The recent fire storm around Colin Kaepernick points at something that Christians in each generation need to ask themselves. How much reverence Christians should show the rulers we live under?
This is a paradox going back to the very first churches.
The very first generations of Christians refused to pledge their allegiance to the Roman Empire. They simply refused to have any Lord but Jesus.
And for refusing their allegiance – they were fed to the Emperor’s lions in the Roman Colosseum
And burned as human candles in the palace of Emperor Nero
with their founding pastor – the Apostle Paul – locked up in prison for preaching this anti-empire religion.
So it would seem Christians are squarely on the side of anti-government protesting. Right?
But then Paul does something that forever confused Christians’ relationship to civil disobedience.
As Paul is rotting in jail, his congregants are being fed to lions, and used as human candles for the governing authorities – the same governing authorities who murdered his Lord Jesus as a terrorist – Paul pens these words:
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…Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.- The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Roman Church 13:1 &7
And with one sentence Paul created the problem of the Christian nation.
The paradox of Paul’s call to “be subject to ruling authorities” and Christians refusing to pledge allegiance to the government – has etched itself deep into every Christian conversation of civil disobedience since. And America is no exception.
So we must ask ourselves:
Is Paul a fanatic Roman patriot who refuses to turn his back on a government that has clearly turned its fist on him?
It seems a bit far fetched to think that Paul would write from jail to inform his church that he is disobeying God by not pledging allegiance to the Roman Empire.
The other option is that Paul’s words are a call for Christian civil disobedience so that we can reform the ruling structures that God is also working to salvage?
What makes me convinced that it is a call for civil disobedience is that Paul is writing from prison. Paul and his church continually disobeyed a government that punished them for not pledging allegiance.
Rachel Held Evans said is succinctly:
The early church would be utterly baffled by the idea that future Christians would shame someone for not swearing allegiance to the empire.
— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) August 31, 2016
We see this paradox again in Martin Luther King Jr. who is sitting in Jail for refusing to abide by the segregation laws of the “governing authorities.”
Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”…We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
And yet the white pastors of Birmingham were grounding their arguments in a very different reading of Romans 13.
The problem with white pastors using this verse it that THEY ARE NOT THE ONE IN PRISON. And this the difference. Paul’s words are not a weapon of enforcing blind patriotism.
“Be subject to the ruling authorities” doesn’t mean German Christians have to fight in Hilter’s army.
“Be subject to the ruling authorities” doesn’t mean white firefighters have use fire hoses on black children.
We know this. But somehow Christians have a way of forgetting this when we aren’t the one’s being oppressed.
Maybe its because its easy to “be subject to the ruling authorities” when you are not the one being beaten, burned, and attacked by dogs.
But we must remember that Roman’s 13 isn’t a weapon of control to be used by the government. It is a deep call for hope in the midst of oppression.
And so here we are again with Colin Kaepernick -who while not a professional theologian has devoted his entire arm to Christianity – who refused to stand for the national anthem.Kaepernick said in an interview:”I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
And again Christians are shaming him for not pledging allegiance to America. A country where there are still places that refuse to protect black communities from police that wrongfully imprison and killed black people.
And while few white Christians are explicitly quoting Paul’s line “be subject to the ruling authorities” it seems to be the theological background for their vehement hatred for Kaepernick.
Try asking: How would the Apostle Paul and the early Christians feel about Colin Kaepernick sitting in the middle of a 21st Century Colosseum and refusing to support the power structures that oppress God’s people?
I believe they would be Christians for Kaepernick.
I want to thank Rachel Held Evans and her brilliant tweet for inspiring this article!