Thursday, November 7, 2013

Eller on Romans 13 (Part 2)

Separately as Christians and together as Church, we may expect Jesus to invite us to witness to people in government (the state): rulers, bureaucrats, tax collectors, police officers, and soldiers. What concrete words and actions might Jesus invite us to say and do?

Let us look at the range of logical possibilities: attack always > resist mostly > tolerate > support mostly > obey always.

One biblical text often quoted to support the position of “obey always” is Romans 13:1-7.

1 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. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 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; 4 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. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 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 (Romans 13:1-7, New Revised Standard Version, here and following).

Yet this biblical text is subject to diverse interpretations. Today we will look further at the interpretation of it found in a noteworthy book, Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy over the Powers, written by Vernard Eller. He expresses his point of view in Chapter 8, “Christian Anarchy and Civil Disobedience.”

Vernard warns us against accepting the “obey always” interpretation of Romans 13 by pointing out that Paul and other passages in the Bible say the opposite.

2. Read Romans 13:1-7 in the context of the whole Bible
Paul speaks differently
Vernard’s argument in this section of Chapter 8 is important but weak. He simply doesn’t develop it. If he had, he would have strengthened his point of view.

First he points out, rightly, that Paul made several other important statements about our witness as Christians to governing authorities. He mentions, without quoting, this passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: [O]ur struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). In relation to all of these dark powers Vernard says, “there is every reason to believe Paul would include Rome in that passel” (198).

Let us put the words of Paul and Vernard into other words. Olympianity is the religion of power. Olympians worship six gods: the gods of politics, war, technology, sex, money, and consumption. Those six gods, along with Satan who stands behind them and the Flesh or Unholy Spirit who works inside of us, are the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of this present darkness, and spiritual forces of evil of whom Paul speaks. Any and all governments, democratic or not, embody these powers. This is true regardless of whether an individual governing authority is primarily Christian or Olympian.

At the same time our struggle, as radiant witnesses to Jesus, is not against any person working as a governing authority. Toward this person Jesus through Paul calls us to share only light, love, and life.

Our struggle is against the unholy trinity of Satan, gods, and Unholy Spirit. These powers of nothingness seek to control the state as a whole and every human governing authority who is a part of it. They do this by exacting our conformity. They make false promises to us and threaten us with real punishments. Almost always that’s enough to make us behave. Through our conformity, these dark powers then seek to harm as many human beings and as much of creation as possible.

What Jesus calls us to do through Paul is to bring to light and question this destructive control which the Olympian gods exercise through any and all states. What he calls us to do is to speak words of truth which free people from their unknowing and inescapable slavery to these very destructive gods.

Jesus speaks differently
In this section of his book, Vernard doesn’t mention the temptations of Jesus. Here we will briefly note the third temptation of Jesus by Satan.

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms [states] of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him (Matthew 5:8-11).

Let us simply note that this was a real temptation. Satan was really able to tempt Jesus with control of all the states in the world because he did in fact control them. Jesus did not question Satan’s control of all the world’s governments. He simply said he’s not bowing down to Satan in order to gain that control. Jesus wasn’t after power and riches. His goal was to liberate us from all power and our desire for it.

Many other biblical witnesses speak differently
One of the most important events in the whole Old Testament is the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 1-15). If the “obey always” interpretation of Romans 13 is correct, then the people of Israel should have remained slaves and been happy about it. Instead Yahweh heard their cries for help and led them out of Egypt to freedom.

Jesus didn’t replace Satan as controller of states. He came to liberate us from both Satan and our need for states.

In Ephesians, Paul doesn’t ask us to become happy unthinking minions of the state. He invites us to see it as a tool in the hands of dark powers bent on harming as many humans and as much of creation as possible.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.