Friday, December 18, 2009


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. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.
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

In the chaotic protests of the late sixties and early seventies, those verses from Romans were frequently quoted by Conservative Christians. The authority of the government, they believed, was ultimately the authority of God.

Not so much lately.

It would be interesting to hear how Conservative Christians interpret those words today. Today it is the Liberals who want to trust the government to regulate markets, manage health care, and generally order our society. And the Conservatives are deeply suspicious of anything the government does.

It is not the first irony to be associated with those verses. The Apostle Paul told his Christian brothers and sisters that they should be subject to the Empire which would execute him almost before the ink was dry. Of course, many argue that Paul wrote those lines in part because he knew that the Empire wanted to crush the church, and he wanted to minimize all unnecessary conflict. The church had already declared that it was loyal to Christ rather than Caesar, and the Kingdom of God rather than the Empire. They had rejected violence and refused to participate in war. They didn’t need any additional evidence of disloyalty.

Today, the Conservatives distrust government more than the Liberals, but everyone seems to agree that the government can’t run anything (except, apparently, the military).

Recently in the course of running errands I waited in line at CVS, at Dave’s Market, at Panera, at MacDonald’s, and at the Post Office. At Dave’s Market, I stood with a single item in a regular line, because the express line was jammed. A helpful cashier came to open an additional line and motioned to me to come over there, but I was nearly run over by a woman with a full shopping cart, who darted in front of me. At CVS and MacDonald’s the shoppers typically try to form a single line that feeds the several open registers, and people frown as someone inevitably ignores the protocol and pushes in front. The lines were all long, but only at the Post Office did I hear complaints directed at the establishment. And I think that reflects our attitude toward government.

So what? People complain about everything. At one level, that’s true. We are complainers. And when we are not complaining about the weather or the economy, we complain about kids today, and parents today, and the payroll for the Yankees.

But I think it does matter. Our distrust of government undermines the effectiveness of government. Trust, of course, must be earned. But it also must be given. That is true in a family and it is also true in a society. If we do not believe that our government is capable of solving some fairly large problems, then we are all in more trouble than we thought.

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