As Christian Citizens

2 Samuel 11:2-12:14, Mark 12:13-17, Romans 12:14-13:7

Paul was a citizen of the Roman empire and a Christian, so his writings might help us reflect on being Christian citizens today. His most famous statement on Christian citizenship is found in his letter to the church at Rome. "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities," Paul wrote, "for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." (Rom. 13:1)

Some have read this statement as merely reflecting Paul's realism. The church in its first generation had little to gain and much to lose by challenging the governing authorities. But Paul was also aware of the benefits that the Roman government provided its citizens. Paul was free to travel throughout the Roman empire and was likely grateful for the superb system of roads built by the Romans. Moreover, if Paul got into trouble in some backwater city of the empire, as Acts 21 tells us he did in Jerusalem, he could appeal his arrest to the government in Rome, which he did.

During Paul's ministry in the 40s and 50s imperial government was no threat to his missionary activities, and Paul may well have seen such government as a gift of God. But this changed in the 60s, when Roman centurions marched on Jerusalem to put down a Jewish rebellion. Followers of Jesus, a Jew crucified by a Roman governor in the 30s, now were suspect.

Less than a generation later Christians in the Roman empire were being required to demonstrate their loyalty by worshiping the emperor. Christians who refused were well aware of Paul’s earlier instruction to "be subject to the governing authorities." How might they have justified their defiance? Perhaps with the words attributed to Jesus by three of the four New Testament gospels: "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mk. 12:17, Mt. 22:21, Lk. 20:25) This teaching at least means that the emperor has a right to collect taxes for the support of the government, but certainly no right to ask subjects to worship him.

When the American government prepared to wage war on Iraq, Christians in America and elsewhere were asked to support a preemptive strike. At that time we should have been guided by the just war doctrine, which requires both justifiable reasons for going to war and the use of just means in conducting a war. This doctrine establishes a high burden of proof that governments have to meet, if war is to be morally as well as legally justified.

In the case of a preemptive war, it is hard to see that the first test for a just war could ever be met.  And tragically, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the deaths of many innocent Iraqi civilians caused by American firepower now makes it hard to conclude that the war in Iraq has been conducted with just means.

As Christians, we should acknowledge that a literal reading of the New Testament gives no reason for supporting any war. Jesus is quoted in Matthew 5:44 as saying, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." And Paul writes in Romans 12:14, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them." It is not surprising, therefore, that Christians refused to serve in the Roman army until after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, when church leaders began to look to the governing authorities for support and security.

Today, however, most Christians believe that governments, which protect religious freedom and other human rights, deserve our support, even when this means going to war. This is generally how contemporary Christians interpret what Paul said in Romans and what the synoptic gospels report Jesus said about paying taxes.

Taken together these two New Testament passages call on Christians to be good citizens, unless a government claims for itself what belongs only to God. But to these two sayings, we should add a third. Immediately prior to declaring that government receives its authority from God, Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22, which says: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." Before Paul tells Christians in Rome to "be subject to the governing authorities," he writes, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom. 12:20-21)

Our President asked Americans to support a preemptive war against Iraq, on the grounds that the government of Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which might be used to threaten the security of America and its allies. Did our government meet its burden of proof? Was the war against Iraq necessary for the safety of our nation? We now know that the answer to these questions is no.

American Christians bear some responsibility for the war in Iraq.  So, let's confess our sin, and then call on other American Christians to join us in acts of repentance. © Robert Traer 2016