05 Jul God and Country
I had a dream this week…it was a dream about you…Calvary church. You were out on the sidewalk along Kings Highway in your blue Be the Kingdom T-shirts. You were holding signs, chanting and walking between cars stopped at the stoplight. There you were, black, brown, white, young, old, the Torre Fuertes congregation was there too handing out flyers…leaving people who stopped at the light or who passed by with a certain impression… “now there is a church that stands for something.” What was it that people witnessed? What was it that you had written on your signs? I’ll come back to this dream at the end of this sermon.
When Michelle asked me to preach back in April, I welcomed the opportunity to preach on the Sunday before July 4th. Living as we do near the center of government where the laws of our land are made, and with many of us working for that said government, it presents a unique opportunity to revisit the intersection between God and Country, especially now given our changing political and as of this week, judicial landscape.
I had already picked the scripture this morning and started my research when Attorney Jeff Sessions did me a huge favor… He brought this text into the public realm and it went viral when he referenced it in a speech defending the current administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, a policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border. He said this, and I quote:
“ I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful”. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders summed up the same idea, saying. “ It is very biblical to enforce the law.” So what do you think? Does this resonate with you? Do you stand by this interpretation of Romans 13 on how you think about the role of governmental authority…God and Country… or do you stand somewhere else?
Regardless of your stance or your politics, this policy has provoked national outrage, and because of that outrage, the policy has changed…However, it is still US policy to deny asylum to those fleeing to the US because they are of running from abuse or a threat against their lives from gang violence. Protests were organized and held yesterday in over 75 cities to rally against this zero tolerance policy including Washington DC.
Immigration is an issue that divides our nation right now, our Congress, our communities, and in some cases, our churches. In a supposed Christian nation, how easily we forget the pre-Christmas story…. that of a Jewish family fleeing to Egypt…. do you remember why? To escape Herod’s threat of infanticide… Jesus started his life as a refugee whose family sought asylum in a foreign land. Ironic, isn’t it.
There is a long history of politicians and rulers using Bible quotes out of context to justify this position or that. Romans 13 is by far the most popular, used throughout history by those in power to justify their policies and authority.
During the American Revolution, those loyal to the King invoked the “law and order” interpretation of Romans 13. The patriots, the revolutionaries and their clergy argued that only JUST authorities were to be obeyed. During our countries slave years, slave owners and preachers alike used it to justify the institution of slavery. In Germany, during WWII, Adolph Hitler quoted it to justify his power and authority. In South Africa, during the reign of Apartheid, those in power, and even some South Afrikaner theologians, referenced it as a source of justification for their racist policies.
If Jeff Sessions had done a little research to find the company that he was keeping, he might have selected another Bible verse. Friends, let us beware of this cautionary tale. Nothing like a bible verse out of context to clobber ones enemies and defend one’s tribe. I believe it was a Blasé Pascal who said “ Men never do evil so gleefully and cheerfully as when they do it out of religious conviction”.
When people choose to appropriate this text out of its larger context, their narrow lens causes them to miss the larger and more iportant Biblical witness and God’s disposition towards all of humanity and the structures that we’ve build to .
Lets take a look under the hood of Romans 13 and see how Paul illuminates that larger Biblical witness for us. What was going on in Rome that helps us understand Paul’s original intent? Who were the original recipients of this letter, and what was there situation and context?
New Testament scholars are able to date this letter to about 56 AD. Romans 13 was a small fragment of a larger narrative found in Romans 12 -15. This longer narrative was intended as ethical advice to a particular community of faith in a particular historical context.
What was going on in Rome @ 56 AD? Jewish Christians were slowly returning to Rome from Palestine, remember…. the Promised Land? after having been expelled from the city by Emperor Claudius for their alleged participation in Palestinian-nationalism, which he viewed as a threat to the state. Nero was emperor now, and yet he was no friend of Christians, with historians recording that he had followers of Jesus dipped in oil and then lit them up to bring light to his gardens at night. It was still not a friendly political environment they were living in.
According to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, Paul was aware that the central issue that could divide this new church in Rome…now made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians… was their attitude towards the Roman Empire. If the Jewish Christians in Rome were to agitate for a two-state solution, i.e. the cleansing of Palestine from Roman/Gentile rule, a true spirit of unity in the church at Rome would be impossible. Paul therefore argued, that as an extension of the love they have for one another, the Jewish Christians in Rome must accept the rule of the empire and not rebel or provoke another expulsion from the capital city. And even though the Roman empire was brutally oppressing and dominating Palestine, the promised land, where the Jewish Christians still had many relatives and family, Paul’s advice meant putting the unity of the Church, love for others, and obedience to God’s instituted authorities ahead of love for race, tribe, or homeland. Pay your taxes, live under the current authorities, don’t rebel, hold yourself together. Why? You have a higher loyalty now. Your tribal tendencies take a back seat now to the duties of love and hospitality.” According to Borg, Paul was not attempting in Romans 13 to write a manifesto for Church State relations for the next two or three millennia; his concern was purely pastoral and very local.
But the most critical elements of Paul’s ethical advice come before and after this text on respecting authorities. What comes before the commandment “be subject to governing authorities” is the command to love… Here is what Paul says love looks like.
“Let love be genuine…hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection; out-do one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the lord, extend hospitality to strangers.
Subsequent verses further clarify the centrality of love and its comprehensive nature, stating that all the commandments are summed up in this one; “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. “ Again, Love is the fulfilling of the law.”
This larger thread continues in the words of Jesus when asked by his disciples, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, and if you remember, Samaritans were the people for whom you crossed the street when you saw them coming or perhaps in today’s context, to you’d stop them at the border or create a policy that keeps them out. Who is my neighbor? Samaritans are our neighbors.
Page after page, text after text reveals what God requires of us. Remember the words of Micah…. What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.
Martin Luther King did some thinking about Paul’s letter to the Roman church during the Civil Rights era. He preached a sermon titled Paul’s Letter to American Christians…. in the sermon; King imagines what Paul would have told Christians at that time in our history. Here is what he said:
“ As I said to the Philippian Christians, you are a colony of heaven…this means although you live in the colony of time your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity…you have Dual citizenship…you live both in time and eternity. Both heaven and earth…Therefore your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory demands of man made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of Almighty God. “
In a society where unjust laws ramp up tribalistic fears, stack the deck in favor of those with wealth and privilege…. create scapegoats and all those dreaded OTHERS …. these laws must be challenged, confronted and changed and from the vantage point of God’s kingdom, and by doing so, we plant those kingdom seeds….and we give hope to a world that is desperate for a different vision.
And so, on this Fourth of July week, what advise might we take from brother Paul, about God and Country? In the context of all that is going on in the human realm that is contrary to the larger Biblical witness, what could our witness look like?
And, so back to where I began…that dream I mentioned earlier….
There you are, Calvary people, in blue t-shirts… on the sidewalk next to Kings Hiway, making witness. What would have to happen in the world for the Session to authorize us taking our collective witness to the sidewalk? What would some of the slogans on those signs say? For the sake of my dream this week, I envision slogans not of judgment or specific advocacy, but signs asking questions, planting kingdom seeds. They would read, “Who is your neighbor?” and “Remember, Jesus started his life as a refugee” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Remember the Good Samaritan.” Perhaps there any other truths that come to mind for you?
And then, in my dream, I imagined being in one of those cars stuck at the red light, having no where to go, having no choice but to look at this mix people in blue t-shirts and thinking to myself, “look at those people, black, brown, white, old, young, tall, short, bald, …. not only do they stand for something, but they must really love each other.”
Friends, on this fourth of July week, we can be thankful for our fortune as a citizens of this great country. But when the situation arises for us to exercise our kingdom identity of dual citizenship, may we not shy away from our COLLECTIVE witness to the one who implores to DO justice, LOVE mercy, and WALK humbly before God. What say you, Calvary? What say you? Let all of God’s people say……Amen