Submission To Authority: Pro And Con
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
Here in the early 21st century, we live in a world where authority has gotten completely out of control. America was lied to back in the early 1960’s so our government could start the Viet Nam war. We were lied to about President Kennedy’s assassination by the Warren Commission, and we were lied to again five years later concerning the Robert Kennedy assassination. We were lied to about Rev. Dr. King’s assassination that same violent year of 1968. President Nixon lied to us about Watergate. We were lied to in 2003 as a pretext for invading Iraq the second time. And we were lied to by president Obama when he won the 2008 election while telling us all that he would bring us “change we can believe in”. We got some serious changes all right, resulting in the largest spy and unmanned drone network the world had ever seen. On the home front, the police have become thoroughly militarized, and they are having lots of fun on the job thanks to all their new toys and gadgets, not to mention fully automatic weapons, and even tanks! They can stop you and search you without cause and without the Constitutionally mandated search warrant. They are breaking our doors down in the middle of the night and murdering unarmed citizens. A 92-year-old woman was shot 19 times and killed by the police several years ago right here in Atlanta where I live and work, and people of color as well as the poor are being killed by the police on the flimsiest of pretexts. Last year when I tried to renew my drivers license, I was turned away due to a speeding ticket I got back in 1995 even though I paid the fine nearly two decades ago. So now I no longer own a car, but I’m saving a lot of money by relying on public transportation and “going green”. Still, the state of Georgia’s refusal to renew my drivers license makes me feel resentful and disenfranchised by the very system that is sworn to protect me and to serve us all.
Speaking as a minister of the Gospel and as an ambassador for Jesus Christ, I have done a little research as to what the Bible says about governmental authority and the abuse of power. It turns out that there is ample argument that can be minted for both sides of this same coin. The first part has to do with submission to authority in the context of being a law-abiding citizen as the apostle Paul saw it when he wrote the Book of Romans approximately 1,950 years ago. At the time that this was written, all of what is now modern-day Israel was under the military occupation of the Roman empire. Similarly, much of the world today is occupied by the American Empire. Paul wrote these words in that context, so I will begin with the book of Romans, chapter 13 and verses 1-5.
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” (Romans 13: 1-5 NIV)
At the time that Paul wrote this, the death penalty was commonplace. Capital punishment existed as a means of intimidation and absolute control, and that punishment was carried out with utter ruthlessness and without mercy. Furthermore, unlike the Jewish religious establishment of that era, Paul was a Roman citizen and as such he was given rights and privileges that were not shared equally with other non-citizens. But how does this compare with life in the early 21st century? Although the death penalty is still administered for capital crimes such as murder, it is carried out with relative infrequency compared to the days of the Roman empire. There were also debtors prisons in Paul’s day. People who ran into financial trouble back in those days were routinely imprisoned until their debts were paid. In contrast, today if one gets into financial difficulty, bankruptcy laws exist that are much more fair and equitable than prison. Compared to the times in which St. Paul lived, we get a complete picture of a much more fair, equitable and even lenient world in the present day. Let me now make some comparisons between Paul’s world and ours using this passage of scripture as a backdrop to the picture that I will now paint for you with my words.
“The authorities that exist have been established by God”. Although Paul sincerely believed at the time that he wrote these words that he was absolutely correct, he was speaking more as a Roman citizen and a Hebrew religious scholar than he was as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In modern America, our rule of law is the Constitution of the United States and so I am writing today in this context as an American citizen. We have the right to free speech and freedom of religion today that did not exist in St. Paul’s time. That right which is established under the first amendment to the US Constitution allows me to write these words without fear of punishment. As such I am within the law and I will remain so for as long as the law is fair. It’s when it’s unfair that things can get a bit dicey. But hold that thought as I continue.
The apostle Paul continues with this same theme as he writes further: “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” The same applies today. Take the patriot movement and so-called “preppers” of today. Organizing any armed revolt in modern-day America is an idea that I am against, preaching and teaching as a man of peace who tries his best to emulate Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Besides, the police have well-armed SWAT teams, and there is always the National Guard that exists within any given state, and so I think one would be foolhardy to try and take on authority in this manner. On the other hand, it is perfectly legal, and I would also say that it is even necessary, to engage in peaceful protests against laws and policies that we disagree with, particularly when they are unjust. The US Supreme Court’s decision that money equals free speech is one good example. The counterproductive and sometimes downright stupid War on Drugs is another one. The first amendment gives us this right, something that did not exist during Paul’s time all those centuries ago. In this regard, we can interpret this passage of scripture a little differently than what Paul wrote back then.
Paul then continues making his point, and so will I. “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.” It is sad to say that this is not always true in the modern world. Trying as I do to do what is right, I often find myself looked down on by the many godless people who live in the world of today. I put up with the occasional ridicule because I am openly Christian, but I do so knowing that God is watching everything I do and He is listening to everything I say. But to get back to the topic at hand, it is wise to be “free from fear of the one in authority”. The best way to follow this principle is to obey the commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Just by doing this, we can keep ourselves out of much trouble. Besides, the Bible says in the Old Testament to “obey the laws of the land, that it may go well with you in the place you are abiding”. Those words were written at least three thousand years ago, and they are still just as true today as they were back then.
By the same token, there are things happening and situations unfolding within the US government that are completely contrary to God’s laws. Take the ten commandments as an example. The eighth commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”, which can be expanded to include this simple command: you shall not lie and gossip about people you dislike. Yet America found itself embroiled in a war in Iraq that was based on a lie. Specifically, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was still in power. Of course, those WMD’s turned out to be non-existent, and it took 4,400 US fatalities – and over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, one third of which were children – to find that out. The same applies to Afghanistan. Our troops have been there for 13 years, first to find Osama Bin Laden even though everybody in Southern Asia and the Middle East knew he was in Pakistan. Now that he is deceased, and has been for a couple of years now, are our troops all back home yet? Absolutely not, effectively making Afghanistan a de facto US territory with an open ended US military presence. The US government has been spending $6 billion dollars a week on this occupation, a thoroughly obscene sum of money by any standard. Yet all the while, there is unemployment here in the USA that is officially around 7.5%, but that doesn’t count all the millions of long-term unemployed who have stopped looking for work, as well as those who are working part-time when full-time work is what is needed. If these facts were figured into this equation, the true unemployment rate is hovering at around 21 percent. There is no money to create over a million badly needed jobs in our country, but there is an unlimited supply of cash for multiple illegal military occupations and drone strikes all around the globe. This is a moral outrage, and anybody with even a little bit of a conscience should be out in the streets protesting against the US military-industrial complex. That may not be in the words of the Bible, but it most certainly is in the Spirit thereof.
Paul then writes in verse 5, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” This is just as true today as it was when it was first written. Being an outlaw will only get us into trouble, and jail is no place for anybody to be except for the worst criminals. For example, it is a bad idea to drive your car at 90 miles an hour because it is against the law, and because it is dangerous. By the same token, the ten commandments must be obeyed, and let’s be sure to include the teachings of Christ while we’re at it. We should not steal, lie or commit adultery, nor should we have any false gods in our lives. We are commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your strength, all your mind, all your soul and all your spirit”, and to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves”. We can and should worship the one true God and Him alone, who sent His only Son to die for our sins and then to rise from the dead on the third day after He was crucified. In the same way that we submit ourselves to God, we should, as far as it is possible, submit to authority here on earth. And we should do so not only “because of possible punishment but also because of conscience”. But here in the 21st century, we can and should oppose and protest against the government similarly because of matters of conscience. It is part of the laws of our land, and we should exercise this right because our rule of law says we can. This is also in keeping with God’s commands, and I hope and pray that it always remains so.