As I stand here this morning, we look forward with great interest to a day three and a half weeks from now, when we will finally be free of campaign ads—at least for a year or so. Honestly, whatever you think of the state of government in this country, I don’t think anyone likes the state of our political advertising, or political conversation more generally—it’s loud, it’s depressing, and it’s exhausting.
You see, our politics these days are powered and poisoned by anxiety; and if you take a look at the roots of that anxiety, it’s troubling. When I was a kid we used to sing a parody of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”: “This land is my land; this land ain’t your land. I got a shotgun, and you don’t got one.” And so on. That’s the attitude driving our politics these days: a frantic insistence that this is my country—and if you disagree with me, not yours. You see it every election cycle; whichever party’s in power, candidates for the other one stand up and say, “It’s time to take back our country!”
As Christians, we’re supposed to have a broader perspective. Remember what we said about Romans 8—this is not our home, this is not our final destination; we are in the wilderness, in between the land of slavery and the Promised Land. That’s why 1 Peter 2 says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” We are aliens and strangers, we are exiles and transients; we are here for a time on our way to someplace better. This is not our homeland, but the land of our wandering. Is this our country? Yes, but not to own, not to control, not to belong: this is our country because this is where God has placed us to serve.
Our model is not the Jews in Israel under King David, but the exiles in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar was a highly problematic king from a Jewish point of view, since he worshiped false gods; and though he learned a certain respect for the God of Israel through Daniel, his successors lacked even that. The exiles weren’t in their true country under their true king, and they knew it; but Jeremiah tells them, for as long as God has them there, to settle in and work for the good of Babylon. Never forget that this is not your home, to be sure; but equally, never forget that you’re here because God put you here, and he put you here to serve.
Which is what Paul is on about. As we saw last week, these seven verses sit in the middle of a long passage about love; if you took them out, you’d never guess anything was missing. But they belong here, because loving others as Christ loved us will have political consequences. In particular, Paul forbids us to take any sort of vengeance or in any way respond in kind when evil is done to us; instead, he says, “Overcome evil with good.” And yet, evil must be judged and punished. That, Paul says, is what government is for; and so he spends a few moments considering the purpose of government and how we as Christians should relate to it.
Note carefully how Paul begins his argument. Everyone, he declares, must submit to the governing authorities—everybody, period, no ifs, ands, buts, or exceptions. But he says submit rather than obey. We must acknowledge the general rule that the government has authority over us, because God who is the source of all authority is the one who has instituted all human authorities; and we submit to them under God. Our ultimate allegiance is to him, and our total obedience is due to him alone; all human authorities are secondary, deriving their legitimacy from him. We don’t have the right to reject them, but government doesn’t have the right to do anything it wants, either. When a government is bent on rewarding evil rather than good, then we must obey God rather than government. That’s part of seeking the welfare of the country to which he has sent us.
In general, however, we are to obey the governing authorities, because God has established them to serve his purposes in the world. That’s true whether the authority in question is the town council or President Obama; and it will be true next month whether we see a second Obama term or a victory for Governor Romney. After all, neither one could possibly be as bad as Nebuchadnezzar was. The government of Rome wasn’t particularly godly either, even at its best; but even ungodly and flawed governments play a necessary part in God’s work in human history, as Rome most certainly did.
Our submission to government, then, isn’t rooted in the assumption that government always does what is right—or even that it usually does what is right; Paul isn’t that naïve. Rather, it’s rooted in trust in God. God is in control, and in everything that happens he is at work to accomplish his purposes. He has appointed our governments and their leaders, and so they function as his servants. If they are rebellious, then he will judge them and take his vengeance on them in his due time; and as Joseph said to his brothers, what they mean for evil, God will use for good. It doesn’t always make sense to us, and often what happens isn’t what we think God’s will is, or ought to be; but however each election turns out, and whatever laws may be passed—even if they are unjust—we can trust that God is still on his throne, and his plan and his will have not failed.
We need to disengage from the “win at all costs” mentality of our politics—which doesn’t serve us well, and really isn’t ultimately about the issues anyway. That mentality comes from our politicians; for many of them it is “win at all costs,” not for anyone else’s sake, but for the sake of their jobs. We’re just being used. If the American church were to stop playing politics and choose to show our country a more excellent way, we would bear witness to the gospel in a way that the world could not ignore, or explain away.
Yes, we should be engaged with the issues, and yes, we should do everything we can to see that what our governments do is just and right; in our system, we have some small power to influence that, and we’re responsible to use it. But we must do all things humbly, remembering that we are sinners in need of grace, and people of limited wisdom, just as much as those with whom we disagree—and for that matter, that the same is true of those politicians we support. There are no messiahs in politics, on either side. There’s only one Messiah, and he flatly refused to work politically even when he could have.
As well, we should remember that our true battle isn’t political but spiritual, and our true enemy is spiritual; even the most evil people we ever see, though they be judged by God for their evil, are ultimately the victims of our great enemy, just as we are. We shouldn’t see our political opponents as enemies—and the more we do, the more that obliges us to love them and pray for God to bless them. Yes, we may pray for him to bless them with repentance and wisdom and regret, but even so, we need to recognize that when God told us to love one another, he meant them, too.
And finally, we need to recognize that when Paul tells us to submit to the governing authorities, it’s because it isn’t the church’s job to be the governing authorities. Our mission is not to win political battles, and our call is not to make people act in godly ways; that’s law, not gospel. Law is the government’s nature and mission; the gospel is ours. Yes, the gospel speaks to the issues of our day, because the gospel speaks to everything—and yes, if we preach the gospel faithfully, that will mean challenging the world where it doesn’t want to be challenged, just as that has always been part of preaching the gospel. But we must keep the gospel at the center of everything we do, and our aim must always be to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, not to push the platform of a political party; and when we speak the truth of God into political issues, we must always do so lovingly, our speech seasoned heavily with grace, in a spirit of peace. There’s enough loud, loveless, graceless speech in our political ads as it is; heaven forbid we should add to it.