This morning I read the following:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. (1Timothy 2:1-2 NRSV)
Context matters. All theology and proclamation are done within times and places of human life, which is the reason skeptics and wags have such an easy time finding apparent contradictions in the Bible. A passage such as that quoted above comes readily from a time when Christians were hoping to “lead a quiet and peaceable life” and not come under suspicion and persecution from the Roman Empire. There could be no thought as yet of Christian dominance within the political and economic spheres, and there persisted, no doubt, the belief that Christ would soon return to bring the struggles of the current age to an end so that peace, justice, and love would reign forever.
Rome, however, seems to have tended toward the attitude that “those who are not for us are against us,” and for a variety of reasons Christians became useful as scapegoats for certain emperors, especially Nero and Domitian. The biblical book of Revelation offers a view of and attitude toward the empire extremely different from those expressed in First Timothy and Romans chapter 13 when peace from the tyranny of the empire still seemed possible.
These days, in the United States, we hear continuously about political figures and Christian preachers of certain theological stripes calling for a takeover of the nation and society by Christians (those of their stripe, to be sure). In short, they want to have or pretend to have a theocracy – not just an established religion (which is forbidden by the United States Constitution) – but a religious establishment, meaning a reign of tyranny under right-wing Christianity.
Is there no third path? Must Christianity either keep quiet, offend no one, and try to lead an undisturbed life in pious seclusion or else seek dominion over the institutions of society? Where is the prophetic spirit in quietism? Where is the passion for love and justice which flows from the gospel and is the logical outpouring from Christian belief that God loves the world and all its people, has special regard for the plight of the poor and unpopular, and hates injustices?
The third path is the way of neither compliance nor dominion. It is not the duty of Christianity to undergird the aspirations and institutions of the powerful; neither is it the right of Christianity to take over and dominate the society and its institutions, destroying democracy by majority might. Christians have been sent to serve, not to control and dictate. But neither have we been sent to keep quiet so we can stay safe and comfortable while the current empires of wealth and power grind the majority of earth’s people into the dust and wreck the planet itself.
This third path is really the first one. Jesus sacrificed himself for others. The politicians abusing his name to call for Christian dominion seem eager to sacrifice others to their ambitions and ideologies. They preach contempt for any who do not fall into line behind their aspirations to power, which means they speak as the Roman Empire came to speak – as one who puts on the appearance of a lamb but speaks with the voice of a dragon (Revelation 13:11).
Christians need to resist all temptation to support calls for Christian takeover of the United States. We must not surrender democracy, which safeguards the rights of unpopular minorities, to theocracy which uses God’s name for the purposes of tyranny. We are sent to persuade, not dictate. We are called to serve, not subjugate, others. If we must sacrifice anyone, it must be ourselves and not others who stand in our road to power. Tyranny in the name of Jesus Christ is like rape in the name of love or cheating in the name of integrity.
We need to think deeply about the nature, means, and goals of the prophetic spirit and of discipleship. The end never justifies the means. Real faith seeks faithful means and leaves the outcomes to the grace of God. Christians need to rethink what it means to be Christian in societies we no longer dominate even culturally.