Today’s epistle in the daily lectionary is one of those texts that has become truly difficult:
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. … For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive it’s approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. (Rom. 13:1,3)
I know that if I were black and living in America, I would have a beef with Paul. So what are we to make of this text? My native instinct is to explain it away, but I choose not to do that.
Instead, I offer up a completely different reaction to society most recently described in the movie Captain Fantastic, which opens this weekend. It features a family that cut itself off from an evil and unjust world (and what happens when they re-engage with it). Following in the footsteps of stories like Swiss Family Robinson, and philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is yet one more exploration of the supposed innocent and natural life unencumbered by the burdensome order of society. In actual fact, Rousseau’s vision is more frequently worked out along the lines of Lord of the Flies, but that is a different essay.
Rousseau’s vision offers us a dismal view of the potentials of corporate society. Modern society has no redemptive value and the better choice is to flee.
Paul’s vision, in contrast, is an optimistic view of how society can work. In his view, society is redemptive because it offers the order and structure that makes working out our salvation possible in a group context. (And a reminder: salvation is not and, in the end, cannot be individualistic. We are incorporated into the Body of Christ and Christ as head of that corporate Body transforms creation through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit and the priestly efforts of his Body.)
When things get as dismal as they seem to have gotten, it is tempting to take the Rousseau option and opt out. But that rarely – if ever – works in the long run. And Paul reminds us that there is indeed a fundamental order in the society that exists. As bad as it gets, eventually – and it will happen sooner if we all stay engaged – norms of authentic law and order return.
That doesn’t make the current bleakness (whether that is the American context of violence against blacks and Native Americans, or the Middle East context of utter societal breakdown or the European context of unexpected and absurd violence against the bystanders) any easier to withstand, but it puts it into proper context.
“Pay to all what is due to them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due” (v. 7). When we go through life in that manner, we may suffer, be tortured, and killed. But at least we’ll live and live abundantly.