Monday, February 04, 2008

Religion and Politics, Dude...

Several years ago I had an interesting exchange of letters between a columnist of The Tennessean, a newspaper published in Nashville. The young man was Jewish and he took great umbrage at a recent announcement the Southern Baptist Convention would start focusing a lot of attention on evangelizing Jews. We had a cordial discussion in two or three letters in which I felt we both experienced a little bit of connection. But he finally drew the line. He wrote to me thanking me for the conversation. But he really didn't want to discuss matters of faith. He ended the letter with “Religion and politics, dude. Religion and politics.”*

I respected his wishes and did not continue the discussion. But his words stuck to me. This is the constant refrain we’ve been taught: never discuss religion and politics. There’s a corresponding cliché: religion and politics don’t mix. Religion and politics, dude—religion and politics.

For Churches of Christ, religion and politics have been a challenge due to two streams of thought that began with a couple of guys named Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these names—these men are credited with starting a couple of movements in the late 1700s and early 1800s that became identified as Churches of Christ/Christian Churches. These two men were as different as could be. While both of them had been Presbyterian ministers they had two different mind sets. Alexander was rationalistic all the way—everything seemed to focus on the intellect and logic. Barton W. Stone focused more on the heart and on the Spirit of God. Campbell sought to restore the Ancient order, Stone saw unity as his "polar star".

When it came to politics Stone and Campbell differed there, too. Stone and those who followed his line of thought—men like David Lipscomb—saw the government as in competition with the Kingdom of God. You did not involve yourself in government. Obey the laws, but don’t put your trust in any way in government. Campbell and those who followed him—men like James A. Garfield, on the other hand, saw the American government as completely blessed by God. Campbell participated freely in government—even served as a legislator in the state of Virginia. Garfield, a Church of Christ/Christian Church preacher eventually became president of the United States.

I can only imagine how Stone and Campbell might have differed in a discussion of Romans 13:1-7. Let’s take a look at the text.

1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so
will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (NIV)
This text has been used and abused throughout the ages—especially by governments. Ancient kings and queens in Europe would point to this passage as justification for all of their policies. They would use the text to keep chains on their subjects and to shut them up.

But what is Paul telling us here?

To get the point we need to back up to chapter twelve and the immediate context which leads up to Paul’s admonition to submit oneself to the governing authorities. He has just told these Roman Jesus-followers under no circumstances are they allowed to take personal vengeance. If anything they are to respond to wrongs and evil with love and kindness.

But this does not mean God does not care about injustice and evil. Paul is saying God is the one in charge and he has set the world up to include governments in order to create stability and to deal with injustice and evil. Read that passage again carefully! Notice the emphasis upon punishing the evil doer and rewarding those who do good. God is a God of order not chaos.

Even so, don’t think for a moment this passage would have thrilled the occupant of the Roman throne—a particularly sordid fellow named Nero. It would have been news to him to hear he was a servant of God and put in place by God. It would have been unwelcome news to him to hear that somehow he was responsible to this Jewish and Christian God. After all, he was Caesar—the Lord and Savior of the Roman empire—the son of a god, worshipped as a god himself!

Paul is not suggesting people sheepishly view governments as particularly honorable. However, Paul is saying Jesus-followers should not be viewed as violent revolutionaries who defiantly stick their thumbs in the eye of the government, either. This is particularly relevant to these Christians living in Rome.

Rome was well known for its severe taxation. In fact, according to scholars it was not unusual to hear of violent riots in Rome by folks who just got tired of being taxed. Paul is saying Christ-followers are not to be the kind of people who riot and refuse to pay their taxes. Such behavior does not honor God.

For the Jewish Christians Paul’s words are particularlyrelevant. It will not be long before a group of Jewish Zealots will begin waging war in Palestine in an attempt to overthrow the Roman government. It will take a few years, but Rome will decisively crush the revolt and even destroy the temple in Jerusalem. It will be a temptation for Jewish Christians to want to join in the fight for freedom—after all, they didn’t quit being Jewish when they became Christians! So Paul’s advice is: obey the government. Do not become zealots and revolutionaries. God is a god of order—live orderly lives before your neighbors.

This is not to say you do not stand up to injustice when it occurs. Paul knows when to stand up, even to governmental authorities. On several occasions Paul showed no problem in confronting governing authorities and calling them on the carpet for their injustice.** God’s people are not to stand for evil and injustice.

However, Paul insists God’s people are to respect government and live quiet and honorable lives in their communities, bringing respect to the name of Jesus.

So what does that mean to us in America? Our government is a representative Republic, not an Empire or even a Greek Democracy. So how are we to behave?

Paul’s overriding concern is God’s people live orderly and honorable lives and to avoid appearing as militants. Don’t be running around joining militia movements and groups like The Republic of Texas. Obey the law.

Personally, I think Paul would be opposed to Christians picketing abortion clinics and harassing Doctors. He certainly would condemn destroying the property of others, threatening people, and resorting to violence.

I strongly believe Paul would be horrified at the antics and tactics of the Westboro Baptist Church who pickets the funerals of soldiers, holding up vicious signs designed to do nothing but hurt people. This isn't preaching truth, this is fomenting hate and bringing shame on the cause of Jesus.

This won’t be popular, but I suggest Paul would think we are misguided over our demonstrations and protestations regarding mandated school prayer worded by a school official and forced on students who might happen to be Muslim, Hindu or atheist. (Just a side note—we’re all for school mandated prayer unless the school administrator is a devote Hindu who words a prayer to the god Krisna!)

More painful: paying taxes is not an option—even if you think the government doesn’t have the constitutional right to taxation! Paul says: pay taxes. Don't pull a Wesley Snipes! It doesn’t mean you can’t take all of your legal deductions—but pay your taxes.

Romans 13:1-7 means you respect the government—even if you particularly dislike whoever is President or Governor or Senator or police chief or even dog catcher at any given time.

It means you obey local law, too. Some of the most cynical people in the world are policemen and women. You know why? Because they deal with people who claim to be Christian yet who treat them so rudely, who will lie to get out of a ticket, who seem to act as if the law doesn’t apply to them. The cynicism is not the fault of the officer. It’s our fault.

Peter wrote something similar to Christians during the reign of the same Emperor, Nero. I think Paul and Peter are in total agreement here. Listen to Peter’s words out of 1 Peter 2:12-17:
12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 13 Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (NIV)
And to capture the idea succinctly Peter says in 4:15 – “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.”

Religion and politics, dude…Religion and politics. Do they mix? They ought to, if we act the way we ought. Paul does not discourage Jesus followers to participate in the process of government. However, he expects us to bring honor to the name of Jesus. Honor is brought by living orderly and respectful lives—honoring the authorities.

May we as the people of God honor the government. May we honor those who serve as administrators, police, legislators, and executive officers. May we never be seen as a people who are eager to cause a disturbance and draw attention to ourselves. Instead, may we live peaceful and honorable lives among those who do not know God. May we never run from speaking out against evil and injustice, but may we never do so in such a way as to dishonor the name of Jesus.

*I have to admit, I was a little put out with him on what I saw as avoidance. It was he who brought up the whole topic of religion with his article! But you have to respect people's comfort levels and give them their space!
**E.g., cf. Acts 16:37-39 and 23:1-5

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