While finishing up my second book for my History of Southern Africa class, Jesus has been mentioned quite a bit. Since the beginning of the class, there has been the all-too-familiar notions of those in power using their concepts of God to justify not only their superior social status, exploitation of others, but their ideology of “this is the way it is”. Notably the Afrikaners using a military victory over the Zulu in the Battle of Blood River (the Ncome River) on Dec 16, 1838 as proof that God prefers the European newcomers over the African inhabitants.
It took some theological unraveling for people to get the idea out of their heads that the State (no matter which one) was ordained by God-to be obeyed and if you rebel against them you are rebelling against God.
I have had hundreds of conversation in my day about how to work with this excerpt from Romans 13 (when Nero was likely emperor) and how to make sense of it-mostly in the modern USA context. Responding to the same rhetoric that we hear in the States about how we are to go along with the governments and how military victories perpetuate our freedom, The Kairos Document was drafted in 1985 by over 150 clergy of all races and denominations. They helpfully outlined how crazy such arguments to justify the oppressor are.
JH Yoder, in his book The Politics of Jesus (great nutshell here) takes a great whack at solutions to our dilemma, although be forewarned-he is pretty Anabaptist so you’re not likely to get the American Ideologies that you do from CNN, fundamentalist western Christianity or McDonalds.
Why do we allow slavemasters, oppressive regimes, and those in power use such passages (thereby God) to justify themselves? Maybe we don’t allow it so overtly, but why do we play along? How can one read Ephesians 6 about slaves obeying their masters not read on two paragraphs that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Does Paul contradict himself all day or is there something more to the story? How often did those white preachers at slave gatherings read the Epistle of Philemon to them?
Even in my history class, the point is made about taking the text in context. Ideas of misogyny, keeping disenfranchised peoples down, classism, and blindly obeying governments miss the point and miss Paul big time. If you ask basic questions like “who is Paul? What is he actually doing during his life? How did he end up?” you’re in for a surprise if you think he wanted things to stay the way they were, etc.
I was again creeped out that the same rhetoric that Evangelicals regurgitate to me about respecting the government always (which BTW may not apply to Hitler, Saddam, Stalin, Ghengis Kahn, Napoleon, Castro, or Chavez) is the same used not only by slaveowners in the US but by the apartheid system in South Africa. Jeremy just wrote a post that modestly illustrates our allegience to Christ before any party or nationstate. For some reason, this is now considered a radical idea. For Paul the Apostle, such loyalty was normal.
I grieve that so many people I talk to are still injured by the wounds of such heresy. I wish it wasn’t so apparently easy to co-opt the Bible into so many wicked schemes over the past 2000 years. I sometimes even wish that it was easier to follow Jesus in the face of such blatant bullshit. For today, I can only trust and hope in Christ himself, putting one foot in front of the other.