Romans 13: Respect for Government Leaders (seriously?!)

In one of my last posts on politics, I discussed how Jesus responded to the question of politics and taxes in his day. That naturally leaves us with the question of, what does the Bible have to say about our modern political process? That’s where we pick up in the book of Romans:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

–Romans 13:1-7

Now, let’s acknowledge right up front that there has been abuse of this scripture in the past. In ages past, scriptures like this one were used as a hammer to beat down on people who challenged the authority of a “divinely-appointed” king. That is not at all what this scripture is saying. Let’s also acknowledge up front that our political sensibilities are very different from that of 2,000 years ago. In democratic societies of today, we at least have a say in who governs us. If we don’t like our political leaders, there’s always a chance that they’ll be voted out of office. In fact, in the United States we are taught that we have a right to do that. Paul and the Roman Christians had no such expectation. And by the way, that doesn’t make them less intelligent or sophisticated human beings.

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent. As it expanded, Rome incorporated worship practices from other people groups like the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and others.

The governing authorities that Paul was referring to when he wrote the book of Romans were not so different from the ones I discussed in my post on Jesus and politics. The Christians were subjects of Rome, which publicly endorsed the worship of any number of gods. If you take a look at Roman history, the Romans were about as religiously inclusive as they could be. As the empire spread to Egypt and the Middle East, the Romans would incorporate worship of Egyptian and Middle Eastern deities into their religious traditions. Not only did the Romans endorse pagan deities, but Rome as a whole rejected Christianity and even persecuted the Church. (It wasn’t constant, but it did happen.)

These were the same authorities that Paul told Christians that they had to submit to! Paul even told the Christians to honor their political authorities. What sense does that make? It seems that Paul is making an argument that because God made the world and all of mankind is a creation of God, all human authorities are ultimately responsible to God for how they use their political power. Even the political authorities that deny God are still responsible to him and God uses them to keep humankind from descending into chaos.

Now, that does bring us to a whole host of questions about authority: what about evil dictators who kill their own people? Do we respect them or is there not some point at which we should depose them for no other reason than to preserve human life? Those are hard questions and I would rather not try answering them until I have more of a chance to consider them carefully. Besides, that is not really the point I’m trying to make with this post.

My point is, the Bible’s unified message seems to be that if we are trying to be faithful to God and follow Jesus, we have a debt of respect and honor to our political leaders even if they hate God and hate us.

Respect is in short supply in today’s political discourse. If we were simply more respectful to people of differing political beliefs, that alone could bring health and wellness back to our discourse.

If there is one political issue that gets me worked up, it’s this issue of respect. When I was in high school, George Bush was still the President. It always grated on my nerves to hear people refer to George Bush as “the dumbest president we’ve ever had.” It wasn’t because I was particularly fond of Bush; it was because they were being so disrespectful to him, essentially saying, “Yeah, I could do a better job than Bush.” No, you couldn’t. In spite of his accent, he went to college and he spent years of his life as the president, giving him experience. Instead of using such extreme statements, wouldn’t it be more honest and respectful to just say, “I don’t like Bush’s politics?” or even “I don’t think he’s qualified to be president?”

Now I know people who refer to President Barack Obama as “the worst president we’ve ever had,” as though they could do a better job than him. I’ll admit that I don’t like Barack Obama as President. Why? I don’t agree with his politics. That’s all. But at the same time, he is my president and he deserves my respect. I’m not saying that everyone has to like their political leaders and I’m not saying that we can’t have a healthy, honest discussion about which politicians we disagree with. I’m saying that we can disagree with the decisions our leaders make and still show them respect.

It seems out of fashion to show respect to those whose politics are diametrically opposed to our own, but let me remind us all: Jesus showed respect to the Roman authorities who would authorize his crucifixion. Paul told the Roman Christians to be submissive to the political authorities who might have been responsible for the cruel deaths of their spouses, siblings and children at some point or another. Even in the Old Testament, David refused to kill Saul even though Saul was literally hunting David down to kill him (see I Samuel 24). If that is the standard for treating those who hate us, why are we so disrespectful and even hateful to our political leaders when their only crime against us is not believing what we believe?

Just so I’m clear, I also acknowledge that there’s plenty of room for me to grow in this area of respect. I’ve been known to have rant-fests about politicians from time to time and I’m not always respectful to those I am disagreeing with. So…

How can we show respect to our political leaders? How can we honor our leaders who believe differently from us, even when we are stating why we disagree with them?

Taxes, Politics and Jesus

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

–Matthew 22:15-22

Let’s talk about religion and politics, but let’s do it in a mutually respectful way.

I’ve got to say, I like talking about politics in spite of myself. I really do. I like hearing people’s opinions, measuring them against my own beliefs and more importantly, measuring both of our opinions against Jesus and the Bible. That being said, talking about religion and politics is hard. Most people have strong opinions and it’s hard to agree to disagree on something when you have a strong opinion. That’s why some people say, “You don’t talk about religion and politics in polite company.” In my mind, this is nothing more than a way of avoiding talking about things of actual importance.

If we are trying to follow Jesus, we must come to accept that Jesus talked about religion and politics all the time. He had no problem with saying things that people disagreed with. In fact, Jesus often gave messages that were deliberately meant to make people stop following him. In Luke 14, Jesus told a large crowd of people that they couldn’t follow him unless they hated their family. Now, I believe that Jesus was primarily interested in breaking the bandwagon mentality of those following him, but in that story Jesus does not explain himself. Why would he do that? Just to mess with their heads. He wanted his followers to understand that if they wanted to follow him, their devotion to him overrides everything. They didn’t want to hear that. Jesus wasn’t threatened by the fact that people weren’t going to agree with him, so neither should we.

During Jesus’ lifetime, the land of Judea and the Jewish people were subjects of the Roman Empire, and it wasn’t because the Jews had invited them. A hundred years before Jesus’ ministry, the Roman general Pompey and his army intervened in a civil war between the Pharisees and Sadducees. He laid siege to Jerusalem, killed about 12,000 people and then entered the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple where only the Jewish high Priest was allowed to enter, desecrating the temple. In the aftermath, he made Judea a Roman-occupied territory and although he allowed the Jews to continue to worship God, he stripped the Jews of their right to self-rule. A Roman governorship was established and persisted to the time of Jesus.

During the time of Jesus, his people – the Jews – lived under Roman occupation.

Life as a subject kingdom of Rome was no picnic. Again, the Romans permitted the Jews to worship freely…as long as they kept it under control. That was why the Pharisees wanted to move quickly in arresting Jesus. They reasoned that if Jesus kept stirring up the people, there would be a riot and then the Romans would come and wipe them out. In addition, the Romans enforced a heavy tax on the Judeans – one pastor I’ve heard cited 80% as the typical tax rate. Eighty cents of every dollar that a Jew made went to support the Roman armies that oppressed them, the Roman temples that glorified pagan deities and the Roman rulers that controlled them.

In response to Roman rule, a group of Jewish revolutionaries called Zealots rose to notoriety. Their goal was simple: to overthrown the Roman rule of Judea by force. In fact, Jesus took a Zealot by the name of Simon (not Simon Peter) and made him one of his 12 disciples. The Zealots were the most radical faction, though many other political parties (like the Pharisees) wanted to see Roman rule ousted. Others, like the Herodians, wanted to acclimate or even collaborate with the Romans.

It was in this political climate that the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” after trying to flatter him, of course. Jesus responded by asking for a Roman coin. When Jesus looked at a Roman coin, he probably would have seen an image of Caesar Augustus along with an inscription that read, “Hail Caesar! Long Live the Son of God!” Ironic for sure. So Jesus tossed the coin back and asked, “Who’s image is on it?” “Caesar’s!” Someone said. Jesus’s response is one that I truly admire: “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

A common inscription on Roman coins during Jesus’s time proclaimed Caesar to be “the Son of God.”

That is a very politically-charged statement. The Pharisees and Herodians wanted to trap Jesus. If he publicly accepted the oppressive Roman rule of Judea, they could paint him as a collaborator. If he publicly denounced the Roman rule, the Pharisees could paint him as a rebel. Either way, they were looking for political ammunition. Instead, Jesus a) acknowledged that the Jews were subjects of Rome without supporting or denouncing Rome, and b) Jesus made a differentiation between Caesar and God. The Romans believed that Caesar was God and they made every subject of Rome – including Jews – acknowledge that Caesar was God. The essence of Jesus’ words: “We are subjects of Rome and we owe them taxes, but Caesar is not God.”

This is just one statement that Jesus made about politics and I have more thoughts on it, but for now I just want to end with some basic applications to our modern political situation. Most people in Western culture today believe that certain political parties are “closer to God” than others. Every once in awhile, I’ll read an article that says something along the lines of, “According to This Person, Jesus is a __________” and they will fill in the blank with a political party. I laugh because it is so presumptuous for us to talk about Jesus’ party alignment when in his own day, he went to great lengths to distance himself from political parties.

In today’s political environment, Jesus would not self-identify as conservative, a liberal, a Republican, a Democrat or anything else. I think that Jesus would be Jesus and he would say to Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Constitutionalists and every member of every political party, “Follow me.” The best part is, Jesus doesn’t want to change your political affiliation when you start to follow him. Jesus wants to change your heart. He wants you to care about the people he cares about: the defenseless, the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the oppressed, the abandoned and all other people who have no voice in their culture. Those are the kinds of people that Jesus spent the most time loving and caring for. Jesus cared for the people who could do nothing to repay him, and so should we. I believe that, if we start to model that compassion of Jesus, it will influence our politics.

This is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing discussion of politics and how Jesus related to the politics of his day and how he still relates with our politics today.

What do you think about this passage? What do you think about the politics of Jesus?