Sunday, July 1, 2012

Death and Taxes

Death and Taxes
Romans 13:1-7; Acts 4:1-20

© 2012, Robert J. Elder
Sunday, July 1, 2012

I recall once, a few years ago, reading an article called “Bumper-sticker theology,”[1] about the difficulties of preaching from the biblical book of Proverbs, then making up our own bumper sticker phrases to capsulize some important belief in a single phrase. It’s not as easy as it looks. Everyone should try summing up something of their whole philosophy of life in six to eight words. There are lots of these gracing reader boards outside churches that, like ours, have reader boards. I have a friend who collects them and sends them to me, phrases like:

Give Satan an inch and he will become your ruler,

and this friendly one that might ride on a bumper you’d do well to avoid:
 “Go to God or go to hell.”

A couple more demonstrate other points of view:
“I'm for the separation of church and hate,”

and this, that takes more time to think about than is usually provided at a red light:
“If evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve.”

In 1816, a few years before he would die in one of those brainless nineteenth century “honor” duels of the type that took Alexander Hamilton’s life, a handsome naval hero named Stephen Decatur coined one of the more famous bumper sticker phrases of all time, even though there were no bumpers – or stickers – at the time. That doesn’t mean we can’t find his famous words sticking to some bumpers even today. He spoke his famous phrase at a banquet in Norfolk, Virginia, ending a toast by saying “...our country, right or wrong.”[2] Everyone you speak with is likely to know the quote, few will know its origin. I had to look it up in the Oxford Book of Quotations.

But most who hear it will recognize right away an ethical or even theological problem inherent in the statement. Its implication is that the actions of my country, no matter what they may be, are the highest moral standard to which we need make our allegiance, that there is no ethical authority higher than that which benefits my country.

56 years later, in 1872, in an address to the US Senate, a German immigrant and Civil War hero named Carl Schurz refined Decatur’s words, unfortunately in a sentence too long to fit on anything but the bumper on a Humvee or a Greyhound Bus, but it is well put nonetheless: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right!”

The implication of this is that there exists some authority, some higher standard by which we may judge all human actions, and seek to put right the ones that are in the wrong by that standard. This is something that surely transcends our common ways of looking at matters before our nation, whether they are liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican. But we do often appeal to one another with the idea that we ought to be thinking about our national life in terms of values, and of course, this suggests that whether we call ourselves conservative or liberal, we recognize that many issues before us are fundamentally moral in nature. Are right and wrong measured by something higher than national interest? I know you probably will have an inkling how I would respond to that question, and how you might, but, as a friend of mine said to his congregation, “You know how anybody who believes in a God worthy of the name has to answer that question. In blunt poker language, God trumps nation, even my nation.”[3]

Our Bible passages today speak to the sometimes heated dialogue between “our country right or wrong” and “our country ... kept right or set right.” On the one hand, there have been more than a few who have used Paul’s words in our text from Romans as some sort of apostolic injunction to give blind obedience to governing authorities no matter how wicked or wrong-headed they may be:

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 will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-3 NRSV)

This text was popular with the slave-holders of the nineteenth century as they tried to argue from the Bible for the continuation of that peculiar institution.

On the other hand, our passage from Acts seems to provide an equally strong case for resistance to authorities who misuse their power in order to stifle expressions of faith.

“While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them ... they arrested them and put them in custody ... The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem ... they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:1-20, selections NRSV)

It is the sort of passage to which the American patriots of 1776, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and others appealed when subjected to persecution at the hands of unjust governing authorities.

Setting these two passages side by side strikes our minds like watching a juggler handle five baseballs. At first it might seem easy enough, but when we observe closely, it’s not as easy as it looks.

Put Paul's words in Romans – “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” – next to Peter’s response to the command of the Jerusalem authorities that they keep quiet about Jesus – “... we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” – and we have all the makings of an animated discussion in the earliest days of the church’s existence about its relationship to governing power, the sometimes cosey, sometimes hostile relationship between church and state, a discussion which has continued from that time to the present.

Thinking on these things on Independence Day weekend, a friend of mine concluded, “these two passages are ... like a pair of goal posts for Christians to aim between as they bring their faith to bear on politics. To the one side, ‘Yes, Paul, we are subject to the authority of the state, and must value the good of the commonwealth.’ And to the other side, ‘Yes, Peter and John, when push comes to shove and you have to choose, God is the higher authority.’”[4]

In just a few minutes you and I, no matter where we agree or disagree politically on the issues of the day, will come together to take the bread and the cup offered in the name of Jesus Christ and thereby reaffirm our ultimate personal and corporate loyalty to his kingdom, his reign, his Lordship, above all other lords.
Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century, April 4, 2006, p. 43.
[2] Brought to my attention in a sermon, “Can Religion and Politics Mix?” by Michael Lindvall, delivered at Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.