Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
I know full well how hazardous an enterprise it is to set sail on the controversial and disputed sea of Scriptural interpretation….
Yes, same here. This is one reason (of many) that I strongly prefer to keep theological discussion off limits. I know this is difficult to do, given the topics at this post, and I appreciate that you all respect this desire. As you know, my intent behind these topics is to examine the ramifications of broad religious issues on the social, governance, and political aspects of society.
I guess today I am going to somewhat cross that line. The reasons are twofold: first, the examination Casey takes on is precisely on the point of freedom; second, the topic is one of the most misunderstood, misrepresented and misused regarding the Christian take on government.
The topic? In two words: Romans 13. Casey offers a full examine of both Old and New Testament Scripture regarding kings and government authority, as a few verses should not be taken in isolation.
Casey begins with the go-to chapter, 1 Samuel 8. To summarize: Israel had no king; up to this point the governance was provided by God and by judges. The Israelites demanded a king. God, recognizing that the Israelites were rejecting Him, permitted them to take a king – but only after warning of the usurpations that the king would impose: taxes, mandatory service, etc.
The subsequent history of the kings of Israel, from Saul, through David, Solomon, and Rehoboam, followed by the division of the kingdom is very far from edifying and can be seen as the fulfillment of God’s warning delivered through Samuel.
The book of Hosea, in chapter 8, touches on this idea of God permitting, but not approving: “They have set up kings, but not by me; they have made princes, and I knew it not.”
Regarding the life of Jesus, Casey offers…
…we can see immediately that his very life was bookended by acts of political significance, from King Herod’s murderous intentions at his birth to the final drama of his politically inspired execution.
This is the lens through which all Scriptural discussion of kings and earthly authority should be viewed. Casey offers that the New Testament is a target-rich environment when one wants to find passages regarding kings and government; he limits himself to five. I will touch on only a couple of these.
The first is the temptation in the desert, when the devil showed Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world, promising to give Jesus all authority over these if Jesus would only worship him. Well, we know Jesus didn’t take the devil up on the offer, but what else can be understood from this?
The devil, being the devil, may have been lying about his having the authority that he was now offering to Jesus. Yet, Jesus didn’t challenge the devil’s claim to be able to dispose of all authority over the earth. The devil had authority; despite being a liar, he wasn’t in every statement lying. After all, this would make it too easy to see through his manipulations.
But even a liar can on occasion tell the truth and, significantly, Jesus’s response to Satan is to reject his offer, not to deny that the offer is his to make.
At minimum, this suggests that Jesus is dismissive of earthly power; one could also say that such earthly power is of the devil. In other words, not Christian.
Next is the well-known “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” passage. The question was asked of him by the Pharisees if it is lawful to pay taxes. Jesus asked for a Roman coin and noted the likeness of Caesar on its face.
The question was a trick question, designed to damn Jesus with either response. If he answered yes, the Pharisees would hound him; if he answered no, the Romans would arrest him. So, he does not answer the question.
The question was a simple yes / no questions: is it lawful to pay taxes? Jesus answers with a riddle, not saying yes or no. While he says to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, when it comes to paying taxes, he does not say what is Caesar’s.
Now on to two more problematic chapters – less problematic if one keeps in mind the bookends of Jesus’s life, as a life bounded by government authority, corruption, and overreach.
Romans 13; Revelation 13
We all know Romans 13: let every person be subject to the governing authorities. I am sure that what Paul meant by this was that Mary and Joseph should have turned the newborn Jesus into Herod’s grasp. Not. To interpret Romans 13 in this way is to ignore every other verse regarding government and the context of the entire Scripture.
What of Revelation 13? The beast rose from the sea, his name a blasphemous name; he was given great power and authority by the dragon: “And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation.” Does this sound like something worthy of respect, worthy of obedience?
One has to view Romans 13 in isolation if one wants to make of it Biblical support for any and all earthly government authorities. But it is even worse than this:
Whereas some English translations use the word “governing” in verse 1, the Greek text does not. It reads “Let every soul be subject to the superior powers.”
Who, or what, are these “superior powers”? The Romans? Or God? Paul seems to answer this implicitly, certainly if one respects the context provided in the preceding chapter of Romans: “Do not be conformed to the world…” Instead, conform to God’s will.
There is nothing in Romans chapter 12 or 13 to suggest that the beginning of Romans 13 be interpreted as unconditional support for earthly government. There is little, if anything, in all of Scripture that supports such an interpretation.
When Paul has written about submitting to leaders in other books of the Bible, he has referred to Church authorities. Is it possible that in Romans 13, he was writing of earthly authorities – the same authorities that were persecuting members of the faith? In Romans 13, Paul writes of those wearing the sword, do we not elsewhere read of putting on the armor of God?
When Paul writes of paying taxes, did not Jesus also command to pay the tax so as not to raise unnecessary trouble? In other words, not out of righteous obedience, but out of the need to focus on a higher calling?
Was not Paul writing to specific Christians in the Roman Empire at a specific time and a specific place? Can we not today also look at taxes in the same way – paying them not out of respect for authority but out of a desire to allow us to focus on a higher calling?
Is it really possible that Paul is suggesting that we respect and obey all rulers no matter the demands? To ask the question is to answer it. Hitler, Stalin, Mao. I rest my case.
Paul was certainly writing about obedience to Church authorities; it can also be interpreted that we should be obedient to government authorities that do not violate the Gospel. Beyond this, it is difficult to fathom – certainly if one keeps in mind the bookends of Jesus’s life.
Keep in mind: virtually every one of Jesus’s disciples died in martyrdom, died in disobedience to the political authorities. Do you really believe they are all damned to hell due to their “disobedience”?
Unfortunately, an early and highly respected Church theologian created and believed the common interpretation of Romans 13. He was Aurelius Augustine; we shall review his work in the next installment.