November 8, 2020

“God & Government - A Post Election Debate”

 

Romans 13:1-7; Psalm 146:1-7

 

I know we are supposed to be continuing in our 6-week series on the book of Proverbs. However, I began to hedge my bets on the likelihood I’d be preaching from there this Sunday about 2 weeks ago. At the beginning of this past week, the Spirit was prodding me to jettison Proverbs for this Sunday, and instead focus upon God, the election, politics, and where we place our trust.  So, we’ll be back in Proverbs next Sunday, because the events of this past week, as well as the weeks ahead, need our attention.

 

I’ve chosen 2 passages to focus upon in this morning’s sermon, one of which I have used in a sermon (The Psalms passage) and one I have never touched with a 10-foot pole due to its content (The Romans passage.) I will say I am happy with the results of the presidential election. I am cautiously optimistic and pray for some civility back in our political system. I have hope we might find some ways to unite as a nation once again. I had that song, “Happy Days Are Here Again” rolling around in my noggin yesterday morning. I even drove downtown to see if there were any folks gathered celebrating so I could at least beep my horn in celebration. There were no crowds, alas. Perhaps all of us Ashlanders’ are just too emotionally exhausted to gather.

 

So, let’s dive into this mess we’ve had of an all too close election, our place in it, and just what scripture has to say about government and leaders, beginning with this difficult passage in Romans.

 

1Let 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. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

 

Upon first glance, it would appear that we who follow Jesus are to follow and obey those in power, for they exist and have been established by God. I mean, I truly love and admire our city council member, elder, and church member Dennis Slattery, but…wow. Really? Being fully subject to Dennis? Is that what this passage is telling us, to submit to those in governance without question? For example, 16th-century church reformer Martin Luther interpreted this passage, saying, “Christians should not refuse, under the professed purpose of religion to obey men, especially evil ones.” No correlation of course between Mr. Slattery and this last quote! Is Luther’s interpretation correct? How has this passage been used and for what purpose?

 

I have often heard it used in the context of justifying who is occupying the oval office, as in, “Well it says in Romans 13 that the president is an authority from God, so I don’t question the president. It’s interesting to note that most of the people who have used this passage for that purpose tend NOT to use it when the other party gains the presidencyJ

 

One of the most recent uses of this passage occurred in June of 2018. Former attorney general Jeff Sessions faced severe pushback from the American people with his “Zero Tolerance” policy, which separated children from parents at the border between the United States and Mexico. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,Sessions said during a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Ind. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.” I personally do not understand how this law was fair or moral, or how separating parents from children protected any of those families fleeing for their lives or seeking a better way of life.

 

Where else have we seen this passage used in American history? “There are two dominant places in American history when Romans 13 is invoked,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “One is during the American Revolution [when] it was invoked by British loyalists, those who opposed the American Revolution.” The other, Fea said, “is in the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong.”

 

So, can we take this passage literally, just as is, even if its author didn’t follow it? Consider the fact that the Apostle Paul wrote several of his letters from jail, which suggests that he was occasionally on the wrong side of a governing authority. According to Acts, Paul was thrown into prison for causing a public nuisance (Acts: 16), for preaching the Gospel - which was against the law of the temple and Rome, and for preaching Christ as King, an affront to Caesar.

 

How do we interpret this passage, then? Just like real estate, one of the most important things about scripture is, “Location! Location! Location!” “You cannot read Romans 13 without reading Romans 12,” said Gabriel Salguero, President of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, pointing to the prior chapter, which in part suggests that love must be the guide instead of evil. “Laws are good, and order is good, but that doesn’t mean that separating families from each other is a good law,” he said. “There are good laws, and there are bad laws, and separating families from each other is a bad policy. We’re not against the law, we’re against bad laws and bad policies.”

 

The Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, Gradye Parsons, along with 500 other clergies from all over America challenged the Zero Tolerance law, writing, “Dear Members of Congress, As 500 faith leaders and 111 faith-based organizations across traditions, we write to express our unequivocal opposition to the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separates families and detains and prosecutes parents. …As people of faith, our concern stems from shared values rooted in our sacred texts that remind us to love our neighbor and welcome the sojourner among us…”

 

Have Rev. Parsons, others, and even Paul himself incurred judgment from God because they have acted out or spoken out against the government?  What then was Paul’s purpose in writing this section, which has been used to justify unjust policies put forth by our nation, and was even used by the German Christian Movement in the 1930s to justify Hitler’s evil leadership?

 

We must do one additional step of discernment with this passage to find the answer. We need to look at the historical context.

 

Most Biblical scholars believe Paul wrote Romans around 57 A.D. This was during a time of great difficulty for the early Christian movement, during the reign of Emperor Nero (54-68 A.D.) Christians suffered great forms of persecution under Nero and were ostracized by their friends and family members in the synagogue, due to their following Christ. It was not easy being a citizen and a Christian in Rome in the first century. This passage from Romans was meant for those Christians, who were suspect to their allegiance to Rome and to Caesar. Paul was encouraging them to be good citizens while practicing their faith - not at all an easy thing to do in light of facing persecution and death in the Coliseum.

 

Theologian Steven Hinerman writes, By withholding loyalty (always demanded by rulers who see themselves as the Empire), the early movement led by Jesus was always involved in an implicit (and perhaps sometimes explicit) critique over and against the Romans. Add to this the advocating of the traditional Jewish values of goodness and mercy, forgiveness and justice—values opposed to the Roman empire’s conquering and violence—and you have two forces in clear opposition.” 

 

You can certainly argue that the early church found opposing the Empire to be an unwinnable war. Their early opposition to empire in time changed into values more acceptable to Rome, in order to blend in and be safe. The survival of Christianity as we know it in the first century may not have been possible if that accommodation had not been made. That is really what this passage is about.

 

What then are we to do? How are we called to be in relation to government, to presidential elections, etc? Christians are called to be good citizens, yes. However, Christians are also called to speak out against evil, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. When a law or politician is in opposition to those things, we are called to speak out and speak up. 4th-century theologian St. Augustine wrote, “What are kingdoms without justice? They’re just gangs of bandits.” God alone is Lord of the conscience. Our calling is to be people who are lawful citizens, but who uphold the teachings of Christ and the moral imperatives of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly in God. Our calling is to work to reform government, to seek to mold it and shape it to work for the purposes of Christ’s kindom here on earth.

 

 Where then does the Christian place ultimate loyalty, our ultimate trust if not with our governance? That brings us to the 2nd passage for today from Psalm 146.

 

The psalmist writes, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”(Psalm 146:3-4). This latter psalm was likely written long after David’s 40-year reign as king of Israel. Kings, beginning with David were seen as “Sons of God,” extensions of the divine. Although David was faithful to God, he was also fallible. Ask Uriah the Hittite. David sinned, but followed God’s desires as best he could in both personal life and governance. After David’s rule, however, things went downhill from there. Kings who followed David were often anything but divine representatives. Here the psalmist reminds those who were subjects of the king not to put their trust in them. As Shirley Patton said in our Bible study this past Thursday, “If you put your trust in human beings, ultimately, they will let you down.” So, although I am glad about the results of the presidential election, I do not place all of my hopes and dreams and desires, my ultimate trust in who sits in the oval office. I place my hope and trust in God, the Creator of all things, who keeps faith forever. For no matter who won the presidential election; no matter who controls the senate; no matter who ends up being the mayor of Ashland, God will still be God, and the church will still be the church. As Executive Presbyter for Cascades Presbytery Rev. Brian Heron wrote in his Breadcrumbs column last week, No matter who emerges as the winner of this presidential election the church is still the church. The context may change, but our core essence remains the same. The issues we address may be unique, but the foundation from which we speak and act doesn’t shift.”

 

So, when all is said and done, our ultimate allegiance is with God. Our ultimate hope and trust is in the Creator of all things. Our calling is clear as we embrace our identity as a Matthew 25 church; to feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, welcome the stranger, clothe those in need, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, to work for reconciliation, and to make it more like it is on earth as it is in heaven, every day. Alleluia. Amen

 

Prayer: The Noise of Politics

We watch as the jets fly in with the power people and
the money people, the suits, the budgets, the billions.

 

We wonder about monetary policy because we are among the haves,
and about generosity, because we care about the have-nots.

 

By slower modes, we notice Lazarus and the poor arriving from Africa,
and the beggars from Central Europe, and the throng of environmentalists
with their vision of butterflies and oil of flowers and tanks of growing things and killing fields. We wonder about peace and war, about ecology and development,
about hope and entitlement.

 

We listen beyond jeering protesters and soaring jets and
faintly we hear the mumbling of the crucified one,
something about feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty,
about clothing the naked, and noticing the prisoners,
more about the least and about holiness among them.

 

We are moved by the mumbles of the gospel, even while we are tenured in our privilege.

 

We are half ready to join the choir of hope; half afraid things might change,
and in the third half of our faith turning to you, and your outpouring love
that works justice and that binds us each and all to one another.

 

So we pray amidst jeering protesters
and soaring jets. Come by here and make new, even at some risk to our entitlements.

~ written by Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933). From Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008)

 

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