Blogging Towards Sunday, July 7, 2013
Romans 13: 1-14
It’s the week of July 4th. We pause not just to barbecue, swim and watch fireworks, but to remember the sacrifice of those who have shaped the America we have inherited, celebrate the values of our Republic and reflect – in the fun – on what it means to be a citizen of the nation we often call the home of the free and the brave. The three photos represent the spectrum of beliefs and approaches by American Christians to American Government. Some say that government is always bad. Others have said, at different times, that Presidents Obama and Bush have both been sent, chosen or ordained by God to lead our nation. They can’t all be right and logical at the same time.
Emma Fleming asked the question about government and how as Christians we are to respond, react and respect the authorities who govern us. This can be complex at any moment, but in particular right now in the light of the NSA spying information publicly disclosed or treasonously stolen (depending upon how you look at it) by Edward Snowden. It can be clearer for us to fathom how, as followers of Jesus, to respond to tyrannous governments like that of Assad in Syria, or faltering ones like President Morsi in Egypt. But how do we respond to our own government today in a nation in which we’re not actually being attacked by our authorities? Context can make a big difference in how we understand what’s happening the world.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: one of the keys to hearing the scripture
- If we just take the scripture as it is we can miss out on the depth of the message, as well as even at times distort it. Romans, is a pastoral letter of theological advice written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Ancient Rome. Some date it to roughly 57-59 CE. This church is located in the capital of the Roman Empire, far from Israel (the birthplace of the teachings of Jesus). It was a community of Jesus-following Jews and pagans (basically everyone one besides the Jews).
- The Roman Empire and the notion of the Emperor as God: In the Empire the Emperor, since the time of Augustus (when Jesus was born) took the title of Lord, or God (the same exact titles used for Jesus in the gospels “kyrios”). Only a divine being could be in charge of such a huge empire, and bring such peace. It’s actually very similar to Daniel’s situation under Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel chapters 1 to 4. Jesus was subversive, not directly trying to overthrow the Roman Empire that ruled his land during his life. Think of his teaching about the Coin and the Emperor’s face – Give to God what is God’s and to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s. All of faith is political. For Jesus the greatest commandment was to love God with all of your being, and to then love your neighbor as yourself, or in a similar way. There is no mention of loving, or obeying the government.
- The Empire was a time of great violence, revolt and horrific repression: Jesus was killed for treason, speaking against the Emperor (at least that’s how the authorities tried to spin it). We think of Rome as the age of peace – the Pax Romana – and it was peaceful. And it was clear who was in charge and that they had it the best. Claudius was the emperor of Rome until his death in 54CE. He had banished, literally made it illegal for Jews to live in the Capital city. He blamed them for the problems of unrest, hunger, division and revolt of the capital citizens. An easy target as the Jews were visibly set apart. They were the only ones who didn’t work on the Sabbath (Saturday) and who were circumcised – which was un-hideable in the Roman baths where everyone went on a regular basis. When Claudius died (most likely killed by his wife so that her son could become emperor) Nero became the ruler at the age of 16. He needed help and so was advised and shepherded by two great Romans for the first years of his rule: the philosopher Seneca and the military advisor Burrus. Nero repealed the edict banishing the Jews and there was a time of great peace until 59 CE when Nero killed his mother, and turned “toward the dark side” eventually burning Rome to the ground (in order to rebuild it as he wanted to) and blamed the Christians for the destruction. Paul writes the letter to Rome in the middle of the peaceful time. He is encouraging those that have been violently resisting the government as zealots, to calm down, to not create more trouble. He writes, echoing the wisdom of Daniel, explaining that God is sovereign, not the Emperor, whoever he may be. He writes to encourage the fighters to put down their weapons, to trust the apparent peace of 54-58 and to not invite or incur the wrath of Rome by continuing political unrest and violence.
- Paul wrote the letter and sent it before Nero turned evil: So what do we do with this exhortation to respect the government in the meantime before Christ returns and every knew shall bow to him (Philippians 2:1-13). Paul isn’t justifying the Empire, saying that might makes right, nor is he advocating that Christians give up their conscience and blindly follow. He’s calling for a middle way, neither violent resistance or complicit resignation, but creative subversion in the trust of God’s sovereignty.
Questions for wondering and exploring:
- What word, image or phrase strikes you in the passage? Why?
- What do you think Paul is trying to say to the Christians of Rome in this period of long sought peace? Look too at what comes before and after our passage: Romans 12 and Romans 13:8-14.
- How can we apply what Paul is saying in his time, to our time and context in the America of 2013 in which all sides claim to be speaking for the values of Jesus?