Reading: Acts 16:16-39
When Karla last spoke here, she spoke of Nazis marching in the street, and of the passion people have over monuments. She also spoke about what it means that humans are the image of God. My understanding of Christian ethics is built on the teaching that humanity is God’s image — so, we should behave in a way that respects God’s image. My understanding of a just society is a society that respects human life and dignity.
Now, this has been a strange year for me. I never imagined who I’d see defending Nazis. I never who would defend murder, and openly call for murder. I never imagined that I’d see a high elected official calling for police officers to “rough up” people who have not only been convicted of a crime, but those who have not even been charged with a crime. I never imagined how many people would defend rapists, because they were in positions of power. Perhaps what surprised me the most is that I was accused of being a bad Christian for suggesting that we have laws that keep people in positions of authority accountable — and that police and elected officials are subject to our laws. I had Romans 13 quoted at me — and was told a pastor should know the Bible better.
13 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. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[a] does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7 NRSV)
Of course, I didn’t see why this passage suggests that police brutality is perfectly fine nor why it meant that members of the government should not be held accountable to the law. What I saw is a suggestion that government is better than anarchy, and that we are all better off for being governed and policed; so we should pay our taxes, we should respect and follow the law. I remember that when Peter was jailed, and forbid to preach Christ he said that we must: “Obey God rather than men”, so I could clearly see that this was not the last word on the matter.
One thing that bothers me about these arguments is how often people are unfair to Paul. Paul is the liberal who worked tirelessly to make sure that my ancestors would be fully accepted as members of the church. Whenever people quote Paul to talk about who should be excluded they miss that Paul always finishes by reminding those who wanted to exclude that they would also be excluded, if not for God’s grace. I find it unfair that when somebody finds a sentence fragment from Paul and tries to make it say the opposite of what he said, that the response is often: “well Paul was wrong.” Not only is it unfair, but, for those who consider Paul an authority it is losing the argument.
I started thinking about the question: “How would Paul respond to police brutality?” Somehow, it seems unlikely that his answer would be what he wrote in Romans 13. It definitely would not be the rather extreme interpretation that if a government official did it, it is right and moral because God put that person in power and if a policeman roughed you up, then you must have done something to deserve it. I somehow don’t think that Paul was saying that those with a badge should get away with assault, theft, racketeering and murder.
Reading Acts, I found my answer. Paul’s response to police violence is that he demanded that his rights as a citizen be respected. When Paul was arrested without a valid reason and roughed up without conviction, he protested to the point of waiting at the jail until the local authorities came and apologized to him. Paul made sure that authorities knew that they were under the law, and that they could not treat people the way they were treating him. Paul was a protester.
Another thing that stands out is that it wasn’t just this one incident. Paul was arrested again. I’d read it to you, but it would take quite a while; Acts chapters 21-28 detail the arrest, and how Paul dealt with it. In the first event, Paul might have been content with an apology, but the second incident took much longer. The second time, Paul was not content to leave it with the local government, but he asked to take his grievance all the way to Caesar.
Of course, the second incident was far more involved, which is why it covers 8 chapters. I will summarize: Paul was attacked by a mob in Jerusalem, because somebody believed that he had brought a gentile into the temple. The Roman authorities responded by arresting Paul, and Paul was ordered to be whipped. Paul, seeing what was about to happen protested that he had rights as a Roman citizen, and that he could not be whipped before he was condemned of a crime. The centurion who was asked to whip Paul went back to the Tribune to point out that Paul had rights, and he could not do that. When the Tribune realized that Paul was a citizen, with rights, he became afraid, because he didn’t respect Paul’s rights.
The tribune, Claudius Lysias, wrote a letter to governor of Judea saying that he `rescued’ Paul from a mob; leaving out some of the details about how he treated Paul, and was sending him to the governor so that the mob’s complaint against Paul could be heard, and it could be decided if Paul had committed any crime. After an initial hearing, Paul was held until the Claudius Lystra could testify.
Felix, however, kept things moving slowly because he was seeking a bribe, and he held Paul, without charges, for two years. After this two years ended, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. 3 days into Festus’s governorship, Paul’s enemies called for him to be tried in Jerusalem, and Paul refuses, because it has already been established that he didn’t commit any crime — Paul appeals to Caesar.
Festus, at this point realizes that his predecessor held Paul for 2 years, without charges, consults Agrippa about what to do, writing: “it seems unreasonable to send a prisoner without any charges against him.” Agrippa then examined Paul, and found that there was nothing to charge him with, and stated that he could have been set free. Paul was then shipped to Rome, and it ends with Paul living in his own house, waiting for an audience with Caesar, and, in his dialogue, it is clear that there are no charges against him, but Paul is the one with the grievance.
The lesson that I take from this is that Paul was not suggesting that people in positions of authority are always right, nor that holding them accountable is rebellious to God, nor that even demanding that personal rights, which have been clearly stated, must be honored by government authorities. Because I see how Paul worked within the system, I see that there is room for protest.
I would like to end with an observation by the theologian Karl Barth taken from his 1930’s treatise on Church and State: “Can serious prayer… continue without corresponding work? Can we ask God for something which we are not… determined and prepared to bring about?” Barth’s question to German Christians in the early 1930’s applies to us today: We both pray and work for a more peaceful and just society.