By: Rev. Dr. Jarrod Cochran
"So, you're voting for Trump?"
This is the question that I am inevitably met with whenever I discuss my concerns and qualms over Hillary Clinton's track record with war-making, Wall Street, and neoliberal policy. How did raising concerns over one candidate automatically mean that I'm on another candidate's "team"? We've boiled down our electoral choices to soda options?
If you don't like Pepsi, you must like Coca-Cola.
You're either with us or against us.
If you vote for the opposing team, the terrorists win.
Not only does this binary view of politics betray our humanity and force us into continual compromises—voting for the lesser of two evils. It also rejects our understanding of the world as followers of Jesus and his radical message.
Back in the early 2000’s, I was a pretty big deal in liberal and progressive Christian circles. I don’t say this to brag, as I am pretty sure that’s how it just came across, but illustrate a point. During that time, I helped to lay the groundwork for the progressive Christian revitalization that occurred during George W. Bush’s time in office. I worked for and with organizations like CrossLeft, Sojourners, Social Redemption, Tikkun, and the Progressive Christian Alliance. These organizations worked to speak of a different aspect of Christianity, one which offered an alternative to conservative, right-wing Christianity—what came to be known as the Religious Right.
However, as I continued my personal faith journey, I began to question. Now, I have found that when you’re in a position of power and want to stay there, it is never a good idea to start asking questions. Nevertheless, I did question. Through those questions, I began to see the Democratic Party being just as morally bankrupt as the Republican Party. My tone began to shift as I started to point out that the Democratic Party was just as corrupt and war hungry as the GOP and that we shouldn’t be satisfied with merely creating a Left version of the Religious Right. Rather, we should seek to dig deeper. I began to start getting interested in the idea of Christian Anarchism, which in turn, led me to reading Ammon Hennacy, Dorothy Day, Emma Goldman, Leo Tolstoy, and Henry David Thoreau, (just to name a few).
As my eyes opened, I saw the devastation that governments and military power wrought against others, regardless of who was in power. I also began to see Jesus in the Gospels not simply taking the religious elite of his day to task, but questioning the ruthlessness of empire altogether. I began to question aloud if we're wasting our efforts in our attempts to redeem empire instead of critiquing it, laying it bare, and instead focus on reaching the people enthralled by it.
I believe it was here, with these questions, that it was the beginning of the end for me as a progressive Christian darling.
I think strike two came when I spoke out against Obama during his first term, when he continued to enforce and push his predecessor, George W. Bush's, agendas in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving yet another bailout to Wall Street, and continuing with the Patriot Act. I was told to “hold on” and “wait before you speak” by my progressive Christian friends and cohorts, despite being praised for the very same tenacity towards George W. Bush’s policies that hurt the poor and impoverished just a few months earlier.
Strike three—the final nail in the coffin—occurred in 2008 when I publicly called out one of the leaders of the Human Rights Campaign for compromising their convictions—leaving out transgender protection in the workplace in order to get a non-discrimination bill passed—while we were both panelists in a town hall styled forum on progressive values.
Now, I don’t share these stories to inflate my ego; trust me, I don’t need any help with that. No, as I stated earlier, I share this to bring about a point:
During all of these different titles and positions that I held, my focus, my goal, has always been on two things: First, if the gospel is truly “Good News”, then that means that it is good news for everyone and we’ve got to learn to show that. And second, if our faith is truly worth anything then it has to have "teeth". It has to have legs. It’s got to move and be in action. We always have to keep pushing, keep moving towards the goal of caring for the least, the last, and the left-out. Because the fact of the matter is, if someone’s being left behind then we haven’t moved far enough.
With this focus in mind, it has been my experience that here in America, aside from a few exceptions, that Institutional Christianity—both conservative and liberal stripes—are, by and large, two sides of the same coin. While one side certainly is more inclusive about things and wanting to invite more into the fold, both act as chaplains to the powers and principalities. Both sides of Institutional Christianity focus a great deal of theology towards the apologetics of authority and nationalism. And, whether intentional or not, a theology based on the unquestioning support of authority will alway lead to a rejection of the poor and the oppressed.
And some have “pushed back” on this understanding of Institutional Christianity by pointing to Christian charities and organizations. And I will agree wholeheartedly that we have become quite good at pulling the bodies from the river, drying them off, and sending them back on their way. I know this fact all too well from working to meet the needs of our sisters and brothers at a North Atlanta homeless shelter and food pantry. But too few us dare to go upstream and see who or what is throwing the poor and impoverished in the river in the first place. We refuse because, despite these countless bodies in the river, we believe in the system that is tossing them in. We have bought in to the idea that the American Dream is the same thing as God’s kingdom come. We have traded the bold political platform of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount for the milquetoast platform's of our current reigning political parties.
It is in this context that we must reject trappings of the Religious Right and Left and instead dig deeper. It is in this understanding that we must cultivate and create a radical faith that speaks truth to power with word and deed and is satisfied with claiming allegiance to no other banner than the kingdom of God.
I recently obtained my PhD in theology and religious studies. And by “recently”, I mean I got my doctorate in January of 2015. Naturally, upon graduating, I started sending out my resume to numerous employers. During one of those mass resume send-offs, I received a phone call from a state correctional facility in Florida for a chaplaincy position. Chaplaincy work is right up my alley, but I had a difficulty accepting this position due to my issues with the for-profit prison system in this country, along with my complete disagreement with capital punishment. I talked to the H.R. Rep and declined an offer to be interviewed. They asked me why and I told them about my issues. The man, very unsympathetic to my plight, quoted Romans, chapter 13:1-7 to me as a response.
“Well, what about Romans thirteen?” asked the human resources rep, not waiting for my response and continuing with, “I don’t understand what the deal is. Doesn't that chapter tell you that you have to obey the government? If you know you’re Bible and know that chapter, how could you have a problem with doing this job?” Needless to say, I was not asked to continue through the interview process. But he brought up a very good topic. What does Romans 13 really say? What is it’s true meaning? Does this letter by the Apostle Paul—a man who claims to follow the teachings of a rabbi who was tried and crucified as an insurrectionist—really suggest that we approvingly submit to the rule of law, even when that law is unjust? Let’s read Romans 13:1-7 together:
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. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
At face value, these verses appear pretty cut and dry. As we simply look at verses 1-7 of Romans, Chapter 13, we find that there’s little to no wiggle room of what it’s implying. That wherever or whatever government you find yourself under, you are to obey the laws of the land without question because it was were placed there by none other than God. If you’re born in the United States, the 1st Century Roman Empire, or 1940 Nazi Germany, you shut up and obey your government.
But here’s the problem: we’ve only read seven verses. Seven verses out of an entire chapter. I think this is a great problem within Western Christianity. We’re biblically illiterate partly because we have a tendency to quote verses and interpret them outside of the rest of the text that surrounds them as if these specific verses that we quoted were written in some kind of void that does not tie into the greater narrative that surrounded it.
It reminds me of a picture I saw recently on a social media site that was apparently a calendar with specific Bible verses of the day. One of them was from the gospel of Matthew 4:9 which read, “All of this world I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.” That’s a pretty inspiring quote to the everyday Christian, that is until you realize that this is a quote from Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness to worship him. When reading the Bible, context is everything. Very rarely can you divorce a verse from the surrounding verses and chapters without taking away its meaning. And the same rule applies here to Romans 13. I feel, to truly understand Romans 13:1-7, we must look at Romans 12 and the verses that follow our quoted text. We open up to Romans 12:9-21 and find that Romans 13:1-7 is connected to what Paul was calling identifying markers of a true Christian. It reads:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
After reading these verses that directly precede Romans 13:1-7, we begin to get a greater understanding of what Paul was trying to say. Paul, a men who was imprisoned on several occasions for refusing to obey the law over God, was not trying to tell anyone to buckle up and support whatever unjust law or action comes down the government’s pipe. No, once we read Romans twelve, we quickly discover that Paul is adamant that the ethics that he called upon his readers to bestow—to love one another, to not repay evil with evil, to not seek vengeance, and associate with the outcast and the lowly - also apply to any real government that God has created.
Paul is telling his readers what true authority looks like. That whether it be Caesar, the NSA, the White House, or the UN, if these authorities do not represent the characteristics laid down in Romans 12 then they are not authorities or governments created and endorsed by God. And we have to be honest with ourselves here: There is no country or nation in the known history of the world that has lived up to the standard that Paul has laid down—that God has revealed as a true authority worthy of our allegiance.
Let’s look at the verses that immediately follow Romans 13:1-7. They state:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Love does no harm. As we look at these verses in context, we find it difficult to support a reading that demands blind patriotism and a supporting of oppression in the name of “following God’s rule to obey my government.” Paul is telling us in these verses to abandon the oft-quoted slogan: “My country right or wrong, my country” and to instead disobey and call our nation into repentance when it does not live up to the standard of God's kingdom. When we place Romans 13 into it’s proper context, we find that it, in fact, does not justify political rule. To the contrary, it calls upon the Caesars of this world to be repentant and to cease the activities of oppression, injustice, and violence.
So, in light of this new understanding—this radical reclaiming of Romans 13—how should we respond to injustice in our world? We’ve already seen the responses of a Christianity that takes these verses out of context. This Christianity has been created that makes dedicated servants of the State yet prevents us from calling that same State into question and its leaders into repentance. This Christianity focuses on the pride of "the great compromise": voting for the lesser of the two evils, patting ourselves on the backs, condemning the other party's policies while finding rationalizations when our party follows suite.
We, as followers of Jesus, are called to be agents of great change. We will not find God in an institution. We will not find God in nationalism. We will certainly not find God in the ballot box. God is in the wild, waiting to be encountered in the sick, the poor, and the oppressed. The same God that called Moses and the Egyptian slaves into the desert, the God that Adam and Eve encountered in the wild garden, and the God that called Jesus to the wilderness is calling us as well. These sick, poor, and oppressed sisters and brothers will still be the ones hurt by the policies of whomever becomes the next president. Instead of placing our hope in a politician, political party, or nation, perhaps it is high time we place our allegiance in God's kingdom and get to work on seeing it manifest in our world.
Jarrod Cochran is an ordained priest within the Progressive Episcopal Church and serving as Priest at Church in the Wild in Canton, Georgia. You can find Jarrod online at www.jarrodcochran.com.
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