Christians Should Definitely Submit…but when and to whom?

When my brothers and I used to wrestle with various characters and backstories, my favorite was to not only be a heel but a submission specialist. Getting one of the little dudes to give up was rewarding and often hysterical. Before your mind goes to armbars or chokeouts, I’m talking more like using The Claw.

Last month Billy Graham’s son Franklin dropped a “listen up” on Facebook that motivated some of my friends to write an open letter asking Graham to smell the systemic racism coffee that is now burning. The gist of his message wasn’t new stuff. Obey cops. God put leaders above you so you need to…wait. He was quoting Hebrews 13:17 in which the writer refers to discipleship in the church not to Roman soldiers. Uh oh.

He might have better used Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 that actually reference submission to the state. Unfortunately for many Bible quoters, these passages most often get used to increase state sympathy and engender trust for a system that happens benefits the person doing the quoting. In the past nearly 20 years as a radicalized follower of Jesus, I have never had one of these passages thrown in my face by a person of color. When I spent a month in Iraq, none of the Iraqi Christians (there were a million at the time) brought it up to me. For Paul and Peter, who were on their trajectory [in and out of jail] on the way to martyrdom clearly had a sense that Rome was not Christ’s Shalom or the Kingdom of Heaven.

For those interested in the Bibletalk, you can’t really get Romans 13 apart from 12 and 14 (why do we make chapters of a letter seem separate anyway?) and get what Paul is driving at – transformed people with a radical sense of Jesus as the one we are actually bowing to. Peter, speaking to living in a pagan society in Asia Minor, brings home the point that Jesus will shepherd us through suffering – increasing social status and political freedom is not big enough. The state, including the one that is persecuting the people to whom he writes is not so good and is not our mission to simply fix. Peter perhaps even wrote under either the rule of Domitian or Pliny the Younger who either claimed divinity or made being a Christian punishable. Peter hardly expected them to follow all the laws or obey these masters like they demanded – having a presence of The Way meant playing a different game. The caesars were also called the Son of God and Savior of the World. Peter & Paul, along with their friends regularly made the seditiously political act of appropriately appropriating terms like these to describe Jesus Christ and the entirety of His Kingdom. This is not exactly submission, obedience, or honor of the emperor in the way that Franklin Graham’s ilk of police state collaborators would seem to mean.

As angry and discouraged as I was to hear about Officer Slager killing Walter Scott this week, I received a sense of hope because the Feidin Santana‘s video surfaced. I was even more hopeful when I read that the cops had a different story cooking before they knew about the video as it sheds light on dark places. Maybe there is a similar reason why police won’t release surveillance footage of Brandon Tate Brown’s killing (or say who killed him), even though the police already found themselves to have acted appropriately. The Lawncrest neighbors just up the road disagreed. As we marched last Saturday to mark the martyrdom of MLK, we still insist that BLACK LIVES MATTER to God and to us but historically and currently not to this state. We want justice for the family of Brandon. We want a $15 minimum wage.

Submitting to police when you are unlikely to get shot for less than a good reason might seem normal. Let me reframe in another time and place. You probably wouldn’t tell Christian Iraqis to submit to the Saddam Hussein era which could mean carrying out inhuman orders or allowing family members to randomly be disappeared, abused, or killed – right? That era is usually on the “bad guys” list for Christians – and basically Christians understand that you shouldn’t listen to bad guy states like Nazi Germany, Khmer Rouge, etc – only good guy states like the US. I’m calling into question the goodness of the US – illustrated by just this moment of state violence against our Black brothers and sisters.

I’m also trying to swim into the deep end of what submission means. First Christ’s followers submit to God and one another, and then figure out what it means to submit to the state. I think we should show respect and care for those caught up in the system and stand up against the injustice it perpetrates. Submitting isn’t just giving up like in WWF wrestling. The New Testament is littered with disciples submitting all over the place and somehow changing the world.