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Monday, August 20, 2007
(10:35 AM) | Stephen:
To Whom We Belong

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, US Soldiers were sent in to New Orleans and surrounding towns. Since we know that people were not, in fact, evacuated with anything approaching haste, and we know that there were no attempts by the Federal Government to put up defenses against flooding, one might wonder just what those federal troops were doing.

Along with the New Orleans police, US soldiers were seizing guns.

As disturbing as that is - why yes, like most liberals, I understand what the 2nd Amendment says, even better than the gun fetishists at the NRA, thank you very much - we now have some new and even more troubling information. Apparently the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the debut of the Department of Homeland Security's "Clergy Response Teams," clergy members* that have been trained by the Federal Government to quell unrest and to convince people that whatever the political authorities decided to do in an emergency is to be accepted without complaint. These pastors have been instructed to preach and teach from Romans 13 which says, as the American Federal Government happily points out, that governments are from God and should be obeyed. The US Government seems to be somewhat concerned about a restive population. It's certainly worrying to see that Homeland Security has set up such thorough plans and mechanisms for placating American citizens.

As far as the theology thats involved, Romans 13 is pretty clear:
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. 4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. 5 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. (NLT)
In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was President, I attend Point Loma Nazarene University and Nazarene Theological Seminary. I attended Nazarene churches and had a couple of staff positions, positions on the Church Board, etc. I can tell you - not merely "anecdotally" - that this chapter in Romans gave Evangelical Christians fits throughout that entire decade. Even George Bush Sr. was cause for concern, because of his "new world order" talk and his lack of Christianist code words throughout his speeches.

Aside from the blatant, casual hypocrisy that infuses Evangelical attitudes toward American government - "God-ordained when dominated by Republicans, "Ant-christ breeding ground" when it's Democrats in the majority - this blasé attitude toward Romans 13 and the claim that it commands not only submission but cooperation with earthly authorities is troubling, to say the least. The ancient Church certainly didn't have this attitude. For the first couple of centuries, converts to Christianity were to have no professional ties to the Roman government at all. If a soldier or other government functionary wanted to join the Church, he was to renounce his oath to Caesar, since it represented to the Church idolatry. If a member of the Church became functionary of the government - in any capacity but especially as a soldier - they were removed from the Church body until and unless they renounced such decision and went through a type of probation.

St. Augustine, so important to the development of Western thought, first rose to prominence because of the Donatist crisis, when a significant number of Christians believed that anyone who had renounced their faith during the most recent persecution of Christians should not be allowed back into the Church, and especially that sacraments performed by priests and bishops who had done so were not efficacious. It was Augustine who came up with the doctrine of ex opere operato, "by the work performed," which states that the value of the sacraments comes from God alone and is not dependent upon the righteousness of the priest or bishop in question. While it did allow for the reconciliation of those Christians who had cooperated and/or simply knuckled under to the Roman government's pressure, Augustine's solution to the problem said nothing about the inherent righteousness of always obeying earthly political authorities, and in fact recognized that what they had done was wrong and required repentance and reconciliation.

The first decades of the Church were marked by an extreme eschatological expectation, that Jesus would come back in a matter of months or years. As time passed, of course, this expectation started to wane among the larger Church, though there have always been groups within the Church that expect an imminent return and behave accordingly. There was an indifference to earthly political authorities because of the early Christians belief that Jesus would return and sweep them away quickly. Later, of course, we can see the development of doctrines and ideas of how exactly Christians were to live with the idea that perhaps Jesus wasn't going to come back right away. And so the later Epistles of the New Testament - ones like Romans and Ephesians - talk about ordering congregations and society in ways that would ensure the long-term existence of the Church, while it's the earlier letters - such as Galatians - that have the more radical statements such as God doing away with all earthly distinctions of gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

But we have to understand passages like Romans 13 within the context of the continuing eschatological expectation - the admonition to always be prepared for Christ's return - and the idea of the Kingdom of God. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God more than just about anything else - much more than he did "hell," whatever you may have heard - and told his followers that their loyalties, their treasure, their present and future all lay in that Kingdom and not really here on earth. Christians are citizens of various nations, but their true citizenship is to be in heaven, their true master is God and God alone. This is accepted Christian doctrine, though obviously the interpretation differs.

Romans 13, as seen in the light of the attitudes and actions of the early Church, is more about the Church's indifference to earthly powers and allegiance to a heavenly Kingdom than it is about alliances with the government of Herod, Nero or even George Bush. We are to obey earthly authority because all authority really belongs to God and so can be said to ontologically be derived from him. But it's not because God puts his stamp of approval upon all earthly governments or all that they do. And most of all Christians are to submit to rulers and laws because anything that happens to us here on earth is of far less value and import than what awaits us in heaven.**

The Church simply has no business cooperating with any government, because their aims are entirely different. The Church exists to spread "good news" about God's love and forgiveness, to feed, clothe, heal, house, and otherwise care for any and all who need it. Pastors and other Church leaders are to facilitate these activities and to provide spiritual care and direction. That's it. If a government has a program which coincides with these duties, great. But the Church is really not supposed to rely upon any government*** to do its work for it.

Neither does the Church need to care about the 2nd Amendment - or the 1st, for that matter - or about a docile population, or any of those things over which an earthly government obsesses. Individual Christians can care about these things and even get involved, but not as the Church, not with the authority of the Church itself, saying that God wants everyone to support this government idea or that government action. In fact, even though I'm far more sympathetic to things such as Liberation Theology, I still believe that the Church as a whole should not take part and I'm wary of individual Christians - especially priests - doing so. Of course, I believe that if the Church is doing its job it makes things much harder for a repressive government to function well, but what matters is intention.

No matter what Romans 13 says, any pastor that preaches to his or her congregation that they are to cooperate fully with the government and all its decisions is betraying their call and the Church they supposedly serve. They are allying themselves with an earthly power and effectively renouncing their belief and citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

*Alternet also has an article about it, and of course there's a couple of people at Shakes' place that have commented on this. But I linked to WorldNet Daily to show how this is considered egregious - to say the least - even to those predisposed to defend Bush and his policies.

**This isn't about Christians needing some big sky fairy to reward them in order for them to be moral, so please don't even bring it up.

***I'm a liberal who supports government intervention in these areas because I have seen the Church abdicate its responsibility for those in need, while the poor - just as Jesus said - have unfortunately continued to exist despite certain portions of Christianity desperately trying to ignore them. When the Church takes up its responsibilities again, I might change my philosophy of government.

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