a capital criminal and an enemy of the state, suspicion surrounded this new religious movement. Rome could be incredibly efficient and violent when dealing with those it regarded as enemies or conspirators. For the Church to survive, it had to convince the authorities that it was not a threat. To appeal to a wider audience, the Church could not be seen to be a seditious movement. Early Church leaders were at pains to convince those who might threaten them that they were not a threat to the governing authorities.

But in so many ways, the gospel that Paul preaches is a direct challenge to the empire and to the civil religion of emperor worship. Many of the fundamental claims of the Church directly confronted the claims of the emperor: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Son of God. Coins and inscriptions throughout the Empire declared that the divine Caesar is Lord and Caesar is Son of God.

So on the one hand Paul offers these admonitions of respect for the authority of the empire and for Caesar, and on the other hand he leads an organization that undermines the claims of empire.

Paul is not naive. He know that innocent members of their community have been arrested, punished and occasionally executed as traitors of the state. He want to establish a prima facia case that the state has nothing to suspect from the Christian movement so that they won’t be threatened and persecuted.

But these words — instructing obedience to the state and presuming that governing authorities do God’s work through their institutions for punishing bad conduct — these words stand in contrast to so much of the rest of the Biblical witness. God called Moses to challenge the authority of Pharaoh and to lead the people into freedom. God raised up judges to liberate the people from oppressive powers. God anointed the prophets to speak truth to authority and to proclaim God’s will for justice. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God — what the world would be like if God reigned instead of Caesar, and Jesus was executed as a capital criminal and enemy of the state. Jesus stands forever as a testimony of God’s triumphant peaceful challenge in the face of the violence of the powers and principalities.

Except as words of accommodation to threat, these messages from Paul about being subject to governing authorities cannot stand as immutable and timeless truths. Unfortunately they have been used historically to quell movements of freedom and to justify institutions of oppression. When liberal innovators began to argue on behalf of representative government and democracy, many Church leaders opposed them, using passages like these to invoke God’s purpose on behalf of the Divine Right of Kings. (After all, you see only Biblical examples of monarchy, not of elected government.) The notion that a representative government should be of the people, by the people and for the people had to assert itself in the face of many Biblical proof texts when monarchy was the tradition and the norm. George Washington and the founders of our nation appealed to a higher authority and to more fundamental rights when they resisted Royal authority in the name of God.

More than a few conflicts have pitted Biblical proof texts and traditional practice against more universal values and the higher calling of justice and liberation. Slaves, democrats, women, and gay people stand in a notable tradition among those who have challenged the traditional interpretation of scripture in the name of God.

The rock on which their challenge has stood is the rock that Paul shifts to right after his paragraph about being subject to the authorities. Paul echoes the Gospels, saying, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

Justice is love extended into the communal sphere. Whenever love and authority are in conflict, love trumps authority.

Now that is a revolutionary notion.

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