catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 19 :: 2011.10.28 — 2011.11.10


Government and the imitation of Christ

The community my wife and I started nearly eight years ago was begun a place of support for artists, social workers and activists.  It was also an (admittedly mild) act of resistance. We were founding a community that was intentionally and explicitly seeking to function in contradistinction to the economic and political system around us, the very system that is now being protested by “Occupy Wall Street.” Over the past several weeks, I have participated in a couple of actions linked with “Occupy Chicago.”  Over the years living and working with activists and from time to time participating in actions, certain questions have tenaciously lodged themselves in my mind and heart.  

  • What is the role of government? Should the state be large, protecting its citizens from predatory corporations, or small, liberating its citizens from the state’s tendency to not relinquish power once it has been given it, and thus ever increasing its size and scope needed or not? Are these the only two options?
  • Is the goal of solidarity and advocacy merely the gaining of power for the disenfranchised? Is the system, of which I am a beneficiary, able to be transformed, or are reforms simply the means for the perpetuation of the system under differing masks? Are the systems of the world simply corrupting of any and all who get access to them?
  • Have Christians on the left or right simply taken up and baptized philosophies and points of view that have nothing to do with Christ, and the God of Jesus Christ? Do I idolize the government and expect from the state things I should only expect from God and God’s reign? What makes my activism or lack of activism a Christian witness?

I have wondered if I expect something of government that it cannot do and should not do. How do we even discern as Christians what government and our relationship to government should be?

A likely scriptural place to begin to answer some of these questions about Christianity and government are Romans 13:1-6 and 1 Peter 2:13-17. But these passages have troubling echoes of an exhortation from the Christian rich to the Christian poor that they need to simply accept their lot in life and wait for a better world when they die.  We may know that the authors, as a barely tolerated and also persecuted minority, didn’t mean for their exhortations to be used in such away, but their call to submission confounds us. We can’t quite navigate the contradiction. How can leaders of a persecuted minority advise submission to governing authorities and emperors? Even if we might understand why they said or did what they did, these passages seem bound to history without relevance to us. However, these questions are often asked without regard for the immediate context of ethical instruction in these two letters (Romans 12-14; 1 Peter 2).  If we attend to this context, we find that these discussions of government and secular authority are part of an explication of love of neighbor (enemy) and the imitation of Christ as the basis of the ethical conduct of the Church, the body of Christ.  This suggests that what is given isn’t a definition of government, as such, but an ethical perspective through which to approach the state and government by members of the body of Christ. Our ecclesiology will then tell us not what government is for, but what our relation to the state and secular authorities should be based upon our imitation of Christ, through which we and the world are transformed.

Paul’s reflection on government and the Christian’s relation to authority is placed between reflections on the Christian’s self-offering to God and others in a life marked by prayer and worship. Through this bodily self-offering, we can discern the will of God and conduct ourselves in love toward neighbor and enemy.  Paul asserts that those with this renewed mind oriented in love will see all government and authority as having its source in God, and thus will submit to it for the sake of love.  This is not an objective reality, but a (re)orientation of the world, a transformation of the world accomplished by the renewal of our minds according to Christ.  This is not an objective description of government, but is the view of earthly authority seen from the vantage point of a renewed mind oriented by the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. As such, our relation to the government is based upon who God is, not by an evaluation of government in general or of the actions of a particular authority or government. The submission to governing authorities by the members of Christ’s body isn’t for the authority’s sake or to prop up mere human authority, but for the sake of the transforming work of God in the world. Submitting to earthly authorities is salvific because it joins with God’s subversive non-resistance of evil that overcame and overcomes injustice, sin, evil and death.

This is stated more explicitly in 1 Peter 2.  Peter sees the church as an intermediate space. As sojourners and aliens, members of Christ’s body are part and parcel of God’s transformation of the world.  In “weakness,” not in force, coercion or assertion of power, God’s transforming work is made operative and accomplished.  If we enter into rebellion, we enter into the logic of coercion and force that is at work between the state and the “wrongdoer.”  Submission and doing good is what short circuits the violence between “wrongdoer” and governing authority.   Both Paul and Peter stress the efficacy and preference of suffering for doing good rather than suffering for “doing evil.”  This “doing evil” would include rebelling against oppressive regimes persecuting one without cause.  This is where we often lose Peter and Paul and part ways with this instruction, but we should take this slowly and remember that the cosmic context of this exhortation is Christ’s self-giving love.

Here I don’t share Paul and Peter’s place. I am not a member of a barely tolerated ethnic minority leading a sect of a barely tolerated religion.  This is a good thing to remember: those writing these exhortations were themselves a persecuted and oppressed minority. Certainly we can’t ignore how these passages have been used by some to justify oppression and still claim to be Christian. If I, with a certain amount of privilege and status in the current system, begin to take seriously these words as a call to imitation of Christ, I must speak them first to myself, and not the marginalized. Or, perhaps more importantly, what I hope is that this can be heard not simply as this particular author’s opinion, but an uncovering for all Christians no matter their place in the current system to hear a key exhortation on the true efficacy of Christ’s self-giving love to actually and truly transform all things, including our hearts and minds. We already know that Paul and Peter give us an exhortation and that many of us find this exhortation problematic to say the least.  We tend to hear an affirmation of the status quo, but are we hearing correctly? Have we allowed an abuse of this exhortation to be the only thing we hear? Can we hear this exhortation anew?

Let’s return to what Paul and Peter might be saying: the government exits to restrain those who will do wrong — murder, cheat, steal. We may put this differently: earthly authority exists to restrain those who choose not to live in love toward their neighbors. Government has been given the tools of force and coercion (the sword) to maintain a semblance of order as humans tend to practice imperfectly the law of love.  The law of love is the only true order and fulfillment of the law. But if the authority acts contrary to the order it seeks to enforce, even undermining this order and becoming a wrongdoer, why is submission still exhorted? The reason is Christ’s own submission and suffering at the hand of the governing authorities. God achieves the re-ordering of the cosmos not through force, coercion and punishment, but in a subversive act of self-giving love at the hands of the authorities, submitting to their violence. God overcomes evil and death not by direct confrontation, but through a submission to the cosmos and undergoing death.  The ultimate cosmic reversal happened through non-resistance to evil through suffering, by God in human form. In Jesus Christ, love subverts systems of violence and oppression without recourse to the “sword,” making a clearing in humanity for the growth of the law of love.

From this perspective there is ambivalence toward government: it has a purpose in this age, but we Christians are of another age, the one that has come in the transforming and saving work of Christ. Governments and rulers are nothing in relation to this new age, which is not a disembodied state available to us only when we die, but is available to us here and now despite what the State may or may not do. We who belong to Christ are free in relation to them; our submission is not an obligation to the authorities but the freedom of our conscience. Yet our freedom in relation to the rulers and authorities and governments of this age is due to our being of the new age. We are in this world but of another world and age. As such we are to infiltrate and transform this world through submission to authorities, which is one expression of the non-coercive ethic of love revealed to us in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ.  We are called by Paul and Peter to take up this attitude even in relation to oppressive regimes persecuting good people, even ourselves.

Christians do evil when acting as though governments dictate to us how we will relate to them. This includes when we chose to act against the abuse of the “sword” by a government and take up the tools of government, force and coercion, in opposing such regimes.  In so doing, Christians abandon the imitation of Christ for the imitation of the authorities of this age. When we do this, we give priority to that which is passing away in favor of the reality of the coming and present kingdom of God. Only Jesus Christ should dictate our conduct in the world and towards governments and the State.

The government is a very limited and inconsequential reality, which is one moment of God’s transforming action in the world.  A Christian’s submission to government then mostly has to do with being in conformity with God’s action in the world through Jesus Christ and only in the smallest way has to do with the nature of government in general or the particular policies and actions of governments.  We are called to act in imitation of Jesus Christ’s submissive, non-resisting, salvific work on the cross, even in relation to the state, even an oppressive and unjust one.  Peter and Paul wrote under such oppressive regimes, and Jesus Christ submitted and died under that same regime of the Roman Empire. We are called to this radical imitation of Christ, as members of Christ’s body — an imitation I have barely begun and an imitation that is perhaps, in this very moment, always only beginning.

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