August 27, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
(eighth in the series Church and State)
Today we’re continuing the summer series on Church and State by hearing an excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Romans which sounds the alarm and makes patient listeners turn to the person next to them and ask: Hold on, what did he just say? Some folks pull out this section of scripture to wave in the air and win their argument. Some folks say, “Come on, Paul doesn’t mean what it sounds like he means.”
So you might think we’re talking about something shockingly dangerous like: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink; this will heap burning coals on their heads…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Now that’s a scripture asking for a fight. Paul implores the early Christians to bless the people trying to kill them. Love your enemies is one thing. Paul says, go and give them something to eat. If this were the scripture stirring up all the controversy, that would make sense, but it’s not. It’s the next chapter.
In the scripture Chris just read, Paul tells the church: Look, you should follow the law. Obeying the government and obeying God are commitments that support each other. So if you mean to follow God, you need to follow the rules. “Do you wish to have no fear of the political authority?” asks Paul. “Then do what is good; and you will receive its approval for it is God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4). Now you can hear why this scripture causes alarm. What if our governing authorities have no interest in serving God? What if your conscience demands that you break the law in order to follow Christ? Well, there’s no help here for that.
In the nineteen seventies, theologian William Stringfellow wrote a book on this passage from Romans, and my thanks to Kevin for buying a copy for me. Here’s what happened: The famous peace activist Daniel Berrigan had been resisting the war in Vietnam, so Stringfellow was harboring him as a fugitive in his home when the federal police showed up to arrest him. A federal agent knew that Stringfellow was a Christian theologian and asked him, right then, how he could reconcile helping this fugitive with the teaching of Romans Thirteen. “Doesn’t the Bible say you must obey the Emperor?” asked the agent.
Stringfellow’s response is pretty funny. He writes, “I could not concede to his simplistic premise about the Bible, and I rebuked him, taking perhaps forty-five minutes to do so. During the discourse, he wilted visibly, and when I paused momentarily, he abruptly excused himself and departed.” So Stringfellow did what any theologian would do; he went and wrote a book.
In the book, he zooms out to look at this scripture from thirty-thousand feet. Stringfellow argues that we can’t hear Romans Thirteen without hearing Revelation Thirteen which provides a vivid counter example. In that scripture, the beast rises up out of the sea and gets power from the dragon. The beast is the political authority of the land, but it is working against God. It is allowed to make war and conquer the saints. Stringfellow argues that Romans Thirteen and Revelation Thirteen are both pointing toward the day when Christ will come again, and his power will prevail, and his power transcends the politics of today. Thank God.
While Stringfellow zooms out to get a picture of the Gospel from the air, another approach is to zoom right in and consider what was happening with this Roman church. Maybe Paul wasn’t meaning to issue a theological doctrine that would speak to every time and place. Maybe he was telling these people, “Look, strategically speaking, Christians are under attack. It will not help our cause for you to get arrested. So maybe hold off on the tax resistance, and stay out of trouble would you? This political unrest is not our fight. This insurrection is not the revolution of Christ.” (My thanks to Pastor Katherine for loaning me her copy of Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw.)
Both of these approaches —looking at the thrust of the whole Gospel, and looking at the particular circumstances of this community —are helpful in making this scripture a little more palatable for us.
But here’s my trouble with it. There is a flip in Paul’s logic which spins his argument around in the air and makes it land on a flawed conclusion. It happens in the first verse when Paul says: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,”/ “for there is no authority except from God” / “and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” So how can you tell whether an authority has been established by God? If it’s established, it must have been put there by God. See, this is the part I don’t buy.
It would be one thing if Paul says, “Obey the local and state authorities as long as these authorities are serving God.” This seems like something Paul would say. Let every person and every institution be subject to the power of God. If this is really where he’s heading, and I think it might be, then he’s got me convinced. But right here, that’s not what he says; and there’s that flip I just can’t get past. I think this might be because we easily fall into flipped-around thinking ourselves.
For example, it’s not uncommon for people to believe that if someone is in prison, then he or she must deserve to be in there. But as more cases are being re-examined, and more individuals are being exonerated, we’re discovering that the prison population has included and probably still includes a substantial number of people who’ve been wrongfully incarcerated. It is certainly true that there are people who have committed heinous crimes who are serving time in prison, but it is not true that everyone who’s in prison broke the law.
Then there’s this. When a person gets arrested, it is common for them to feel a certain slippery, slithery kind of guilt. This is different from the guilt I feel when I do something wrong. This is the shame of getting in trouble, and it can be especially hard to understand if the person has not actually done anything wrong. It’s as though getting in trouble has a way of making us feel like we deserve to be in trouble. This is that flipped-around thinking. Surely I must have done something since I feel this guilty. You can see how this is a problem.
Today we hear a scripture that supports the common notion that following the rules goes right along with following Christ. And this can be true; rules have their place in our society. There is value in discerning whose authority to trust and putting ourselves in a position to learn from them. As Christians, humility is our power. Following the rules or being “good” and being Christian can go together. But watch out for the flip because it is not the case that the mission of the church is to be well-behaved. If we fall into conflating being good with being Christian, what kind of message are we sending to a person who doesn’t think they’re so good?
I know we would never say this out loud. As the church, we would never say, “If you have gotten detention, or gotten arrested, or are under investigation, you should go someplace else. See we’re over here trying to be good.” We would never say that, and we do not mean that.
What concerns is whether someone who has been in trouble might assume they wouldn’t belong here, and they wouldn’t even visit so we could prove otherwise. You know if they showed up, we we would talk to them at coffee hour, and give them a red bag, and somebody would sit next to them. But how would they know this about us? Who is staying away from the church because they’ve been in trouble in their past? And what if we have something they need? And what if they have something we need…
In looking at our whole scripture, we can see Paul’s comments about obeying authority are driving toward a greater purpose. “Owe no one anything,” Paul says with a just tinge of exasperation, “except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments… are summed up in this word, Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:8-9). More than paying taxes. Or not. More than breaking the law for justice. Or following the law for justice. Paul’s argument is crescendoing toward the church’s call to love God and not just God. Also our neighbors. Also ourselves.
This is same the love we learn from a man who was not exactly famous for following the rules. He regularly found himself in trouble with the authorities, and you know our savior would not pass any kind of background check. He’s been arrested and convicted. Jesus knew that slippery, slithery guilt that comes from getting in trouble. Even when he was hanging on a cross, he had something to say to the criminal being crucified next to him. You are welcome in the kin-dom of God. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Now when you are the one who gets in trouble, or when I am the one who gets in trouble, or your children get in trouble, imagine if there were a people ready to find us and welcome us. Imagine if the church could take all that slithering guilt and bless it until it’s released, then we could say: We all know what it is to be standing in the need of forgiveness. And we will come and stand next to you. You do not have to be good. We keep coming here to learn how to be forgiven, and how to forgive, and this is what we have to offer each other. Then we’ll keep hearing Christ tell us the truth: “Welcome home.” Amen.
 Stringfellow, William. Conscience & Obedience: The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in Light of the Second Coming. Wipf and Stock: Eugene, OR, 1977. page 16.
 See Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. The Simple Way: Zondervan, 2008. page 343. Also this argument finds support from Michael Neufeld’s article at http://www.directionjournal.org/issues/gen/art_849_.html
 read “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver