The pastor who saw to my confirmation instruction was not a sadist. But he did decide that, over and above requiring me to memorize the “six chief parts” of Luther’s Small Catechism (as was required of my classmates), I was also to learn by heart the “Table of Duties” appended to the work. This “Table” consists of a long collection of biblical passages, organized by various human vocations (a key Lutheran concept), including “Of Civil Government” and “Of Subjects.”
Since the edition of the Small Catechism that I was using included its biblical citations from the King James Version of the Bible, there were a few instances of archaic language included. One that remains prominent in my mind to this day from “Of Subjects” is a quotation from Romans 13:5-7 (check it out in a more recent translation, if this makes no sense):
“Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For, for this cause pay ye tribute also; for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom, to whom custom; fear, to whom fear; honor, to whom honor.”
This quotation came to mind recently, as I read through a Facebook exchange, in which some held what I recognized as a common, traditional Lutheran position: that whatever the faults of the present administration in Washington, the current president’s presence in office is “ordained by God” and must be respected as such. The most commonly cited text is Romans 13:1-7, although also noted is 1 Peter 2:13-17, especially v. 13: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution.” The arguments to the contrary were utterly predictable: how about Hitler? The counterarguments to the contrary arguments were also utterly predictable: Hitler’s office was ordained by God, although God was not responsible for what Hitler made of it.
I confess that I grow tired of theological debates in the form of Japanese Kabuki theater, that is, rehashes of age-old arguments and “proofs” for them. I have my own opinions regarding the performance of President Trump and his associates, but such is not my present focus. Rather, I resist the attempt of some to privilege selected biblical passages that advocate for the assumption of divine support for the current powers-that-be (at least if one agrees with them), above all Romans 13 as often read by Lutherans.
The fact is that there are varied voices within the Christian Bible with respect to human authority. Traditional interpretations are correct that there is what I shall term a “historical” point of view, not merely in Romans 13 and 1 Peter, but also in the Old Testament, where Israel’s kings are “God’s anointed” and then especially in the prophet Isaiah, who identifies current, earthly powers as temporary devices under the sovereignty of God. Isaiah speaks of Assyria as “the rod of my anger” in judging Israel in Isa 10:5. Then Babylon serves a similar role (Isa 39:6). Then Persia, specifically in the person of “my messiah” Cyrus, fits the bill (Isa 45:1). The powers of any given time are but tools in the hands of God.
But there is another perspective that is equally biblical. Call it the “apocalyptic” view. Found especially in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation, this vantage holds that all earthly rulers are agents of evil. All will have their time, but at a time and place of God’s choosing, all will be judged and overthrown. In their place, God will establish his direct rule and reign.
The “apocalyptic” perspective clearly emerged at times of persecution and peril for God’s people: the Babylonian exile in the 500s BC, the Seleucid attempts at Hellenization of the Jews in the 100s BC, and the Roman cult of the emperor as the “patriotism” of its day in the first through third centuries AD. The latter is seen above all in the final book of the Christian canon, which obviously (albeit in code) identifies Rome and its emperor as emblematic of Evil (hint: the Hebrew letters that spell out “Caesar Nero” add up to 666!). The message to God’s oppressed: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I shall give thee the crown of life” (2:10, again using the King James Version).
Moreover, New Testament scholars are increasingly finding anti-imperial voices all over the place. Working from the perspective of what has come to be called “Empire Studies,” such scholars have identified numerous places, especially in the gospels, that call for resistance to, if not replacement of, the powers-that-be with the Kingdom of God. To cite but one example, read the Passion Narrative of John with care: note that time and again, the trial and execution of Jesus are presented as the coronation of a new emperor. Jesus is in charge throughout, and the imperial Roman governor, Pilate, is but his unwitting lackey. Thus, when Pilate famously tells the crowd, “Ecce homo” (“Behold the man”) in John 19:5, he is but quoting the Greek translation of Samuel’s words by which he presented Saul to Israel as their God-appointed king over a thousand years earlier (1 Sam 12:13 LXX).
So which applies to us at this moment? Much hangs on how one answers this question. There is no question that “Christendom” as a cultural phenomenon that established Christianity as the cultural (if not legal) default in the West since the fourth century of our era (under Constantine) is no longer the norm. But there are some who continue to speak of a “Christian America” as an entity to be preserved against enemies within and without.
Yet the Bible itself allows another point of view: in its most extreme form, that all human powers are expressions of evil, opposed to God. For what it is worth, none among us have advocated for this model so consistently as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
So which is it to be? As a Lutheran, my theological genes incline me toward both/and, rather than either/or. But what does both/and look like? Perhaps this: governmental authority is indeed part of God’s design for human existence, as a curb against the chaos of each against all. As such, it deserves our support in principle. At the same time, it is inevitable that specific instances of governmental authority will fall short of the God-pleasing and may, in fact, on the whole tend away from what St. Augustine termed “the City of God.” The upshot is that the Christian must remain fully engaged in citizenship and governance, but always as what the British call “the loyal opposition.” That is, the best we can hope for is imperfection or even the lesser-of-evils, always subject to critique from the perspective of the Kingdom of God (and with the upfront acknowledgment that such a critique, in turn, is offered by imperfect observers).
That’s not a ringing endorsement of politics, and I’d hope for better from us all and specifically from those called to that vocation. But it may also be cold-eyed reality in anno Domini 2020.