Watching and reading the new has been a struggle for me lately. There’s so much happening the world over that I feel called to do something; I just don’t know what that something is.
Fighting in Israel and Palestine. Genocides (both religious and ethnic) in Iraq and Syria. Political unrest in Ukraine.
Racial conflict in Missouri.
Every one of these situations raises in me the desire to be involved and make a difference, but the last one – the current conflicts in Ferguson – in particular. It’s something happening in my own country. In a state where my friends live. It’s a conflict created and perpetrated by the elected government of a democratic society – one that actually has the possibility of being changed by the same society that created it. 1
Despite the passion with which I can discuss these conflicts, and my constant desire to stay up-to-date on the news and developing situation, I struggle with what to do. Considering that this very conflict is rooted in feelings of disappointment, frustration, and exasperation towards “governing authorities,” the following passage from Romans keeps playing in my head:
Let everyone be subject 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, whoever 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 you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents 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 as a matter of conscience. 2
I know there are some Christian denominations that interpret this passage as condemnation of any government involvement by Christians. I can understand that, I and I respect their position at the same time I wholeheartedly disagree. Romans was a letter written to people living in a dictatorship. We live in a democracy. I feel that we should be involved in the movings of our government.
I also recognize that an appeal to feelings towards what a Christian should or shouldn’t do is on dangerous footing.
Instead, I’ve always made my appeal using scripture that urges our position to be one that stands against injustice. One that protects the helpless and the oppressed.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday. 3
My struggle, particularly with situations like the current racial unrest in Ferguson, 4 is the implied disagreement between these two passages. In Isaiah we are instructed to “satisfy the needs of the oppressed” and to “set [them] free.” In Romans we are advised that rebelling against the governing authorities is to rebel against that which God has established.
But how do we respond when the governing authorities are the source of the oppression we are called to confront?
How does a follower of Christ respond to injustice and institutionalized oppression in a Christlike manner?
- This is the same argument that could be used to justify action against the ongoing, illegal, unethical activity of federal organizations like the NSA. An argument and ongoing struggle that’s also very important to me. ↩
- Romans 13:1-5 ↩
- Isaiah 58:6-10 ↩
- or government wiretapping or net neutrality or water-boarding or preemptive military invasions or drone airstrikes or … ↩