God and Country
1 Peter 2:13-17
13For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution,* whether of the emperor as supreme, 14or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. 16As servants* of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17Honor everyone. Love the family of believers.* Fear God. Honor the emperor.
To start off the message on this Sunday after Independence Day, I want to read from the document that … well … declared our independence from England.
The Declaration of Independence
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
So Peter says: Honor the emperor.
The Emperor, Nero to Peter, was Rome.
And Rome was the government.
So Peter is basically saying, “Honor the government.”
But the Declaration of Independence says: … it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [the government], and to institute new Government …
Do you sense a conflict?
As disciples of Jesus, can we reconcile these two divergent views?
Are we compelled by Peter to blindly submit to any and all government policies in order to honor the government?
Or can we object, criticize, protest and even revolt, as the Declaration of Independence … well … declares?
This is the question.
Do we celebrate a holiday that commemorates a violation of scripture?
To answer that we first need to understand the context of Peter’s letter.
The letter was written to Christians living in the Rome.
The Christian community was a small minority, which was marginalized and subjected to a fair amount of violent hostility and distrust.
They needed some advice on how to live their lives as disciples of Jesus in a hostile world.
So, Peter gives them some in this letter.
Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Peter, good Jew that he was, might have been recalling the stories of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.
While exiled in Babylon, the Jewish people had two principal goals.
Survive as a people.
And maintain their identity as Jews.
To accomplish these goals, Jews had to be good citizens of Babylon.
They needed to “fit in” so long as “fitting in” did not require them to live contrary to their faith.
So what does that look like?
Kind of like Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abendigo.
They were Jews captive in Babylon.
Yet they worked as clerks for Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor.
They honored him and obeyed his laws.
Until Nebuchadnezzar told them to violate their Jewish ethics and rituals either by worshiping his statue or eating non-kosher foods.
It was then that all four of them refused.
To comply would make them deny their identity as Jews.
You know the stories about what happened next.
Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den and the others were thrown into the fiery furnace.
Peter faced a similar challenge shortly after Pentecost.
Peter was preaching in the Jerusalem Temple.
The Temple council commanded him to stop.
To comply would have made Peter deny his discipleship of Jesus.
Peter said that he was compelled to preach by God and so could not obey the orders of these mere men.
The Roman Christians had the same problem.
They were told to worship the emperor and refuse at the peril of execution in the most horrible ways.
Honor the emperor until that requires you to deny God.
If it does, refuse.
So, where do we draw the line?
We have some advice from folks who have thought this through.
Emilio A. Nunez,is a Salvadoran theologian and is a proponent of something called “liberation theology”.
In an article in Christianity Today, Nunez said:
Within the scope of those human matters that are relative, political systems have their place in society; but the Christian is not called to confer on any of those systems the quality of the absolute, because that which is absolute is found only in God. Furthermore, without pretending to have a false political neutrality, the Christian should always reserve the right to criticize any political system, whether of the left or of the right, in the light of the Word of God.
I also think that Nunez has hit the theological nail on the head.
In matters that are relative, we give the government the benefit of the doubt.
You want to live here?
Obey our laws.
But when it is a matter of faith, we obey God.
What does that look like?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived this dilemma in the time of Hitler.
This is how he interpreted how the church and state interact when the church or an individual cannot reconcile what the state is doing:
There are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state:
In the first place, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.
In the United States we would ask: “Is it Constitutional?”
Second, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community, “Do good to all people.”
The church must provide assistance to those the state has ignored or rejected or mistreated.
The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order.
This is open protest.
This is hitting the streets and crying out for justice.
This is proclaiming that the government is failing its obligations.
This is the Declaration of Independence.
I think the founders of our country were in complete agreement with Nunez and Bonhoeffer.
I think that is why they did what they did.
But would Peter agree?
I think so.
But where do we draw the line?
Here is one example.
When I first got here back in 2014, we wanted to put up an electric sign down at the bottom of the hill that would alert the people driving by about events and special services at the church.
But there is a local building code that said – no electric sign!
We did protest – disputing the validity of the ordinance – but to no avail.
So – we have no electric sign.
We are honoring the government of Bethel Park.
Bethel Park was not requiring JMPC to do anything that would require us to deny Jesus nor is the church compromising its faith when it obeys the code.
But Bethel Park has no right to control the way we worship, teach or our mission.
To do that would be an attempt to force us to violate our Christian ethics and rituals.
At that point we need to refuse to obey.
That is what Peter is saying.
Peter is saying that, as much as possible, we should seek to cooperate with the government and obey the law; but when it comes to our faith and ethics, we are to compare the government’s actions with the way Jesus teaches us to live.
If the government asks us to live contrary to the Jesus way, we are to choose Jesus.
But when we feel compelled to act in violation of the law in order to uphold our faith, we do so also knowing that we might have to pay a price.
Bonhoeffer, Daniel, his three friends and Peter accepted the consequences of their disobedience.
Daniel went to the lions, his friends to the fiery furnace.
Bonhoeffer died in a German concentration camp.
Peter was crucified.
They each accepted their fate at the hands of the human government knowing that they were being obedient to God.
There are times when the right thing to do is to simply obey, be patient, and work within the system.
Happily, most often we simply work within the system to change the governing party or enact different laws.
But there are other times when we must disobey so as to remain faithful to Jesus.
Or, in the case of our Founding Fathers, faithful to God.
What does all this mean for us today?
Again let’s look at what Peter says.
See those words?
Love your neighbors.
Love the family of believers!
Be faithful to your Christian community.
Maintain your identity as a child of God.
Honor the emperor.
Be a good citizen, in light of the above.
That sounds like what the founders said.
That is what Peter said.
So, I believe there is no conflict between the words of the Declaration of Independence and Peter’s instruction.
I am glad, too, because now I can feel good about celebrating our independence from England and the revolution that accomplished it.
And I did.
I ate barbecued pork, had a couple adult beverages, watched the Edinboro 4th of July Bike Parade, and hung out with family and friends.
Then we watched fireworks and set off a few of our own.
It was a good day.
I hope you all had a great Fourth of July!