On Romans 12-13 (and Matt. 5.38-48) as a witness to Caesar, a (sometimes hostile) neighbor

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April 9, 2013 by jmar198013

Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good. Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government. There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God. So anyone who opposes the authority is standing against what God has established. People who take this kind of stand will get punished. The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing. Rather, they frighten people who are doing wrong. Would you rather not be afraid of authority? Do what’s right, and you will receive its approval. It is God’s servant given for your benefit. But if you do what’s wrong, be afraid because it doesn’t have weapons to enforce the law for nothing. It is God’s servant put in place to carry out his punishment on those who do what is wrong. That is why it is necessary to place yourself under the government’s authority, not only to avoid God’s punishment but also for the sake of your conscience. You should also pay taxes for the same reason, because the authorities are God’s assistants, concerned with this very thing. So pay everyone what you owe them. Pay the taxes you owe, pay the duties you are charged, give respect to those you should respect, and honor those you should honor. (Romans 12.14-13.7 CEB)

[Polycarp’s] pursuers then, along with horsemen … went forth at supper-time on the day of the preparation with their usual weapons, as if going out against a robber. And being come about evening [to the place where he was], they found him lying down in the upper room of a certain little house, from which he might have escaped into another place; but he refused, saying, “The will of God be done.” So when he heard that they were come, he went down and spake with them. And as those that were present marvelled at his age and constancy, some of them said. “Was so much effort made to capture such a venerable man? Immediately then, in that very hour, he ordered that something to eat and drink should be set before them, as much indeed as they cared for, while he besought them to allow him an hour to pray without disturbance. [The Martyrdom of Polycarp, ch VII]

If you inquire St. Google about Romans 13, one of the first results that pops up is a 2001 article from a Baptist minister named Greg Dixon. The article is entitled “Rethinking Romans 13.” And my my, don’t Pastor Dixon have a lot of thoughts on it! He writes:

In recent years, Christians have interpreted Romans 13 as a command for unlimited submission to government by God. Many proponents of this belief have sat passively by, in the soft pews of their place of worship, while evil has triumphed in most areas of family and church life. In our pacifistic smugness, many have allowed government to become god without even knowing.

Yet, when confronted with the true meaning of Romans 13, absurd accusations are shouted in religious rhetoric toward those who would dare to break an unjust law or even to question the almighty government. The opponents of unlimited submission to government are deemed as rebellious, anarchist and disobedient. However, there is no practical, historical or biblical consistency in the shallow agreements of these simpletons.

Well, count me among the simpletons, Pastor Greg. In fact, I plan when I finish posting this here blog, to put on my Depends, roll my power-chair to the day room, and drool while gleefully twiddling my lips to a “Baby Einstein” video. Pastor Greg’s screed is archived on the World Net Daily site. And as I type this screed of my own (April 9th 2013), WND has an “exclusive” commentary from its founder, Joseph Farah (ghostwriter for Rush Limbaugh’s See, I Told You So) entitled, “Why does Obama fear armed citizenry?” which, incidentally, implies that we ought to disobey Romans 13 and rise up in armed insurrection against our government. But I digress. I’m not here to write about the provenance, authorial intentions, or merits of the Second Amendment.

One problem with the popular readings of Romans 13, to my mind, is that people suppose that Romans 12 advocates one ethic for relating to your immediate neighbors, while Romans 13 is a separate ethic for relating to the state. This is commonly known as the “doctrine of the two swords” (church’s sword vs. Caesar’s sword).

A second problem is that people have got it in their heads that while what Paul wrote in Romans 13 was well and good for Christians under a tyrannical emperor, it’s “different” in a democracy. For instance, Pastor Greg writes:

Romans 13 is a treatise by Paul and the Apostles on the institution of model government. As we rightly divide the word of truth and take this passage in its total context, we will discover seven truths:

  1. Good government is ordained by God.
  2. Government officials are to be good ministers who represent God.
  3. We the people must obey good and godly laws.
  4. As we relate Romans 13 to America, our Constitution is the higher power — not the IRS tax code.
  5. Good government is not to be feared.
  6. In America, we are to pay honor and custom and constitutional taxes to whom it is due.
  7. Government is to protect the righteous and punish the wicked.

As a result, we have a practical, historical and biblical mandate to fervently disobey any unconstitutional laws and all government officials who cease to be good ministers of Jesus Christ.

These “truths” are, unfortunately, ersatz. Paul doesn’t make distinctions between “good” governments and “bad” ones, nor between an empire and a republic. He doesn’t say we have to pay “constitutional” taxes and not “unconstitutional” ones. Either we seek to find ways to be faithful to the text regardless of the “form” of government we find ourselves under, or we should be honest enough to admit that we find Paul’s ethic lacking for our situation and we are choosing to go another direction. Pastor Greg’s problem is that his (mis)reading of Rom. 13 is based on a flawed premise: that it is “a treatise by Paul and the Apostles on the institution of model government.” Whatever else Rom. 13 may be, it is most assuredly NOT that.

By the way, I don’t have a particular animus toward this Greg Dixon. It’s just that he combines a fatally flawed reading of Romans 13–and unfortunately an all-too-common one–with an assured hubris that his reading is correct. This hubris affords him the gall to dub any who dare disagree with him passive, smug simpletons. Them’s fightin’ words.

Stanley Hauerwas cuts through a mess of muck when he advises:

Never read Romans 13 without first reading Romans 12.14ff, because then you begin to see that [“bless those who persecute you,” etc] applies also to Caesar … Then you’ll see how Americans have failed to read Paul well, because they want to read Paul as underwriting democratic presuppositions of government that assume, ‘somebody’s gotta kill somebody in the name of Jesus.’ Now, that’s what I don’t think Paul will let you do, if you read Romans 12 in relationship to Romans 13. That’s why we have so little good religious discourse in this country, because most American Christians don’t know how to read the Bible well. And they don’t know how to read the Bible well because they’re Americans before they’re Christians.

Something that often goes unnoticed in any discussion of Romans 12.14-21 is how much it depends on the Sermon on the Mount, particularly Matt. 5.38-42 and 5.43-48. Paul’s word, “Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions … Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” (Rom. 12.17, 21) appropriate and develop Jesus’ call in Matt. 5.39 not to repay evil for evil. Likewise, Paul’s instruction in Rom. 12.14, “Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them,” is lifted directly from Matt. 5.44: “love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.” When Paul develops this idea concretely in Rom. 12.19-21, that you feed a hungry enemy and water a thirsty one, he is taking his cues both from Jesus’ concrete illustrations of repaying evil with good in Matt. 5.39-42, and from the Father’s care even for the unjust in Matt. 5.45. So you have to read Romans 12.14-21 as a commentary on Matt. 5.38-48. And from there, you read Romans 13.1-9 as an extension of Rom. 12. Matt. 5.38-48 is not consigned to the “private” sphere of “interpersonal” relationships. Jesus is not simply saying it is a good idea not to get into a fistfight over an insult. He does not make a distinction between the dude in your neighborhood who gives you hell and Caesar giving you hell. In fact, Jesus’ illustration of going the second mile in Matt. 5.41 is specifically pointed at how Jews of his day ought to relate to the Roman occupation. Likewise, Paul makes no distinction between “ordinary” people giving “individual Christians” hell and Caesar giving the church hell in Rom. 12.14-13.7. Rom. 13.1-7 is but Paul teaching the Roman Christians how to apply the Sermon on the Mount’s call to nonviolent resistance and practical enemy love to Caesar. Don’t breathe threats of riots. Don’t withhold your taxes. Don’t call Caesar silly names. You treat Caesar (and his representatives) the same way you do anybody else that’s giving you hell: you bless them, you pray for them, you feed them if they’re hungry, you give them drink when they’re thirsty.

In other words, when you don’t rise up in violent insurrection against Caesar, when you pay your taxes, and when you give due honor–when you submit–you are showing love for the enemy, you are giving to those who ask. You are fulfilling your Matt. 5.38-48 responsibilities as a citizen of God’s kingdom. And if you pray on Caesar’s behalf, or if you get the opportunity, you minister to his physical needs, you are again fulfilling your responsibilities to him as your neighbor–just as it is taught in Matt. 5.38-48.

When I get to thinking about this, I can’t help but think about the early Christian martyr Polycarp. Here’s a guy who, when the Romans came to arrest him to have him executed, did not fight it but insisted on praying for them and cooking them a meal first. He got it. Anything other than that sort of witness makes too much or too little of Caesar as a neighbor, even if he is an enemy neighbor.

One final remark. I keep hearing other Christians grousing about how they’re being “persecuted” in America. I don’t want to be contentious, but I must lovingly and humbly suggest that maybe if some of our up-front people would stop trying to play at being Caesar themselves, we might have a better lot in this land. We are called to submit to Caesar, not to be Caesar. And frankly, because the church is premised on the Cross and Resurrection, I don’t know that we are especially qualified for the Caesar gig. I say this with humility because I know some will find what I have to say next harsh, even an instance of “blaming the victim,” and I certainly don’t mean it this way. 1 Pet. 4.15 says, “If you suffer … it must not be for murder, stealing, making trouble, or prying into other people’s affairs” (NLT). I don’t mean to suggest that we have a mess of murderous thieves among us, but might it be that some of us have been guilty of being troublemakers who pry into the affairs of others? I am suggesting that some who are counted as “leaders” among us (certainly not the likes of anyone reading this blog) have been (inadvertently, of course)  trifling busybodies, which in a liberal secular culture like the U.S. is seen by some as being about as bad as killing and stealing. I would offer that we need to quit being busybodies in Caesar’s (and our neighbors’) affairs, and start attending more to the forms of life to which the church is called. Probably this will be a more compelling witness than our voyeuristic spying into the bedrooms of our neighbors.

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6 thoughts on “On Romans 12-13 (and Matt. 5.38-48) as a witness to Caesar, a (sometimes hostile) neighbor

  1. Caleb Coy says:

    A fine piece here.

    But suppose I completely disagreed with you. How do you explain why Rom. 13 says the governments are God’s ministers and we should pay them to punish evildoers?

    • jmar198013 says:

      Knowing me, I’d try to find some way of explaining what John Howard Yoder did in his comments on Romans 13: “Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God…. This makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians. However able an infinite God may be to work at the same time through the sufferings of his believing disciples who return good for evil and through the wrathful violence of the authorities who punish evil with evil, such behavior is for humans not complementary but in disjunction…. This takes place, however, without declaring that the destructive action by pagan powers which God thus ‘uses’ is morally good…. That God turns human wrath to praise (Ps. 76:10) is an affirmation of providence overriding human rebellion, not ratifying it.” I think it would boil down to something along the lines that Babylon was also God’s minister of wrath, but you wouldn’t catch me saying “bully for Babylon.”

      • Caleb Coy says:

        Or as I like to say it, “ministers unwitting”. Like Joseph’s brothers. Or the red sea. Good or ill. I wouldn’t want to be his brothers circa colored coat or the red sea (because it’s a body of water).

  2. […] mentioned in my last post on this blog that it is best to read Romans 12 as a commentary on Matt. 5.38-48. In Rom. 12.16-21, Paul is teaching the Christians at Rome how to put Jesus’ call to […]

  3. Tracy says:

    I find it hard to read this right now with no mention of whether or how to legitimately, peacefully, protest when the government is unjust. People have used a “go-along, get along” interpretation of Romans to silence voices in the past like those of Martin Luther King.

    The truth is, I think King was motivated by love, but I don’t think his “enemies” felt that way about him. They thought he was challenging them, and making trouble. King’s popularity, incidently, was at an all-time low at the time of his death. And I don’t think that’s because he failed to cook dinner for enough of his enemies.

    • jmar198013 says:

      Well, I wrote this at a different time in my journey, and a different time in the life of this nation. What I certainly didn’t intend to do was to write a “go-along, get-along” exposition of Romans 13.

      I agree with everything you said about Dr. King. I’m not nor have I ever been under false impressions about his popularity during his life. I take to heart what Jesus said about societies who build monuments to the prophets after their deaths.

      I included the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom in the image at the top not to present a narrow vision for what Christians can or should do under tyranny, but to present ONE option of what ONE individual believer did in resistance to the empire. On the other hand, I’ve also long admired something Gloria Steinem said: “The challenge is to live a revolution, not to die for one.” How we live ought to and does make a difference.

      That being said, I’m living in tension right now, between two visions: Is the church being trained to be true citizens of the world?; or are we being formed into a contrast community, offering an alternative vision? I don’t know that these have to be mutually exclusive options.

      When I wrote this four years ago, my primary concern wasn’t “whether or how to legitimately, peacefully, protest when the government is unjust.” My primary concern was with how many Christians take Romans 13 to mean blind obedience to the powers that be; while others try to twist the scripture to make it a treatise on church and state, with an “ideal” state in mind. Historically speaking, that’s untenable. Paul was writing of an empire and emperor that would shortly kill him and use his fellow believers as tiki torches. I pointed out that you can’t read Romans 13 in isolation either from a) its historical context; or b) its literary context, following Romans 12.

      I can’t give you a comprehensive answer to your concern. I can perhaps point toward in a few directions:

      1) One must never read Romans 13 in isolation from Revelation 13.
      2) I’m praying the heck out of imprecatory psalms right now; striving toward the humility to recognize that my conceptions of justice may be limited, but God’s are not.
      3) I think it’s essential to understand that Paul doesn’t speak of “obeying” but “submitting.” To me, this is what the apostles did in Acts when the local authorities tried to stop them from preaching Jesus, but they resolved to obey God rather than human authorities. The submission took the form of accepting their beating from the authorities, but not stopping preaching. Later in Acts, however, Paul uses his rights as a Roman citizen to protest his beating and imprisonment. That says something about context; using the power you do have; but also recognizing the very real danger of running afoul of human authorities, and accepting the risks.

      I think all of those are essential when deciding whether or how to legitimately, peacefully protest injustice. I don’t even think it’s a matter of whether. You do. In Matt. 5.38-42, Jesus didn’t say, “Do not resist evil.” What he actually said was, “Repay not evil for evil.” Turning the other cheek, giving the other garment, going the other mile were all forms of nonviolent protest, giving people who felt powerless ways to use the power they had. Showing them that they had more power at their disposal than they imagined. Some will argue that this is too much to ask of oppressed people, to put themselves in danger or further suffering. To that I can only say:

      1) We will always suffer for any commitments we make, whether rich or poor, slave or free, going along or resisting; the Gospel does give us an idea of what is worth suffering over.
      2) Jesus himself didn’t preach here what he did not practice. I don’t think it’s an accident that the Passion narratives make it a point to show that Jesus was struck; his clothes were taken; and he was forced by Rome to carry a burden that wasn’t rightly his.

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