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Hail Caesar!

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In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul makes the following statements.

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14 NRSV)

But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:6 NRSV)

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4 NRSV)

What might a Roman official think of such statements? Hopefully, the Christians reading Paul’s letter will understand that Paul is speaking of God’s Torah as he, a former Pharisee, understands it. He writes repeatedly in this letter that the law of God itself is good but he himself is not good and so cannot keep the law. Instead, for all his efforts to keep the commandments, he stands condemned under the law.

Paul’s arguments require understanding of his struggle to please God and his persistent failure (see Romans chapter 7). But, again I ask, what might a Roman official make of the declarations, “. . . since you are not under the law . . . ,” “But now we are discharged from the law . . . .” and, most dangerous of all, “Christ is the end of the law . . . .”? Do those statements apply to Roman law? Are these Christians, then, scofflaws, rebels, outlaws? After all, their leader, their avowed Lord and Savior, was executed by Rome as a supposed rebel against the empire.

There is danger in Paul’s distinction between law and grace, two-fold danger. Yes, Roman officials might grow suspicious of this new religious movement, but some Christians themselves might misunderstand Paul as declaring them free of obligation to Roman civil laws.

So, Paul writes the now infamously abused paragraph we find in Romans 13:1-7. The very first sentence declares the apostle’s message to believers and government officials alike:

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. (Romans 13:1 NRSV)

There it is, the Bible quote people pull out when they want to support a particular “ruler” and raise that individual above criticism. Here we are, back to the notion of “king by the grace of God” (see my earlier post on that subject here). In the misuse of Romans 13:1-7, we find false biblical support for the latest “anointed one” of some political movement tending toward totalitarianism. Here is the attempted elevation of a Henry VIII above all other authority. Here is fraudulent support for the deified or nearly deified dictator, from “Hail Caesar!” to “Heil Hitler!” Supposedly to question the dictator is to question God, to oppose the dictator is to rebel against God, and to reject the dictator is to reject God and God’s will for the nation.

In both the Old Testament and New Testament, there is much that contradicts such an interpretation or Romans 13:1-7. Leaders that fail to make justice happen for the poor and vulnerable are condemned and rejected. Particularly in the book of Revelation, the Roman emperors themselves are declared evil servants, not of God, but of Satan. Paul’s hopeful statement, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” in verse 3 proves at many points in history to be mere wishful thinking, although it truly is more because its declaration of what authorities should do turns into judgment upon those authorities who do not measure up.

Paul is not freeing Christians from civil authority and secular law, but he does set a standard for that authority and its laws. Authority’s charge from God, whether the officials know it or not, is to uphold and shelter what is good and to oppose and punish what is bad. But what happens when the authority itself does what is evil? When good behavior is punished and bad rewarded? Does God support corruption, brutality against the vulnerable, and lawlessness on the part of the authorities themselves? The Bible as a whole overwhelmingly declares, “No!”

Now, let’s take a step back and survey our own situation in the United States of America. To form this nation, our ancestors rebelled against a “king by the grace of God” they came to regard as a tyrant. Since then, authority for this nation is lodged, not in any person or small group, but in us, the American people. “We the people” are together the authority Paul declares has been appointed by God to keep order and to reward what is good and to prevent or punish what is bad. No president has that authority in, by, and for himself. No president can rightly claim or have claimed for him such authorization from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. We the people through our elected representatives are responsible for the maintenance of justice. It is our duty to keep power out of the hands of swindlers and liars. We together stand accountable to God, whether we acknowledge God or not, for cruelties inflicted by our elected officials and their appointees. We are answerable for institutionalized bigotry, persecution, and self-serving greed.

The misuse of Romans 13:1-7 in support of evil, of the tyranny and lawlessness of a president, and of the abuse of power for self-enrichment, is a terrible corruption of scripture. Such an abuse of the Bible opposes God and brings shame and infamy upon the name of Jesus Christ.

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Danger: God’s Plan

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This post requires a careful distinction. We stand at a fork in the road where both ways forward are marked with the same sign: “Trust in God’s Plan.” The choices, however, lead to very different destinations. One leads toward hope, courage, responsibility, and freedom. The other leads toward resignation, purposelessness, shallow thinking, servitude and perhaps festering resentment.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11-14 NRSV)

That passage, a favorite of many people seeking encouragement, comes from a vision beyond the impending doom of destruction and exile. Evil times are coming because the people and their rulers would not listen to the word of their God but chose instead to hide themselves in the false security of official religion. They fortified themselves with certitude that Jerusalem could never fall to an enemy, the king descended from the great king David could never be toppled from his throne, and Yahweh’s own Temple would forever guarantee security and prosperity – regardless of what Yahweh God’s own prophet tried to tell them. They had removed from their religion all commitment to faithfulness, justice, and compassion. All that remained was toxic belief that the way things were was the way things were meant to be and would remain forevermore because they were, supposedly, divinely ordained.

Looking at the passage from Jeremiah quoted above, however, we can see that God has “plans” for the people, for their turning and seeking God wholeheartedly, their restoration to being Yahweh God’s covenant people, and their future well-being as God’s faithful people, IF ONLY they will listen and seek wholeheartedly. It does NOT say God has an all-inclusive plan automatically following a script written in advance. That distinction brings us to the fork in the road.

The notion that everything happens according to a great divine plan is unbiblical and unhelpful. It comforts the rich and powerful while narcotizing the poor, cheated, and desperate. “Are you rich? That’s God’s plan for you. So, enjoy! Eat, drink, and be merry!” “Are you poor? That’s God’s plan for you. Accept it, and serve your superiors without complaint!” No! Such oppressive lies are not biblical at all!

Jesus was not a fool. When he taught his followers to pray that God’s will would indeed be done on earth, he was not telling them to pray for the inevitable. There was and still is a struggle going on. The world’s ways of power, prestige, and privilege war against God’s will and do great harm. God’s desire is not simply to establish a perfect world but to win the hearts and minds of humans and of humanity as a whole so that we will accept our responsibility as the creature to whom care of the earth was entrusted. God wants willing love and willingly wrought justice, not mindless obedience or resignation to fate.

As a Presbyterian whose theological ancestors fell prey to a doctrine of predestination that was degraded into fatalism, I have long felt compelled to speak against all forms of determinism. No, everything is not predetermined, and much happens that is not in accordance with God’s will. Let me put simply. It was not God’s will that the child’s mother or father got cancer, suffered, and died. It was not God’s will that the five-year-old girl was kidnapped. It was not God’s will that Hitler and his Nazis set out to kill all the Jews. It was not God’s will that the robber barons of America’s Gilded Age grew filthy rich. It was not God’s will that Japan should bomb Pearl Harbor or that we should bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki nor that we should firebomb Dresden. It is not God’s will that parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated should then see their children get measles. Mental illness is not God’s will; neither is depression or addiction or suicide. Nor is it God’s will that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. We are the ones who vote, choose not to vote, or are blocked from voting by political maneuvers designed to steal an election. All who hold power stand under God’s judgment; none has carte blanche to do as he or she pleases, and we cannot rightly imagine that Trump or any other president may act unjustly or maliciously in accord with God’s plan and so with God’s approval. No!

But God does still have plans for us and for this created world. The poor are not called to resign themselves to inferiority and deprivation. The rich are not entitled to declare their wealth and comfort to be God’s blessings granted to them because God is either rewarding them for something or favoring them above others for some reason. The Bible is not fatalistic. Indeed, it is the very opposite of fatalistic, proclaiming release for the captives, God’s love for the poor and the sick, and God’s opposition to power structures that keep the rich increasing their wealth and the poor sinking further into their poverty. A person cannot amass wealth through cunning greed and then call that wealth God’s blessing.

Yes, God has plans for us but NOT some grand plan that reduces us to mere chess pawns or mindless slaves like ants under the sway of their queen. We are not puppets. We make choices, bear responsibility, and need the changes that come from truly seeking God’s will and way.

Fatalism is an enemy of faith and hope. Resignation to injustices and sufferings is not submission to God’s will. So-called destiny does not justify or excuse brutality, slaughter, or theft by illegal or legal means. It was never God’s will that Europeans should sweep across this continent, destroying its native peoples. Manifest Destiny was a lie.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.


I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. . . . Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD . . . .