Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On Civil Obedience

Submit to every human institution because of the Lord, whether to the Emperor as the supreme authority, or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good…As God's slaves, live as free people, but don't use your freedom as a way to conceal evil. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor.
- 1 Peter 2:13-17

It's no secret that campaign season is upon us. Every year during this time, the same conversation seems to find me. It usually begins with, "Why do you care about politics so much?" It is probably no surprise that this question 100% of the time comes from Christians. Sad, but not surprising. The majority of believers I know think that the bulk of a Christian's civic duty is to pray for their leaders and vote in the Presidential election, and maybe the Gubernatorial one if they feel really radical.

Forgive me, I meant the majority of believers I know under age 40.

For some reason, we have been taught by those held responsible for our spiritual welfare that there is to be some sort of separation between church and state within an individual's being. Politics is corrupt, we should just pray for our leaders and let God do the rest. After all, isn't that what the Bible says? (1 Tim. 2:1-2)

Yes, the Bible very clearly states that we are to pray for those in authority over us. But it says more than that.

The famous phrase Jesus said, "Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," (Matt. 22:21) was speaking specifically about taxes. However, it is clearly applicable in the general nature of government. Jesus was speaking about the importance of respecting authority. The implication is this: If we cannot be responsible in our duties to rulers who we can see, how can we say we honor our duty to God, who we can't see? (see 1 John 4:20)

This is the most common form of discussion on this topic among Christians. And we say, so what? I pay taxes, obey the laws (if you don't count highway speed limits) and am a basically decent person. Isn't that enough? Most I know in the church, it has seemed, would say yes.

I believe Scripture is clear that we, as Americans, have a greater responsibility than simply to pray and pay taxes. ("What? You think the Bible talked specifically about Americans?" Just wait…)

One of the most basic Sunday School principles is being a good steward. Jesus talked multiple times about servants who were entrusted by their masters with objects or amounts of wealth and then were judged according to their use of it. For the purposes of this discussion, let's focus on the Parable of the Talents.

Brief overview: Rich man has three servants, Joe, Bill and Andy. He gives them each a measure of wealth. Joe gets a lot, Bill gets some, and Andy gets a little. The master then says for them to take care of what he has given them, that he's leaving, and when he comes back, he'll reward them according to their accomplishments. Joe, who was given a lot, used what the master gave him and doubled his wealth. Bill did the same. But Andy was afraid. He was afraid of the responsibility that came with the wealth, and rather than being wise and using the wealth, he buried it in the ground so that, even if he didn't use it wisely, he at least wouldn't have lost it. The master came home and was furious with Andy. He punished him for being foolish and lazy.

We hear this story, and it's usually relegated to the realm of money. Don't go into debt; give to the church and the poor; don't be greedy and hoard money. All of these are legitimate conclusions. But there is a larger principle here than just that of dollars and cents. The master did not give his servants money as a gift. He loaned them the money, and with it the responsibility to make the money useful. If it was just about the money, than why would the master be upset that Andy had kept his under lock and key? After all, he didn't risk it on the stock market or the lottery trying to get rich quick. He decided to play it safe, so that the master would not lose any of the money. But that wasn't the purpose behind it. The master gave them responsibility in the form of money, and rather than be responsible for the money's growth, Andy ignored his duty and buried his portion in the ground.

Andy may well have said, "But as long as I don't risk the money and pray for its safety, isn't that all my master requires of me?"

Jesus told another parable along these same lines. A master went out of town and put one servant in charge of his household, without saying when he was coming home. At first, things went fine. But as the master was gone longer and longer, the servant became lazy, greedy, and prideful, and began treating his master's house and property disrespectfully and foolishly. Suddenly, the master comes home, sees what the servant has done in his absence, and punishes him. Jesus ends this parable by saying, "Much will be required of everyone who has been given much. And even more will be expected of the one who has been entrusted with more."

Now, here we are today. 21st century American Christians. We have been given much, much more than nearly any other country in this planet's history. We have been given an incredible amount of authority when it comes to our earthly government. We choose men and women on hundreds of levels of state and national government to oversee our city, state and country. Each of us is able to hold positions of de jure authority in this nation. And all of us have de facto ruling power. Each American citizen is given the right and the responsibility of governing this nation. To put it more simply, we vote and run for office. As voters, we are the rulers. We can decide who holds positions of authority, and for how long they are allowed to hold them. We can vote laws into being, we can vote taxes into being, we can vote on the use of those taxes. That is, we have the opportunity to determine these things through the system of government that God has allowed (or, as Scripture puts it, "ordained" – Romans 13) to exist. With that opportunity and authority comes responsibility.

And what do we do with this responsibility? We have been burying it in the garden, saying, "As long as we pray, God will take care of it." This is the same as a parent who says of their children, "I will feed them, clothe them and give them spending money, but I won't discipline them, because as long as I pray over them every day, God will see that they turn out okay." Sounds foolish, doesn't it? But that is what many American Christian's attitude is toward government. "Just pray and fund the government, we don't need to keep them in check and discipline them, because that's God job. Just so long as we stay at home and pay our taxes and lift up those in office, that's enough." No, it isn't.

In the Old Testament, during the time of the kings, God allowed the people of Israel to choose their own kings. When the kings went bad and did evil, did God just punish the kings? Of course not. Israel spent years in slavery and oppression because they misused the power God gave them. With power comes responsibility. And since the power they exercised was responsible for choosing wayward kings, the people were responsible for the consequences of those choices.

We are the vast ruling body of this country. As in those times, when the way of the country goes bad, it is not merely those we chose to be in de jure authority, those who were elected, that God held accountable. It was those in de facto authority, the electors, the citizens, that God put into captivity and exile. Each one of us, regardless of our attitude toward those in our nation's elected offices, will be held responsible for the actions of the elected. When a leader goes bad, he isn't the only one brought down. We all are, because we all chose to put him there. "I didn't vote for that guy" is no excuse. Do you really think that a millions of Israelites unanimously wanted each king? I doubt it. And yet the nation of Israel was held responsible. We will all be held responsible. And having been apathetic will be no excuse when judgment comes to our country.

This is why we vote. This is why we fight and stage a "bloodless revolution" every time we go to the polls. This is why we run for office and become embedded in the inner workings of our government. This is why we care. Because it is commanded of us. Because we know we will be held accountable. Because to not care is to become the last servant, who put his treasure in the ground and sat on it, saying, "Even if I don't use it, at least I won't lose it." But he did. "Use it or lose it" is the explicit moral of that story. Use what God has given you, not just personal talents and wealth but also privilege and responsibility, or lose it.