Thou shalt not Cable News?

Thou shalt not Cable News?

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax is asking whether Christians should consider “pulling the plug” on an increasingly unsanctified form of television entertainment.

No, it’s not the racy or gratuitously violent scenes on “Skinamax” or other channels— it’s cable news.

Cable News

Here’s the money quote:

In a culture that has lost its appetite for truth and has developed an appetite for coarseness and sensationalism, cable news plays to our worst tendencies.

(Read the full thing here.)

 

Like me, Wax admits to having once been a bit of a “political junkie.” But as he puts it, “Election 2016 changed that.”

It wasn’t because, this time around, I was unable to enthusiastically support either candidate. It was a growing concern with the toxic atmosphere of the cable news channels and the worrisome trends they reveal about our society.

He then gives three reasons why the rise of niche-market news channels–tailor made to heighten our existing biases–have had cancerous effects.

Here they are:

  1. The Disappearing Aim of Journalism

While absolutely no one is unbiased, the claim here is that today’s cable news outlets (whether Fox News, CNN, or MSBC) aren’t even trying.

The aim is no longer truth or journalism; it’s ratings via sensationalized pandering to a specific demographic. For proof, one need only recall the admission of a CNN producer that the Russia scandal was “great for ratings.”

  1. The Disappearing Desire for Truth

Worse yet, many viewers do not seem to care.  We tune in for validation, not objectivity, and the media on both sides plays the music to our band.

  1. The Rise of News as Show

Wax’s third claim is that the line between news and entertainment has all but vanished.  What we have now are “shows,” or rather: “food fight journalism,” dished out by the likes of Hannity, Maddow, and (formerly) O’Reilly.

On this point, Wax gives a telling example from the life of Roger Ailes, Fox News founder and longtime Harvey Weinstein impersonator:

Ailes knew what types he wanted on that show: the “bombshell blonde,” the middle-of-the-road guy, the renegade, the brunette, and the token liberal (white or black) to round out the panel. When casting the show, he made it clear to the panelists that they were replaceable precisely because they were typecast.

In the end, such typecast replicability also led, by all accounts, to a newsroom that made Ron Burgundy’s look like a paragon of gender equality and female respect. The non-disclosure agreements were stacked like papal indulgences.

WAIT A MINUTE

But wait a minute… is all this an exageration?

Despite such strong indictments, Wax doesn’t want to go too far.

As he notes, moments of real journalism do sneak through on the cable channels.  And in moments of crisis, like the recent hurricanes, we are thankful to be “inspired by the stories of individual families, of daring rescues, and the ongoing relief efforts.”

Cable news is not all bad; not all options are equally biased; and simply tuning out to world events does not seem like a great alternative.

Perhaps one possibility then is to step away from cable–millennials like myself have long since done this (what are channels?)–and get our news from a variety of other sources.

The best of these may even involve (wait for it…) reading. While this would hardly free us from the grip of bias, the choice to read our news from more reputable sources would eliminate the endless food fights (read: panel discussions), engineered by Ailes and others. It would also prevent the binge-newsing that fuels an obsessive and over-politicized paranoia.

In the recent words of David Brooks:

[Our] public conversation is over-politicised and under-moralised … we analyse every single movement in the polls, but the big subjects about relationships and mercy and how to be a friend – these are the big subjects of life and we don’t talk about them enough. Or we have our moral arguments through political means, which is a nasty way to do it because then you make politics into a culture war.

A PROBLEM ON BOTH SIDES

As Wax makes clear, the problem exists on both the Right and Left.

In this, we have yet another example of how both extremes within our current culture wars are locked in a symbiotic existence that is simultaneously a carnal embrace.

They need each other; they are producing offspring (“As even your own poets claim”); and they ought to be in each other’s Christmas cards.

In the end, the greatest danger is what such WWE-inspired journalism does to us.

It changes us in subtle ways.  And it leaves us drawn (perhaps subconsciously) toward leaders with these qualities.

We form our media; then our media form us.

Before we know it, one might even feel “strangely warmed” toward a figure whose philosophical and rhetorical inspirations seem like an odd amalgam of Gordon Gecko and Ric Flair.  Hypothetically.

BEYOND LEGALISM

After reading Wax, my own takeaway was not a legalistic command along the lines of “Thou shalt not cable news.”

In all honesty, my own tradition has sometimes erred in this direction. My grandparents tell an old story of unloading the family moving van at a new church parsonage, only to be asked brusquely by a church elder:

“Do you own a television?”

“No,” replied my grandfather.

“Good; we throw those in the river!”

Neither Wax nor I are advocating this.

Even so, perhaps evangelicals would do well to recognize that “sex and cussing” are not the only forms of television viewing that can malform us when it comes to holiness.

Oh be careful little eyes…

Should a Christian ever say “America First”?

Should a Christian ever say “America First”?

In the second century Letter to Diognetus, there is this description of the early church:

They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.

The point of the passage—aside from the bit on marriage beds—is that while the first Christians were good citizens, they saw themselves as “foreigners” within their “fatherlands.”

They rejected nationalism, because they believed that they belonged to a Kingdom that transcended earthly borders.

I’ve written about this topic elsewhere (“When patriotism goes too far”).

Yet here I want to ask a more specific question:

Is it ever okay for a Christian to utter the now-resurgent slogan “America First”?

AN INITIAL ANSWER

In pondering the question, my initial answer was a quick and solid “Nope.”

America, despite my gratitude for her, is not first.

God is.

And Christ’s Kingdom knows no borders, tribes, or nationalities.

Beyond this, Christ’s Kingdom will endure long after America is a forgotten footnote in the dusty book of human history–alongside Rome, Byzantium, and others.

As Isaiah states:

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket

they are regarded as dust on the scales (Isa. 40.15).

All this is true.

Unfortunately, “Nope” is not a very lengthy blog post.

And, to be honest, I have considered one qualified(!) sense in which it might be okay for a Christian to put “America First”—though I will not be saying it.

Still, I’ll start with the massive problem with the phrase.

A “NOPE” TO NATIONALISM

If the expression “America First!” carries even a hint of nationalism (as opposed to gracious patriotism), it is quite obvious that a Christian should not say it.

As Ryan Hamm defines it:

  • Patriotism is a love of one’s country (which may be good).
  • Nationalism is a love of country at the expense, or disrespect, of other nations.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the very notion of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.

It is a form of syncretism that verges on idolatry as much as stacking plastic Baals and Buddhas on the altar at one’s local church.

A less academic term for syncretism (the mixing of gods) is what I call a “Ricky Bobby religion”—as evidenced by his heartfelt plea from inside an imaginary fire in the movie, Talladega Nights:

Help me Jesus! Help me Jewish God! Help me Allah! AAAAAHHH! Help me Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise, use your witchcraft on me to get the fire off me!

giphy

On a more serious note, it was a plea for national allegiance (from religious leaders) that led finally to Christ’s murder, which may make nationalism the first heresy.

“If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (Jn. 19.12).

Hence the twinge of pain emitted by the satirical July 4th headline on the Babylon Bee:

  • “Dozens Accept America As Lord And Savior At First Baptist Dallas Service” (here).

The exaggeration only drives home the danger of a more subtle syncretism.

In sum: Nationalism is a cancer to the Kingdom, and one often senses it—like a poorly hidden accent—beneath the chanting of “America First!”

“YES” TO STEWARDSHIP 

Even so, I am trying lately to read the claims of others (and especially those I disagree with) in the most charitable way possible. We need that discipline these days especially.

As I’ve said before, I’m thankful for America; and I think a gracious patriotism may be rooted in gratitude instead of nationalism.

So while things like “charity” and “nuance” are Kryptonite to “blog-clicks,” here goes…

Perhaps, in some cases, it is possible to view the words merely as a call to take responsibility for one’s own “household” before moving on to others.

After all, as a father, if I claim to put my family “first,” I need not be implying that others don’t matter, or that my family is more important than my faith. In this case, the words may simply function as a reminder of, say, my duty to parent my own kids before trying to parent everybody else’s.

And if one works within a particular government, there is a clear duty to give priority to one’s own “house” before venturing off to mow all other “yards” and trim other “hedges.”

This need not be nationalism and it need not be sacrilegious.

It might be a form of stewardship, and the priority might be a “first among equals.”

Maybe.

CONCLUSION

Still, the question is not just what intention lies behind such slogans (for indeed “chants” are rarely the most measured or coherent statements), but what the words connote within the hearts of hearers.

Thus while the catchphrase may not always entail a conscious endorsement of nationalistic syncretism, I still much prefer the attitude described in the age-old Letter to Diognetus.

They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed

What’s your Bay of Pigs?

What’s your Bay of Pigs?

The Importance of Failing Hard and Learning.

Is it possible that the greatest failure of JFK’s presidency saved the world from nuclear apocalypse?

In recent months I’ve been binge-listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast (check it out here), and in his most recent offering, he delves (for six hours!) into the background of the Cuban missile crisis.

The episode is breezily entitled “Destroyer of Worlds,” and it gives a frightening look at how close we actually came to an atomic Armageddon.

One suggestion for why this didn’t happen, however, has to do with what was undoubtedly the biggest and most public embarrassment of JFK’s young presidency: the Bay of Pigs.

As Carlin points out, Kennedy largely inherited the proxy invasion of Cuba from his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet the previous administration had run out of time to carry out the attack. So while JFK reportedly had misgivings (hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it…), he chose to go along with the Generals and CIA officials who assured him that the Bay of Pigs would be a huge success.

It wasn’t.

The invaders were slaughtered and the ensuing controversy mired the president in a flaming pile of “covfefe” from the early days of his administration.

Even so, Kennedy reportedly learned a lesson from his epic failure: Don’t simply go along with what the experts are telling you. Sometimes the “experts” are wrong.

THIRTEEN DAYS IN OCTOBER

According to some historians, this painful lesson proved invaluable in October 1962.

With word that the Soviets were installing nuclear warheads just 90 miles from the U.S. coast, the president and his advisers began a thirteen-day game of atomic poker.

What we now know from these marathon meetings (because of Kennedy’s secret taping system) is that several generals were urging the president to push the big red button, just as they had previously advised Truman to do the same (even after WW2 was over).

“If you wait, we’re dead” was the logic employed. Thus the “only option” was to launch hundreds of nuclear warheads toward dozens of Russian cities.

While I can’t imagine the pressure of that decision, some historians trace Kennedy’s pursuit of a more diplomatic solution to his early error at the Bay of Pigs.

His prior decision to “shoot first, and ask questions later” had blown up in his face. And that same advice was now coming again, but with greater consequences.

It’s possible then that the memory of Bay of Pigs kept the Cuban crisis from becoming Armageddon.

WHAT’S YOUR BAY OF PIGS?

Of course, not everyone reads the story quite like this (See Garry Wills’ scathing critique of Kennedy’s Cuban policy [here]).

Still, the principle holds true even if the history is complicated.

Early failures can be invaluable if we learn from them.

And in one way or another we all have our “Bay of Pigs.”

Each of us can look back at past decisions that were embarrassing and painful.

There was the choice to flunk out of college freshman year, because beer was more interesting than biology.

There was the decision to turn an ill-advised relationship into an ill-advised marriage.

Or the early and repeated conflation of “cash” with “credit.”

While none of this is quite on par with nuclear holocaust, even smaller embarrassments can serve as sacrifices on the altar of wisdom.

If we recognize them.

So what’s your bay of pigs?

And what did you learn from it?

When Billy met Richard: A cautionary tale

When Billy met Richard: A cautionary tale

It was the only whiff of scandal in the remarkable ministry of Billy Graham.

The year was 1972, and the evangelist was talking candidly with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. Unbeknownst to Graham, the now-infamous White House taping system was recording every word.

After an innocuous comment from Billy, the President launched into an anti-Semitic tirade. Such racist rants were not altogether unusual for Nixon.

But this one gained notoriety for the way Billy Graham joined in.

“They’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,”

Graham said of Jews.

“Their stranglehold [on the media] has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”

While saying such things, Graham also acknowledged that the Jewish community didn’t know his true feelings about them:

A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.

After denying the rumored remarks about “satanic Jews” in the diary of H.L. Haldeman (Nixon’s aid), Graham issued a heartfelt apology when the audio came out in 2002.

It was a great embarrassment.

THE AFTERMATH

In the aftermath, both friends and biographers tried to make sense of statements that seemed so out of character.

After all, Graham had been a longtime foe of anti-Semitism and racism of all stripes. During the civil rights movement, he had invited Martin Luther King Jr. to share the stage with him. And he had even gone publicly to bail the civil rights icon out of jail as a show of solidarity.

“There is not an anti-Semitic bone in his body,”

said Graham’s longtime friend Lewis Drummond.

Perhaps, some said, he was just speaking of a few unscrupulous Jews in the media.

Yet another view came forth from Charles Colson. As he suggested, such lapses in character were not uncommon in Nixon’s Oval Office. The President was a commanding personality–especially in that room–and it didn’t take long for his “advisors” to be conformed to his conspiratorial image.

Colson knew this all too well.

He was imprisoned for his own involvement in Watergate; he became a Christian in incarceration; and he would remain close to Graham for the rest of his life.

Colson knew how the audio haunted him.

WHY TALK ABOUT THIS?

But why dredge up this story?

Contrary to what some might think, the reason is NOT to tarnish the reputation of Billy Graham. While the comments were ugly, Nixon’s were worse, and we might ask how many of us would want our most confidential conversations broadcast for the world to hear?

Not I said the cow. Not I said this blogger.

On the whole, Graham’s marathon ministry remains a paragon of humility, integrity, and grace. He’s not Jesus, but along with names like J.I. Packer and John Stott, he gave credibility to the label “evangelical.”

We could only wish to have him as the custodian of that label today.

A LESSON

So, again, why bring this up?  The reason is that it provides a much-needed lesson for all Christian leaders, and now more than ever.

All of us have a tendency to become chameleons in the presence of the powerful—not just overlooking their vices (which may sometimes be required) but sanctifying them in the name of “access” and “the greater good.”

In such cases, we play the flattering court chaplain rather than the truth-telling prophet. And in so doing, we become agents of propaganda rather than ambassadors of the gospel.

For his own part, Graham came to recognize this danger.

In 1991, he told an interviewer that he regretted “the politics part” of his relationship with Nixon—and this was long before the infamous audio came out. After Watergate especially, he vowed never again to be a pawn for partisanship.

In these days—and regardless of who occupies the Oval Office—many would do well to remember this advice.

GRACE BATS LAST 

This doesn’t mean, however, that Christians must always adopt the posture of indignant prophets. Somehow, there must be a middle ground between the sycophantic sellout and the “clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13).

And most cases, Graham found it.

Imperfect leaders need spiritual support as well. And even after the embarrassment of Watergate, Graham showed grace to Nixon.

When Nixon died, in 1994, I remember watching Graham deliver the funeral sermon.

He began with a gentle reference to another gifted though unscrupulous leader: (ironically) a Jew, named Saul.

The great king of ancient Israel, David, said on the death of Saul, who had been a bitter enemy: “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel.”

Somehow this managed (simultaneously) to pay respect and to acknowledge that there were things that needed forgiving.

As with Saul, there were faults that ought not be glossed over in the name of “access,” much less be baptized through emulation.

Thankfully, however, within the landscape of the gospel, such faults don’t get the final say. As Anne Lamott remarked recently, “Grace bats last,” and “Love is sovereign here.”

So Graham’s funeral sermon ended as it always did, with grace.

Nevertheless, as we now near the centennial of Graham’s birth, and the inauguration of yet another (by all accounts, conspiratorial) President, such cautionary tales seem worth remembering.


For a biography that situates Graham’s ministry in its socio-political context, see here.

For Graham’s own–more spiritually enriching–autobiography, see here.

My favorite bio of the Nixon presidency is that of Reeves, see here.

After Rebuke of Russell Moore, some in SBC move to Censure John the Baptist Next

After Rebuke of Russell Moore, some in SBC move to Censure John the Baptist Next

Nashville, TN: One week after demanding the ouster of Dr. Russell Moore over his campaign-year criticism of Donald Trump (see here), a growing number of Southern Baptist leaders are now lobbying to remove (posthumously) the credentials of John the Baptizer, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.

“Everyone calls him ‘the Baptist’,” said Kentucky pastor Cletus T. Ottweiler, “But I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t represent our values!”

According to reports, the reason for the proposed action stems from a Scriptural paper trail that links Moore’s political statements to those of John and several Old Testament prophets.

“We thought the problem started with Dr. Moore,” said former governor and SBC pastor, Mike Hucklebee. “But after consulting the Bible, we found the trouble goes MUCH deeper! Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah…— All these guys were WAY out of step with the people they were supposed to be representing. At some point ‘the base’ just gets sick of it. I mean, how can you hope to change a culture if you offend the most powerful people!?”

“Thankfully,” said Dallas pastor Mack Graham: “none of those Old Testament guys were officially listed as ‘Baptists’. So we’re focusing on Russell and John right now.”

In defense of John’s ministry, one source went so far as to say that “Among those born of women, there is no one greater!” Yet several high profile SBC pastors have dismissed this as the exaggeration of a close family member.

 

 

 


**The present post is an exercise in satire. For related (and probably funnier) material, see The Babylon Bee**

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

An elegy is a lament for the dead.

And as J.D. Vance describes it, his is a memoir of a family and a culture that is (at best) on life support.

Hillbilly Elegy chronicles the plight of America’s working class whites through the saga of his own family, which was transplanted from Appalachia to a dying factory town in the Ohio Rust Belt.

vance
P: Naomi Mcculloch

The book skyrocketed to #1 on bestseller lists as it became apparent that Donald Trump had somehow swept these so-called Blue states. And while there are many reasons for this unexpected victory, much credit (or blame) went to the demographic Vance describes.

His memoir shines a light on Rust Belt poverty from the inside—and from the perspective of one who has both deep affection and scathing criticism for the culture of his youth.

I encourage you to buy it here.

FROM THE “HOLLER” TO THE FACTORY 

Like many hill people, Vance’s family left the “holler” to take well-paid factory work up north. Yet as times changed, the steel communities like Middletown, Ohio began hemorrhaging both jobs and hope. And with the addition now of rampant opioid addiction, the hemorrhaging continues.

As a boy, Vance never knew his father, and his mother was a prescription drug addict who rotated boyfriends and husbands more frequently than others rotate tires.

He was raised by “Mamaw”—a foul-mouthed, pistol-packing grandmother who got pregnant at age thirteen, and who had a soft spot for F-bombs and Jesus Christ (both the Savior and the curse word).

Despite her faults, Mamaw saved J.D., and he eventually went on to the Marine Corps, to college, and then to Yale Law School.

AN INDIGTMENT OF ENTITLEMENT

What I expected from the work was more an indictment of the Rust Belt’s failed economy: factories shuttered, jobs outsourced, pensions lost.

I anticipated stories about hard-working men and women who fell afoul of a changing world.

And there was some of this.

But more frequently, Vance pulled no punches in acknowledging the crippling laziness and entitlement that has besieged his friends and family. As he states:

This book is about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it (p. 7).

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness … the rhetoric of hard work conflicts with the reality on the ground (pp. 57–58).

To many analysts, terms like “welfare queen” conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole. Readers of this book will realize quickly that there is little relationship between that specter and my argument: I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white (p.8).

We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach (p. 147).

FAMILY MATTERS

At the root of this problem were not just economic forces, but the wholesale breakdown of the family.

Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world. … Virtuous fathers are in short supply in Jackson [KY], but they are equally scarce in the lives of my grandparents’ grandchildren.

When it came to motherly influence, Vance says things were not much better:

“I was nine months old the first time Mamah saw my mother put Pepsi in my bottle.”

As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”

In this environment, Vance claims that a stigma is often attached to those who try to better themselves. Thus they are “too big for their britches” and are ridiculed by friends and relatives.

HILLBILLY CHRISTIANITY

Another takeaway was the role that religion plays within this culture.

As Vance describes it: “[Here] in the middle of the Bible Belt, active church attendance is actually quite low.” And in the steel mill town that he grew up in, it was “about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco.”

Most folks are nominally “Christian,” yet the faith is full of contradictions:

Mamah always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew (p. 189).

For Vance personally, his own faith was ignited (momentarily) when he went to live briefly with his adopted father. This man had been divorced by Vance’s mother, and had now found God with a new family.

I devoured books about young-earth creationism, and joined online chat rooms to challenge scientists on the theory of evolution. I learned about millennialist prophecy and convinced myself that the world would end in 2007. I even threw away my Black Sabbath CDs (p. 95).

In my new church … I heard more about he gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any character trait that a Christian should aspire to have. … Dad’s church required so little of me (p. 98).

As Vance describes it, this was “evangelical” theology. Yet for those of us who study such things, it is frustrating to note the way in which mindless fundamentalism has become synonymous with “evangelical.” Perhaps, as many now argue, the label is beyond repair.

Likewise, the result is easily predictable:

[I didn’t] realize that the religious views I developed during my early years with Dad were sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith (p. 99).

CONCLUSION

In the end, Hillbilly Elegy is an eye-opening look into a culture that (till recently) had gone mostly unseen by those of use who don’t live in it.

It is both love song and lament, both thank-you and Dear John.

Yet for those who want to understand what’s happening across the Rust Belt of this country, it is a required read.

Buy here.

See also, Strangers in Their Own Land (here)

When God establishes bad leaders: Reading Romans 13 on election day

When God establishes bad leaders: Reading Romans 13 on election day

As a college professor, one of the Bible courses I teach is Paul’s letter to the Romans.

And as luck (or rather: providence) would have it, the next passage on the docket—for the day after the 2016 presidential election—is none other than Romans 13.

It’s controversial, and it reads like this:

1 Let everyone be subject 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, whoever 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 you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents 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 as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. 

The text has been unpopular for ages, and it has sometimes been abused.

It also raises massive questions.

For instance: What about truly wicked or dishonest leaders (like Hitler, Stalin, or Bill Belichick* [*joke] )? Did God establish them? What does “established” even mean? What are the limits of Christian submission to authority? And while we’re at it, didn’t Paul get his head chopped off by one of these divine “servants” (Nero)?

All this takes on added significance in the wake of this year’s presidential contest/raging dumpster fire.

Because regardless of who wins (I write this on election morning), the majority of Americans will be very disappointed with the kind of person we’ve elected.

 

Given that, it seems fair to ask this question:

What does Romans 13 have to say to Christians?

A few thoughts:

  1. God is sovereign over nations, kings, and presidents.

It’s worth noting that Caesar Nero would have found this text troubling for the exact opposite reason as many modern Christians. Paul’s claim, if we read carefully, is that all earthly authorities (exousias) fall below a crucified Jewish carpenter on the “org chart” of the cosmos.

As Jesus said to Pontius Pilate “You would have no authority if it were not given to you from on high” (Jn. 19.11). And since the later Caesars viewed themselves as gods, Paul’s statement represents a big demotion. As N.T. Wright likes to say:

“If Jesus is Lord, Caesar isn’t.”

In truth, this does not dispel the vexing questions regarding God’s role in “establishing,” bad leaders. Then again, if you’re expecting this blog to resolve the mystery of divine sovereignty, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

  1. Submission doesn’t mean unqualified obedience, but it does imply respect.

When Paul calls Christians to be subject (hupotassesthō) to governing authorities, he does not mean that we must do everything they say. As the book of Acts makes clear, there will be times when “We must obey God rather than human beings” (5.29).

Still, Paul is clear is that Christians should not be tax-evading (vs. 6–7) insurgents (vs. 2) who take every opportunity to thumb their noses at the emperor.

In 57 AD, Nero’s tax policies had become massively unpopular. There were riots. And in Judea, anti-Roman zeal had reached a fever pitch. Several Jews had even started blogging (*sarcasm).

Yet in the midst of this, Paul’s advice was for the church to remain calm, to remain on mission, to be good citizens, and to be respectful to authorities.

As N.T. Wright goes on:

Rome could cope with ordinary revolutions, but a community committed to the crucified and risen Lord, living out his story and teachings—now that was dangerous! 

  1. Paul practiced what he preached.

It’s easy to be cynical about Paul’s claim that “rulers hold no terror for those who do right.” And indeed, the irony drips like the blood from the blade of Paul’s executioner. (Is not beheading the archetypal form of terror? Turn on the news.)

pauls-death

Yet like Jesus, Paul was willing to live out this non-violent and respectful posture even to the bitter end.

In Acts 23, the apostle lost his temper (which makes me feel better) and shouted at the Jewish high priest who was having him beaten without cause: “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” (vs. 3). Then, after regaining his composure, Paul apologized:

Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: “Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people” (vs. 5).

Like many of us (read: me), Paul sometimes lost his cool when faced with the nonsense of political elites.  Yet in this case, he chose to respect the office, even when he could not respect the person holding it.

May we do likewise.