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Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
In August, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. From there, he penned his monumental “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” issued in a local newspaper and addressed to local clergy. To those clergy he offers a gentle but firm rebuke, a call to reject a cowardly “moderation” and to actually act on behalf of their claimed beliefs. He gives a very vivid description of the kinds of things they said to him along the way, such as the beginning: “WHILE confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” He says also, “You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being,” making clear their hypocrisy. The most to the point is this: “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws.”
Having just read Romans 13:1-7, it seems like MLK’s critics were correct, and he in fact was wrong to be doing what he did. I, as a result, have just set myself up in an unenviable situation. How can we at once speak with Paul and say Christians should obey their governing authorities, while MLK makes a compelling argument to disobey an unjust law? Largely, because we are lazy readers and don’t adequately understand what Paul is arguing here. Now, I want to avoid the trap of spending all my time on this passage explaining what it doesn’t say, qualifying it to death so we can justify whatever civil disobedience we want; I would rather focus on what it does say, but in doing so we must grapple with the fact that this passage has been used as justification for all kinds of terrible ideas and permissive evils.
To understand this passage rightly, we have to interpret it according to its context, both immediate and broad, and keeping in mind Paul’s wider theology and perspective. In chapter 12, we were powerfully introduced to God as one who is merciful, and by his mercy transforms us and conforms us to the image of his Son, so that we would live cruciform lives, living out in practice the self-giving love of Jesus. So, according to chapter 12, we would care for all members, seek peace with outsiders, return good to those who do us evil. Division created by Christians had already created problems; In Acts 18, we see Jews being expelled from Rome, and in the Roman historian Suetonius, we are told that a few years before Romans was written, a “man named Chrestus” was agitating the Jews, which is why they were expelled. Likely, this means this civil agitation led the Romans to just expel Jews, probably thinking it was just an internal issue and the easiest solution was to kick them all out.
What does this have to do with the letter to the Romans? We see similar divisions occurring, this time between Jews and Gentiles, and for the earliest Christians, the temptation to Jewish violent resistance was an ever-present pull. Paul seems here to be speaking very closely to their immediate situation, and making clear that, whether violent revolution, publicly disruptive conflict within the church, or not paying their taxes were all detrimental to the Gospel and thus could not be committed by Christians in Rome. What Paul is saying here is that they ought to do only that which ultimately serves the Gospel.
Paul had no illusions about governments. He knew the Romans could turn on the Christians anytime, and be the harbingers of evil. But what he also knew was that it should never be because Christians did not follow perfectly reasonable and widely-accepted laws. Even Rome has been “instituted by God,” and “is God’s servant for your good…It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” But Paul, as were other apostles, was quite willing to disobey when and if those authorities sought to suppress the gospel or its’ spread. For Paul, Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not; Caesar is merely a human authority, over whom God is sovereign, and in the specific setting of Rome, Paul tells them, “don’t get in trouble for the wrong things!” Soon enough, under Nero, they will get in trouble for the right things, but inasmuch as it is in their power, as he says in 12, be at peace, and don’t disturb by revolution or violence or self-serving disobedience. Let your lives of peace, of love, of submission, of declaring Jesus as Lord, of the equality of all people before God, of charity, and of serving the least among us be the society-subverting work that tears down earthly empires.
Earthly authorities are there to punish evil. That is not a bad thing. They provide structure and continuity in society; they provide for the general good. If, as a Christian, you make your name, if we make our name, on our crass disobedience to serve our own interests, then we ought to be punished like everyone else, because we are trying to play the game the world’s way, and if we really are Christians we can never win that fight. Paul would go to his death by beheading under a Roman emperor. He surely did not think it was a just punishment, but not because he tried to overthrow that emperor; it was because he preached the gospel of God, that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, regardless of station in life; that the lowest level of human society was loved just as much as the emperor on his throne and the senators in their estates; that Jesus, slain by Rome, rose again, and even the imperial power had no authority over him. That was what power could not stand or countenance, and that is worth dying for. For Paul, this word was necessary, redirecting energy from resisting taxes to living in peace; the overarching point, however, is to do only that which ultimately serves the Gospel.
Sometimes, the law must be broken. MLK broke it non-violently because our federal law said African-Americans were accounted all the rights of others, and yet they continued to be dehumanized by local laws and practices, by those claiming to be Christians no less; the gospel says otherwise. Bonhoeffer sought to undermine Nazi German activities as much as he could, against the law, because the gospel demanded rescue from that regime; Ignatius went to his death by lion in the 2nd century, peaceably, because the Romans were fed up with Christians, not because they were armed revolutionaries, but because they preached a message that would, eventually, upend Roman society. Note what neither Paul nor any of these people did: sought their own vengeance, took up arms, broke human laws of really no consequence. “Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.”
This is possible, why? Because God is sovereign, over Rome, over Nazi Germany, over segregated America. Because the Gospel itself, properly followed, will get us into trouble enough. Because being an enemy of the state for anything less than a cruciform cause that seeks to love God and love our neighbor is not the way Christian’s live. Sometimes we may need to march, sometimes ignore law, sometimes to speak truth to power; but let it always be towards the end that the Gospel may be known, expanded, and lived out, to the glory of God.
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