Legend has it that when he emerged from Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman, “What kind of government are you giving us?” “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
Four score years later, on his way to take the oath of office as President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln stopped in Philadelphia to visit the same building. As America itself seemed destined for dissolution, Lincoln emphasized to his audience that he had come “to listen to those breathings rising within the consecrated walls where the Constitution of the United States, and I will add, the Declaration of Independence was originally framed.”
Lincoln continued: “I have never asked anything that does not breathe from those walls. All my political warfare has been in favor of the teachings coming forth from that sacred hall. May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I ever prove false to those teachings.”
The soon to be 16th president was paraphrasing Psalm 137. Lincoln often used scripture, faith and the recognition of the Almighty to interpret the events of his day, including a poignant thought detailing the magnitude of the war and searching for reconciliation in his second inaugural address: “Both read the same bible and pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other.”
Franklin and Lincoln knew that the American Experiment was no sure bet, indeed it was a fragile undertaking of untested philosophical ideals that sought to join human endeavor and independence with God’s covenant with humanity.
In his book American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of America, historian Jon Meacham notes “the great goodness about America – the American Gospel, if you will – is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it. Belief in God is central to the country’s experience, yet for the broad center, faith is a matter of choice, not coercion, and the legacy of the Founding Fathers is that the sensible center holds.”
From the perspective of faith and democracy, Meacham hits on the key to the success of America, and our greatest challenge, religion must not strangle the nation. Our text today from Romans has recently made headlines, as like Lincoln, government officials have cited scripture, to support or interpret policy.
As Americans, once again preparing to celebrate our national Independence Day, it is appropriate to explore the link between our faith, our citizenship and how Paul’s words to the church at Rome guide people of faith in these divisive times.
“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. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed and those who resist incur judgment.”
So, is a Christian under obligation to support whatever policies the governing authorities deem appropriate? Perhaps Lincoln had that question in mind as he guided the nation through the Civil War and wrestled with people of faith using scripture to support both slavery and abolition.
That there is obligation 100% of the time was the argument used by “German Christians” in the thirties and forties to justify their claim that Christians owed ultimate allegiance to Adolf Hitler. For good measure they added Luther to their argument: “Christians should not refuse, under the pretext of religion, to obey men, especially evil ones.”
This was also the approach taken by white rulers and much of the population of South Africa to keep people silent and offer no resistance to the ungodly policy of apartheid.
Is that really what Paul was saying, follow authority and the edicts of government, no matter who they are, how they got there, or how just?
Frankly, Paul does not answer so clearly. So we have to unpack the text a bit. First this passage means that people of faith may not frivolously disregard civil authority, as though our freedom from the law won by Christ’s death, means I’m free to flaunt speed limits. For Paul, the key is God creating good out of chaos. Part of the good ordering of God’s creation is the ordering of human affairs. Reinhold Niebuhr noted that “goodness makes civil order possible, the corruption of human nature by sin makes such civil order necessary.” Paul is saying that order is established by God because chaos and disorder are God’s enemies.
The second thing to note is that Paul writes while Rome is the governing authority. This is our clear indication that God’s servants for order may not even be aware of the fact. Governments can serve God’s purposes whether those in government intend to do that or not. This is the point of verse 3, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.”
That is the task of government. But what happens, as in Germany and South Africa, when a government reverses those roles and begins to reward evil and punish people who do what is good? That is not the kind of government Paul writes about. Calvin says it this way: “…tyrannies, and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government.” This text is about both the obligations of the citizen and the limits on power of the governing authority.
Which brings us to this, how does the faithful Christian know at what point a government has passed from the ranks of God’s servants to the ranks of God’s opponents?
Brace yourselves, Paul does not tell us!
Our answer must come from the larger context of the letter and of scripture in total. For example, in the next passage Paul moves to neighborliness and our obligation to love one another even as Christ loved us. That in and of itself can go a long way to helping us understand how to govern, and how to be good citizens of this country and God’s kingdom.
In effect, Paul in these opening verses of chapter 13 is reminding us of our dual citizenship. We are under obligation to civil authority, render to Caesar what is Caesars. And we are under obligation to God. Ultimate allegiance for the Christian is to live as God’s disciples, following Christ.
So it is, I suspect that the better angels of our nature are at play to take this nation through the devastation of the Civil War and the many questionable policies and practices that at times and places that have sorely tested if they were for God’s good order, or our human desires. It is our faith that offers the lens for answering these questions.
William Sloane Coffin encouraged the use of our lens of faith in this way: “When there’s doubt, there’s more considered faith. Likewise, when citizens doubt, patriotism becomes more informed. For Christians to render everything to Caesar – their minds, their consciences – is to become evangelical nationalists. That’s not a distortion of the gospel; that’s desertion. It’s wonderful to love one’s country, but faith is for God. National unity too is wonderful – but not in cruelty and folly.”
This past week we started our officer training workshops for the incoming class. As we discussed the constitutional questions from the Book of Order, one question was about “unity.” The question is “Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?” It is a misconception to consider that “unity” means we all think the same. Rather unity means going forward it the same direction, that Jesus Christ is Savior, that all gather at this table in love.
The glory and the grace of our faith and our national covenant is holding them together such that the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” “…these three remain, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love,” continue to be the guiding principles of our life and our citizenship.