Obeying Authority: When It’s Right and When It’s Not
by pastor Paul J. Bern
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Today we live in a world where the abuse of authority has gotten completely out of control. This is about so much more than merely being unhappy about Donald Trump’s presidency or the way he is running the country. This abuse of authority dates all the way back to at least the early 1960’s, when certain people in authority conspired to assassinate president John F. Kennedy on live TV. It was a bloody coup, and Kennedy’s assassins and their compatriots have been running the country ever since. We were lied to about President Kennedy’s assassination by the Warren Commission, and we were lied to again five years later concerning the Robert Kennedy assassination. We were lied to about Rev. Dr. King’s assassination that same violent year of 1968. President Nixon lied to us about Watergate. We were lied to in 2003 as a pretext for invading Iraq for a second time when it was not necessary. And we were lied to by president Obama when he won the 2008 election while telling us all that he would bring us “change we can believe in”. We got some serious changes all right, resulting in the largest spy and unmanned drone network the world had ever seen. Under the Trump presidency, this drone war has not only been stepped up, it has been taken to the next level.
On the home front, the police have become thoroughly militarized, and they are having lots of fun on the job thanks to all their new toys and gadgets, not to mention fully automatic weapons, and even tanks! They can stop us and search us without cause and without the Constitutionally mandated search warrant. They are breaking our doors down in the middle of the night and murdering unarmed citizens. A 92-year-old woman was shot 19 times and killed by the police several years ago right here in Atlanta where I live and work, and people of color as well as the poor are being specifically targeted by the police, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. In the case of the elderly woman, it later turned out the police had the wrong house.
Speaking as a minister of the Gospel and as an ambassador for Jesus Christ, I have done a little research as to what the Bible says about governmental authority and the abuse of power. It turns out that there is ample argument for both sides of this coin. The first part has to do with submission to authority in the context of being a law-abiding citizen as the apostle Paul saw it when he wrote the Book of Romans approximately 1,950 years ago. At the time that this was written, all of what is now modern-day Israel was under the military occupation of the Roman empire. Similarly, much of the world today is occupied by the American Empire. Paul wrote these words in that context, so I will quote from the book of Romans, chapter 13 and verses 1-5.
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” (Romans 13: 1-5)
At the time that the apostle Paul wrote this, the death penalty was commonplace. Capital punishment existed as a means of absolute control through raw intimidation, and that punishment was carried out with utter ruthlessness and without mercy. Moreover, unlike the Jewish religious establishment of that era, Paul was a Roman citizen and as such he was given rights and privileges that were not shared equally with other non-citizens. But how does this compare with life in the early 21st century? Although the death penalty is still administered for capital crimes such as murder, it is carried out with relative infrequency compared to the days of the Roman empire. There were also debtors prisons in Paul’s day. People who ran into financial trouble back in those days were routinely imprisoned until their debts were paid. In contrast, today if one gets into financial difficulty, bankruptcy laws exist that are much more fair and equitable than prison. Compared to the times in which the apostle Paul lived, we get a complete picture of a much more fair, equitable and comparatively lenient world in the present day. Let me now make some comparisons between Paul’s world and ours using this passage of scripture as a backdrop to the picture that I will now paint for you with my words.
“The authorities that exist have been established by God”. This one solitary sentence, while being a biblical verse, has been more misused than any other in my opinion (It was reportedly Hitler’s favorite Bible verse). Although Paul sincerely believed at the time that he wrote these words that he was absolutely correct, he was speaking more as a Roman citizen and a Hebrew religious scholar than he was as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In modern America, our rule of law is the Constitution of the United States and so I am writing today in this context as an American citizen. We have the right to free speech and freedom of religion today that did not exist in the apostle Paul’s time. That right which is established under the 1st amendment to the US Constitution allows me to write these words without fear of punishment. As such I am within the law and I will remain so for as long as the law is fair and just. It’s when it’s unfair to the point of being oppressive that things can get a bit dicey. But hold that thought as I continue.
The apostle Paul continues his train of thought as he writes further: “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” The same applies today. Take the patriot movement and so-called “preppers” of today as two examples. Organizing any armed revolt in modern-day America is an idea that I am very much against, since I preach and teach as a man of peace who tries his best to emulate Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the redeemer of my soul. Besides, the police have very well-armed SWAT teams, and there is always the National Guard that exists within any given state. So I think one would be foolhardy to try and take on authority in this manner. On the other hand, it is perfectly legal, and I would also say that it is even necessary, to engage in peaceful protests against laws and policies that we disagree with, particularly when they are unjust. The US Supreme Court’s decision that money equals free speech – the so-called “Citizens United” ruling – is one good example of an unjust law. The counterproductive and sometimes downright stupid War on Drugs is another one, particularly when it comes to the topic of medical marijuana, which clearly needs to be legalized. For a Christian perspective on medical marijuana, get a copy of my book. “Cannabis Legalization and the Bible” by yours truly. The first amendment to our Constitution gives us the right to protest or uphold any and all of the above, something that did not exist during Paul’s time all those centuries ago. In this regard, I think we can interpret this passage of scripture a little differently than what Paul wrote back then.
The apostle Paul then continues making his point, and so will I. “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.” It is sad to say that this is not always true in the modern world. Bad people vilify good people for doing good things for a lot of different reasons, most of which have to do with envy, malice or guilt. Trying as I do to do what is right, I often find myself looked down on by the many godless people I encounter when I’m out riding public transit around town. I put up with the occasional verbal attacks because I am openly Christian, but I do so knowing that God is watching everything I do and He is listening to everything I say. But still, it is wise to be “free from fear of the one in authority”. The best way to follow this principle is to obey the commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ. We learn his commandments and what his will is by reading his Word daily, even if only for a few minutes (Try a chapter a day, particularly if you’re just getting started; it only takes 5 minutes). Just by doing this, we can keep ourselves out of much trouble. Besides, the Bible says in the Old Testament to “obey the laws of the land, that it may go well with you in the place you are abiding”. Those words were written at least three thousand years ago, and they are still just as true today as they were back then.
By the same token, there are things happening and situations unfolding within the US government that are completely contrary to God’s laws. Take the ten commandments as an example. The eighth commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”, which can be expanded to include this simple command: you shall not lie and gossip about people you dislike. Yet America found itself embroiled in a war in Iraq that was based on a lie. Specifically, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was still in power. Of course, those WMD’s turned out to be non-existent, and it took 4,400 US fatalities – and over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, one third of whom were children – to find that out. The same applies to Afghanistan. Our troops have been there since 2001, first to find Osama Bin Laden even though everybody in Southern Asia and the Middle East knew he was in Pakistan. Now that he has been deceased for quite a few years, are our troops all back home yet? Absolutely not, effectively making Afghanistan a de facto US territory with an open ended US military presence. The US government has been spending $6 billion dollars a week on this occupation, a thoroughly obscene sum of money by any standard.
Yet all the while, there is unemployment here in the USA that is officially around 4%, but that doesn’t count all the millions of long-term unemployed who have stopped looking for work, as well as those who are working part-time when full-time work is what is needed. If these facts were figured into this equation, the true unemployment rate is hovering at around 24 percent. There is no money to create over a million badly needed jobs in our country, but there is an unlimited supply of cash for multiple illegal military occupations and drone strikes all around the globe. This is a moral outrage, and anybody with even a little bit of a conscience should be out in the streets protesting against the US military-industrial complex. That may not be in the words of the Bible, but it most certainly is in the Spirit thereof.
Paul then writes in verse 5, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” This is just as true today as it was when it was first written. Being an outlaw will only get us into trouble, and jail is no place for anybody to be except for the worst criminals. For example, it is a bad idea to drive your car at 90 miles an hour because it is against the law for obvious reasons. On the other hand, I’m old enough to remember famed boxer Muhammad Ali who, back in the 1960’s when he was known as Cassius Clay, had his career interrupted when he had to serve time in prison for refusing to report for the military draft. Going off to war for people who had enslaved his ancestors, he said, in order for him to go and kill even more, was too much to ask and he refused to go fight in the Vietnam war. He spent a year or two in prison, as I recall, for making that decision, and that’s something I’ve always admired about Muhammad Ali. The fact that he converted to Islam makes no difference to me, because the same Almighty God made us both.
The ten commandments must be obeyed, to be sure, but let’s be sure to obey the teachings of Christ all the more. We have been commanded not to steal, lie or commit adultery, nor should we have any false gods in our lives, such as money and all the ‘things’ it can buy. We are commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your strength, all your mind, all your soul and all your spirit”, and to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves” (Matthew 22, verses 34-40). We can and should worship the one true God and Him alone, who sent His only Son to die for our sins and then to rise from the dead on the third day after He was crucified. In the same way that we submit ourselves to God we should, as far as it is possible, submit to authority here on earth. But if that authority becomes abusive, especially to the point of being dangerous or menacing to its citizens, then our obedience to that authority should become more discerning. And we should do so not only “because of possible punishment but also because of conscience”. But here in the 21st century, we can and should oppose and protest against the government similarly because of matters of conscience. It is part of the laws of our land as they exist today, and we can and should exercise this right because our rule of law says we can. This is also in keeping with God’s commands, and I hope and pray that it always remains so.