Thursday, June 14, 2018

Would Saint Paul Agree with Jeff Sessions? No

People who know me know that I believe that the Church should generally stay out of politics. The Church is charged with making disciples for Jesus Christ. That involves proclaiming the Word of God so that people come to repentance and saving faith in Christ. When pastors or church bodies get behind political candidates, platforms, or parties, they splinter their attention and that of those they're charged to reach with God's message.

Having said that, there are times when it's absolutely appropriate for the Church to speak on political issues. Examples:
  • When the Church sees government acting unjustly. 
  • When the government dares to use Christianity or the Bible to justify its actions or to quell disagreement or dissent.
I have, for example, felt no hesitation in speaking out against the profligate use of abortion. A compassionate society will make allowances for circumstances such as rape, incest, or the threat that pregnancy or childbirth may present to the life of a mother. But the Church has a responsibility to compassionately speak up for the voiceless and powerless, like unborn children. This is why I describe myself as pro-life.

I have also repeatedly spoken out against racism or discrimination of any kind. When government, at any level, gives succor or acquiescence to racism, the Church is called by the Lord of love to speak and to act against it. All people are made in the image of God. Period.

Today, the Attorney General of the United States justified the federal government's policy of separating children from parents seeking asylum in this country by citing a passage from the New Testament. One news outlet described it like this:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible on Thursday in defending the Trump administration's immigration policies -- especially those that result in the separation of families -- directing his remarks in particular to "church friends." 
"I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes," Sessions said. "Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified."
The passage alluded to by Sessions is Romans 13:
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)
These verses are part of Paul's letter to the first-century churches in the city of Rome. Scholars call the section in which it appears and ones like it that are in other New Testament letters, household codes. These codes, essentially, are places in which Paul and other New Testament writers tells believers grateful to God for the free gift of new life through faith in Jesus Christ how to conduct themselves socially, in their marriages and families, at the workplace, in the world at large. Paul says here to obey governments as a way of expressing gratitude and love to God for Christ.

But what should Christians do when governments act unjustly? Or how should we respond to those who run from places where government authority is non-existent or where government power is unjust?

Earthly governments are part of what Martin Luther described as God's emergency measures for a fallen world, measures required by the reality of human sin and only in force until Jesus returns to the world and makes all things right.

People who have been saved by grace through faith in Christ want to conduct themselves with love and respect for God and their neighbors. (Although we often fail to do so.) But because this is a fallen world in which not everyone is motivated to love God or neighbor, God establishes governments to ensure that citizens behave in ways that honor God and neighbor, whether the citizens (or the governments) believe in God or not. (For example, not driving 85 miles an hour in residential areas honors human life and the One Who gives life.) When governments function in this way, they fulfill the will of God for establishing governments.

But when governments fail to fulfill God's will for their proper functioning--when they engage in injustice, when they foster, not peace and community, but chaos and fragmentation, Christians are called by God to speak out, to seek justice for our neighbors, and to stand up to the presumption of those in government who believe that God's ordination of governments gives them a blank check to do whatever they want.

The Declaration of Independence and American Revolution were predicated on the idea that when a government, like a flooding river overflowing its banks, transcends its God-ordained bounds, it becomes the obligation of citizens to work to make things right. Christians believe this as a matter of faith. In my own Lutheran tradition, for example, when we affirm our baptismal covenant with God, we are reminded to "to work for justice in all the earth."

Sessions' statement today was chilling. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis invoked the same words from Romans 13 to justify the Holocaust and other terrors they visited on the world. "You must obey," the Nazis told the Church. And the Church largely acquiesced, putting swastikas on altars and submitting to the madness of Hitler and his henchman.

But a few people in what came to be called Germany's Confessing Church, like the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rejected the lie that the Church is always obligated to obey, even when rulers or rules are tyrannical or unjust. These brave Christians pointed to other passages of Scripture that should be considered when deciding whether to oppose government actions or governments.

For example...

In that same letter to the Roman Christians, the apostle Paul writes: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind..." (Romans 12:2) When the governments of this world command obedience to what is wrong, the Christian must disobey or disavow such commands.

In the Old Testament, we're told, "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) When governments act unjustly, Christians need to make their voices heard, whether in private correspondence or public protest or both. (Illegal entry into a country is a crime, as Sessions rightly points out. But whether those seeking asylum are committing a crime is open to adjudication. And, in any case, the children of adult asylum-seekers aren't the perpetrators of any alleged crime; from the Biblical perspective, they're the victims of injustice.)

And in the New Testament, after being ordered by authorities to never again speak in the name of Jesus, the apostle Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29)

God doesn't give governments blank checks.

Some may read this and conclude, "It's as I suspected. You can make the Bible say anything you want it to say."

Not true!

Christians believe that all of Scripture must be read through the interpretive lens of Jesus Christ. Jesus is God's definitive self-disclosure. "No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known" (John 1:18).

When we look at Jesus, innocent and just, wrestling with our evil on the cross, then being raised by God the Father, we see the heart of God, the love of God, the will of God. All of Scripture then is to be read in what might be called "the key of Jesus."

What does reading God's Word in this way show us on the question of whether we are always obligated to obey a government?

(1) Jesus never railed against the existence of governments in this world. He didn't tell the Roman commander who believed in Him that He needed to give up his job as a government worker and soldier (Luke 7:1-10). He commended the man's faith and left him to do his daily work.

(2) Jesus did rail against injustice. When the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem turned this place to which people went to honor God into a "den of robbers," a palace of extortion, He not only roared in protest, he overturned their tables and set loose their inventory. (Luke 19:45-46)

(3) And Jesus did criticize rulers who acted unjustly. When told that King Herod wanted to prevent Him from going to Jerusalem to fulfill the will of God, Jesus told Herod's emissaries to go tell "that fox" that he would not be stopped. (Luke 13:32) And Jesus was true to His Word, going to Jerusalem for the purpose of dying and rising to save all who trust in Him from sin, death, and darkness.

The Church and its pastors then, must speak and act when injustices happen. This is why I have been an avid writer of letters and emails to public officials all my life. It's why I have often taken time to discuss matters of justice with the members of the congregations I've served as pastor.

Those Christians who are presently speaking out against the horrors of separating asylum-seeking parents from children, whatever laws govern immigration, are on solid Biblical ground. In Old Testament times, God told His people Israel, who spent much of their history as refugees and immigrants, "The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:34)

And the preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews tells Christian believers, referencing an Old Testament incident in which God, in the guise of angels, appeared to the Jewish ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13:2)

Jesus Himself told us that when we care for those in need, treating them with respect and love, we are really honoring Him. (Matthew 25:31-46)

Look: As a Christian living in a pluralistic society, I don't expect those who serve in government to be Christians. And I reject efforts by both liberal and conservative Christians to use politics and government to legislate or adjudicate their particular version of Christian ethics on the larger society. It's wrong and it's not Christian. Our call is to share Christ and His gospel so that others will come to faith in Jesus. Not by coercion, but by the power of God's love and God's Holy Spirit. 

But when injustice is perpetrated--and I don't know how separating little kids from their parents seeking asylum from violence and gang warfare, among other things, can be characterized as anything but injustice--the Church has every right and every responsibility to speak out.

And when a government leader invokes God and the Scriptures behind a policy, any policy, it's the responsibility of the Church to give witness to what the whole of Scripture seen through the prism of the crucified and risen Jesus has to say.

Jeff Sessions may have been making a wholly political statement today. But when he invoked God's Word, he made what he said a spiritual matter. And he was wrong.

Here's a video of Sessions' invocation of Romans 13:

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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