A Citizen of the Kingdom
In the wake of Romans 12, today's chapter does more to puts kinks in our world-view as followers of Christ that perhaps any other passage of the New Testament to date. We have wrestled with God's call to us. We have grappled with access to the Gospel, be we Jew or Gentile. We have struggled with life in community, what happens in the midst of us as the Body of Christ. We have dealt to some degree with how we are to engage people outside the fellowship (particularly those with whom we are experiencing conflict.)
Now, we deal with the elephant sitting in the middle of the room: if we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, then what do we do with the Empires of this world? In Paul's day, it was Rome. Now, for those of us who are citizens of the United States or any one of the other world powers....it's us. Empire is. We might be a constitutional republic and many might see our government as inspired by God's guidance and blessing...but there is a VERY important distinction to draw between our citizenship in the Empires of this world (and the rights, privileges and responsibilities pertaining thereunto) and our true being as citizens and heirs to the Kingdom of God.
As Christians, we carry-if you will-two passports. It is not that we have two identities, rather that we have two sets of authority to which we answer. Paul has been clear about how God expects us to act, and in the Gospels and the subsequent Acts of the Apostles we can review the charter of our being as we see it articulated in the witness of the Christ and in the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Well and good. That is one passport. The other passport is our citizenship (and for some the LACK thereof) extended to us by the state in the land we happen to live, move and have our being in while living the life God has given us. Pauls knows what it means to navigate these waters. After all, he carries at least THREE passports: He is a Jew (and a Pharisee), a citizen of Rome and a member of the Body of Christ. His peregrinations and struggles stand as signal warnings to us of just how difficult his world is to navigate with success. In fact, in he context of this letter, he has failed due to the fact that his letter to the Romans is written while he is being led as captive to the city in order to give witness (and face execution) before the Caesar himself.
So, how do we deal with this dual citizenship? Paul counsels submission to the rule of law. Just because we are Christians does not mean we can claim sovereignty apart from the country in which we happen to abide. We are called to obey the laws of the land, to pay our taxes and to do our part for the common weal. I can accept that, for the most part. I struggle with embracing Paul's idea that we should do so because God has awarded a mandate to govern to those nations and empires. Simply: I am a member of a generation who has for the most part seen government offer the worst of what humanity can come up with in behaving toward itself. It is VERY hard to see government as a sacred thing, blessed by God.
Still, it is there. Romans 13 calls us not out of the world and followers of Jesus but into it. We are called upon to be contributors to good government. We are called to be reformers when it is needed. We are called to be part of the processes of justice-forging and reconciliation that create good for all in a society and not just advantage for some. We are called into deep engagement with the powers of this world...that is true. What we are NOT called to in the end is total submission to the state. The only true submission required of us is to God. So, while God may allow the state power...the state is not God.
That tidbit is visible in another place: Solomon's regal prayer during the consecration of the new temple. God now has a house in Jerusalem. God is now a prop for the throne of the Davidic dynasty and people can point to the place where God live. In fact, the house where God lives was built by people with Solomon's wealth. It would seem that Israel has to some effect been able to put God in a box, right?
Not so much.In the midst of Solomon's prayer, the king admits that a house on earth can't hold all of God's glory. That means that any government, even the one that God has blessed and made holy in Israel itself, cannot claim pride of place before God without being willing to submit to the Law of God with humility and faith. If Solomon, in the midst of Israel's great triumph, can admit to the reality that no one human institution can fully hold God in place...then what government can hold a citizen of the Kingdom of God in total check? They can't, unless to commit in faith to engaging the state, and its politics, with our faith in God as our primary focus.
So, Romans 13 gives us a lot of homework: we carry multiple citizenships...and thus must navigate the tension between obedience to God in context with submission to the rule of a worldly law; we are NEVER off the clock in the call to pursue justice and hold the state to account; and, we are bound by temporal law and our faith in God to maintain the high call to serve Christ AND be fully engaged in the politics of the world.
Easy, peasy. Right.