My Christian friends, will you think with me over something? I’d like you to start by reading this quote. As you read, I’d like you to guess who it is that’s speaking. Don’t read ahead or google it, just guess as you read.
Here’s the quote:
“The national government will maintain and defend the foundations on which the power of our nation rests. It will offer strong protection to Christianity as the very basis of our collective morality. Today Christians stand at the head of our country. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit. We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in entertainment, and in the press – in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during recent years.”
Who is this? Did you guess?
Before I tell you who it is, I want to ask, how do you feel about this quote? What’s wrong with this statement? What’s right about it?
This statement actually comes from a radio address that Adolf Hitler gave to Germany on July 22, 1933. (From “The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, 1922-1939, vol. 1, Norman H. Baynes, ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), pp. 871-71
This was after Hitler was elected by majority vote in a democracy, winning the “Christian vote.”
During this elections season, I think it’s vital that we American Christians, especially we Evangelicals, contemplate the gravity of what we mean when we see the government or nation as needing to be “Christian.” To think about what it means to propel the idea that it is somehow the government’s responsibility to instill and establish Christian values as the laws of the land.
Why is it important to ask this question now? As you have seen our nation’s anxiety is at an all time high as we see experiencing the greatest political divide since President Eisenhower: (https://rb.gy/bwkuka ) People, from many political ideologies, are showing up armed at protests around the country as tensions rise, resulting in injuries and death. Qanon has asked people to take a “soldiers oath” to prepare for an uprising: (https://rb.gy/ndrwta) Most recently, an Evangelical Pastor made national news calling Christians to mobilize for a “civil war”: (https://rb.gy/gfohlh) I don’t anticipate things to deescalate as the election draws closer. Our bipartisan political machine seems to give us a new enemy to fear and to be dismantled every day, both from the far right and the far left.
American Christians are experiencing a deeply traumatic identity crisis, along with everyone else. We must ask who are called to be, a Christian nation or the church?
History has actually shown us time and time again that when a nation becomes convinced that it is the government’s responsibility to carry out the mission of Christianity, it does so not in the ways of the early church but in very governmental ways. Mainly, by legislation, empowering the rich and powerful, marginalizing the poor, and violently dismantling enemies, both real and imagined.
We saw this not only with Germany in the 30s, but also Rwanda during the 90s, and Rome under Emperor Constantine, just to cite three examples. All with horridly tragic and long lasting outcomes (the doctrine of discovery, genocides, inquisitions, crusades, etc.). When a people group is seen as a political AND Christian “enemy,” by the powers that be, the results can be tragic. What is worse though, is with these acts of violence, they can be defined as sanctioned by God.
You see, both the church and earthly governments have conflicting views on how to deal with enemies. Jesus calls Christians to love their enemies, while governments follow the most ancient way of dealing with enemies: elimination. Nations, even if it considers itself to be Christian, dismantles enemies in ways only governments know how. This results in making even the most heinous forms of dismantling “legal,” from segregation all the way to genocide.
Now, this is not to say that America will follow the exact same path of Constantine‘s Rome or Germany in the 30s, but in this time of deep political division and religious fervor, it does mean that we MUST consider how the outcomes of our desire to have America be a “Christian nation” might tragically rhyme with events of the past.
Why did these efforts to make a nation Christian end so tragically? Because earthly governments were never called by Jesus to be the church. The church was called to be the church. Earthly governments only know how to fulfill its goals via arbitrary, impersonal, and often violent ways. Everyone must submit to its laws, whether they have a relationship with those enforcing said laws or not and anyone who is seen as an opposition to its values is seen as an enemy to be dismantled.
God does not operate that way. God fulfills God’s mission via personal, deeply known, and relational ways. This is why the incarnation is vital to our faith. God came down to us as one of us, even though God could have stayed in heaven arbitrarily passing down laws to be obeyed. This incarnational God calls us to love our enemies in unity with each other as peace makers.
We cannot serve two masters:
When we confuse the call of the church as the call of the government, we ironically forfeit embodying all the elements of our faith that would actually help our nation the most: holiness, morality, and love. We trade these ways of actually being the church for the ways of being the government, which is a tragic loss of identity. We forget that the most important things in the world cannot be legislated.
Holiness cannot be legislated.
Morality cannot be legislated.
Love cannot be legislated.
The moment we believe these aspects of our faith can only be enforced by law is the moment we stop embodying them ourselves as the church in God’s relational ways. The moment we believe true change only comes through the legislative body of Cesar is the moment we dismiss God’s call for us to be the self-sacrificial body of Christ as the church ourselves.
Now hear me, of course we should desire good, faithful Christians to be political leaders in our country. Our faith should inform what we value politically. But that is a far different desire than wanting our nation to be a Christian nation. Jesus didn’t come to make Rome or Israel Christian. Christ came to establish an alternative kingdom to the kingdoms of this world. The kingdom we as the church are called to seek first (Matt. 6:33). We can’t embody an alternative kingdom in the world when we are trying to co-opt a kingdom of this world for Jesus. This includes our nation.
One of the most misused passages of scripture during election cycles to propel this notion is Romans 13:1, “Let everyone submit themselves to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”
Let’s clear this up a bit. The Greek word Paul uses here is “hupo-tasso,” which has been translated as “submit” or “be subject.” It literally means to arrange stuff respectfully in an “orderly manner underneath”.
Paul believed that governing authorities are necessary for keeping peace. God is a God of order, not a God of chaos.
But where we often go wrong in our English translations is confusing “submit” with “obey.”
“hupo-kouo,” which is translated as “obey,” literally means to conform, to follow a command, or to kowtow to an authority as a subordinate. Paul (and Peter) could have used this word, “obey,” when describing governing authorities, but they did not.
The Greek word used for “obey” is used 21 times in the New Testament. It is always in a hierarchical context, as in the relationship between children and their parents or masters and servants (Eph 6:1;!6:5). To submit and to obey are two separate ways of being. To submit does not always mean to obey.
As we see in scripture then, though followers of Jesus deliberately disobeyed laws that were in conflict with God’s commands, like Paul and Peter, they still “submitted” to the authorities by accepting the legal consequences of their actions.
How then are we to “submit” to the governing authorities? Paul tells us how in Romans 12:9-21
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lordʼs people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for Godʼs wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Then, “submit to the governing authorities over you.”
This is what obedience to Jesus looks like. This is the way of obedience to which the church is called. No matter who the “governing authorities” are, we are called to demand these virtues from them and hold them accountable to this way of Christ. Even if it means we have to “submit” to the consequences of their authority when holding them accountable to Christ contradicts their preferred ways of ruling and dismantling their “enemies.”
2020 desperately needs a prophetic people who will boldly answer the call to be the church and refuse to mix that call in with their lesser political commitments to the nationstate. A prophetic people who resist division by boldly working towards peace, unity, and justice. A people who are not working to impose their religious beliefs into a nation that includes many who do not share such beliefs, but who advocate for the poor, the marginalized, the imprisoned, the widow, the orphan, and the refugee in their political witness, speaking truth to power on their behalf. Our culture needs a people that is working to make society better for the most vulnerable people, rather than create a culture that is better for them alone.
We must choose this day whom we will serve.