Ransom Blog

"Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.

― Karl Barth

Romans 13 in the Age of Trump

May 3, 2018

Today, was the "National day of Prayer." Many faith-based organizations held events in their respective places. I was invited to attend an event held in my state today by a friend of mine. For the most part, it was pretty good. It was framed under the heading "God, America & Politics: Discussions on Justice, a Symposium." I heard stories about coming together as one and that we need to get to know each other and have dialogue to see the Imago Dei in everyone. This gave me hope! This had me believe that maybe we can look past the donkeys and elephants  and come together as the "beloved community."

But then, during the final segment, came the talk - "we must obey all authority." The person speaking contextualized Romans 13 to fit a narrative on obedience to the government. This text has been popularly misquoted. It is surrounded by exhortations to not conform to the patterns of the world, love one’s enemies, and overcome evil with good. There is a passage in 1 Peter 2: 13ff on submitting to authority that is woven into a larger tapestry about Christians living as aliens and strangers to the ways of the world. So before we hastily jump to the conclusion that these passages support Christian war or violence, we must understand what they actually say and their placement in overarching New Testament themes.

I would like to ask this person: " What would this text sound like to a German Christian under Hitler’s rule or an Iraqi Christian under Saddam’s rule?" It is easy to blindly use this text to support some militaristic adventure of Constantine or the United States and assume its divine sanction, but this overlooks the fact that “all” must include all authorities: Nero, Domitian, Pilate, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Hitler’s Third Reich, and so on.

Also, there is no place in the text where these authorities, under the right conditions, are considered divinely inspired (therefore worthy of obedience) or, not meeting some criteria, are considered divinely condemned (therefore worthy of disobedience). The text does not give ordination only to democratically elected governments, but includes dictators!

When certain governmental standards (which have been imported into this text from elsewhere) are not met, some Christians like to introduce an exception: “We must obey God rather than men.” But this phrase was intended not to provide an exception to the rule but serve as a clue to the overarching politics of the people of God: they always obey God rather than men.

That God establishes all authority does not mean that God approves of all authorities. The point is rather that God is to be considered greater than, not equal to, all the powers of this world. Even the best democracy in the world isn’t worthy of allegiance, for God is sovereign even over it.

“Established” here means that God orders the powers, as a librarian orders books but doesn’t necessarily approve of their content. After all, Paul speaks of a government that “rewards the just,” but he also has extensive experience with persecution under its rule, and John of Patmos later refers to the powers (in Revelation 13) as the great whore.

That God “ordered” pagan Assyria to chastise Israel (Isaiah 10) is similar to Paul’s point. Isaiah made no hint that God approved Assyria or the violence it used, but Israel was to trust that, in their suffering, they were not outside of God’s sovereignty.

Jesus echoed this belief when he declared to Pilate, “You would have no power if it were not given to you from above,” while obviously acknowledging Pilate’s abuse of this power.

Or remember back to when Israel demanded a king despite God’s warnings of what kings would do to them, and “in God’s anger God gave them a king.”

And now we ask God to save us from ourselves and our kings and presidents.

many Christians quote this text to justify Christian accommodation to a violent or unjust status quo (a strange irony for Americans who staged a revolution to overthrow their “divinely appointed” king!).

But if we take what comes before this passage, it’s clear that Paul is not calling for accommodation to violence, but creative resistance to it:

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will."

On the contrary:

If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.

 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

The ultimate nonconformity for Paul is love: “Love must be sincere.”

It’s quite ironic that many people are willing to quote Romans 13:1-7 to legitimize violence by the state while disregarding the context in which it is placed, which is a call for us as followers of Christ to be nonconformists to the violence that is so common in “the world,” and instead, to conform to the image of Christ, which is the image of nonviolent and revolutionary love.

There are two occasions when the authorities interrogated Jesus regarding taxes. On one occasion, he borrowed a coin. (The fact that he did not have one is significant.) He asked the interrogators whose image was on that coin and then said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). On the other occasion, he instructed Peter to go catch a fish, telling him the fish would have a four-drachma coin in its mouth for the tax collectors (Matthew 17:27). (Try that on Tax Day!)

Both of these stories are usually interpreted as proof that Christians must simply submit to the authorities and give Caesar whatever he asks of us (notably with little regard of whether Caesar is a dictator or elected, evil or benevolent). But it seems Jesus has got something more clever up his sleeve.

In both instances, Jesus is asked a straightforward, yes-or-no question: “Do you pay taxes?” In both cases, his response subverts the question, going deeper to challenge its basic assumptions. He doesn’t dodge the questions; he transcends them. He forces his listeners, taxpayers and tax collectors, to ponder. To what, exactly, does Caesar have a right? What has Caesar’s image, and what has God’s image? What is Caesar’s, and what is God’s?

Caesar can have his silly metals; after all, he can keep making more of them even if they aren’t worth a dime. But coins have no life in them. Human life is branded with the image of God, and Caesar does not own that. Once we’ve given to God what is God’s, there isn’t a lot left over for Caesar.

In Matthew 25:31–46, we read that God will judge the nations in accord with how each nation cared for the poor, cared for those in prison, and how well they accepted aliens. Please note that God holds nations, not just the church, responsible for caring for the poor. That passage of Scripture should answer those who question whether or not there is a national responsibility to care for those who are needy, marginalized, or oppressed.

The Inherent Racism of saying "Blue Lives Matter"

May 18, 2018

Blue Lives Matter is built on the back of the Black Lives Matter movement the same way much of this country was built on the backs of black slaves. Blue Lives attempts to fill a need that doesn’t truly exist — we already respect and value the police. Many Americans do not respect and value black lives, and shifting the narrative to the plight of police officers gives those same Americans something to continue hiding behind instead of facing their implicit bias.

While the simple act of painting blue lines on our roads may seem harmless, it’s important to evaluate what seeing these lines means for our black residents and their allies. Facing this representation of Blue Lives Matter is a consistent reminder of racism. While being pro-police is not racist, co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement and equating these activist efforts with an entity that doesn’t require it is not only irresponsible, but it also endorses the very racism that the Black Lives Matter movement protests.

The act of painting these lines serves a selfish need for each town that takes part, claiming to be part of something bigger. But the act ignores the basic ethic of treating all people with care. Where are the black lines in the middle of the street? Or the iconic raised fist of the Black Lives Matter movement on car bumpers? Or handmade signs proudly displayed on front lawns? I have not seen any public support for Black Lives Matter displayed in my neighborhood — and without this public acknowledgment, black residents in our community have no evidence that their lives do matter.

While New Jersey municipalities should be working on fostering community, alleviating the tension of racism, and fighting for the value of black lives, legislators are instead intentionally burying their heads in the sand to ignore the real problem. These blue lines reveal a neglect of public duty, a tone-deafness to a national plight that desperately needs attention. The non-white citizens faced with these ignorant and chilling blue lines on their daily commutes are reminded of something that they always knew, but had perhaps not encountered so explicitly — that their lives don’t matter, at least not as far as New Jersey politicians, legislators, and communities are concerned. Rather than engaging in the conversation about racism, the community would rather drown it out with a conversation about police work.

The concept of Blue Lives Matter turns a cold shoulder to the critical needs of police reform and retraining on police bias that could save the lives of racial minorities. Our communities will only flourish when we listen to and support one another. If we allow literal dividing lines to be painted on our roads under the guise of support for police officers, we continue to remain sheltered in a fantasy, denying that conversations about racism and police reform must happen if we want a functioning — and truly safe — society.

Compromising Truth for Power: the Gospel of Paula White and Biblical Illiteracy

July 23, 2018

'Paula White, Florida pastor and one of President Trump's spiritual advisors, defended her support for zero tolerance border control, stating that "Jesus might have been a refugee but did not break any laws."

After praising a child detention center in Virginia, White responded to immigration advocates, saying, "I think so many people have taken biblical scriptures out of context on this, to say stuff like, 'Well, Jesus was a refugee.' Yes, He did live in Egypt for three-and-a-half years. But it was not illegal. If He had broken the law then He would have been sinful and He would not have been our Messiah."

See Paula, Jesus was an infant when He was brought to Egypt by His parents, who were fleeing violence. The implication of her statement is that even children who are brought to the United States by their parents—a matter that they have no say in—have done something “sinful.” Also, many of the children are seeking asylum in the U.S., something the country legally offers to individuals fleeing violence.

Paula's statement runs in contrast to the Biblical witness. I’ll simply say this, anybody who is a Christian, who has challenges with immigration, may want to reference Scripture. Because in the time of Herod, he was seeking to kill children 2 years old and under, because he heard a king was coming, and he didn’t know which one it was, and so an angel told Joseph, ‘Get your wife and your son, and go to Egypt.’ And so he had to immigrate to Egypt to flee persecution and the threat of death. So be careful how you treat immigrants, because your Savior was one.

Paula White’s strain of Christianity differs from the mainstream Biblical teachings of sacrifice. The "prosperity doctrine" (similar to the "selling of indulgences" in which Martin Luther protested in the 1500's) teaches that Christians who are living their lives according to certain Biblical rules—as well as giving generously to the church—will receive financial blessings. As Trump’s spiritual advisor, White and Trump’s beliefs that affluence is proof of spiritual fitness manifests itself in her lifestyle and his stance on public policy and cabinet appointments.

Because of what was seen as lavish and inappropriate use of church funds, the Whites and several other prosperity preachers became the focus of a 2007 congressional investigation initiated by Republican Senator Charles Grassley. Paula and Randy refused to provide full financial information for the case, a move similar to Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.

From Jim and Tammy Baker to Joel Osteen, prosperity preachers intertwine finances with holiness. Embracing the belief that the Bible verse John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” is speaking about the worldly offerings of health and wealth, Paula White has found herself holding her own in the male-dominated world of Robert Tiltons and Kenneth Copelands. The fact that she lives extravagantly, including gifting her mentor T.J. Jakes with a Bentley, is not reason for spiritual scrutiny in this strain of Christianity. Monetary blessings are a sign of spiritual fitness.

Also known as the “Name-it-and-claim-it gospel,” the prosperity gospel doctrine was formed by focusing on Biblical verses and stories that include the words or theme of abundance, blessings, and wealth. The origins of the movement are attributed to Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin, Jr. However, it was Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, known as Revered Ike, who popularized it, especially among African-American Christians.

This is not your parent’s “Love one another” Christianity.

The message of peace and unity has disappeared from the podium. Welcome to the Trump-era, where each American is seen as either an ally or an enemy. And it’s the enemies who will lose: “No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord and their vindication from me, declares the Lord (Isaiah 54:17).”