A news site that I’ve begun scanning daily is www.Getreligion.org. It’s a thoughtful and well-written news reporting site focusing on religion. Recently, they were commenting on how – in the midst of the turmoil in Iran – Christian leaders have been strangely silent on the issue. I know I have considered writing about it from time to time, but always ended up deciding against it. Apparently I’m not alone in that decision.
My good friend Gary and I got into a discussion on this issue last night over IM. What is the Christian response in this situation? More accurately, how is a Christian who seeks to let the Bible dictate their reactions and attitudes towards current events supposed to respond? In the course of this discussion, it became clear that it is complicated. Or more precisely, it may not be complicated. But not in the way that some people might think.
The crucial text that centered our discussion of the issue is Romans 13:1-7. For those of you unfamiliar with this passage, I suggest you look it up and read it right now. Finished? Now read it again. Ready? Here is the pertinent text printed below – read it one more time. (I’m using the English Standard Version, which I’m partial to):
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
If there’s a passage of Scripture that gives me pause to consider how deeply entrenched I am in the world’s way of thinking, this is it. Because it strikes at our culturally cherished notions of freedom and democracy and self-determination. It strikes at our assumption that wrongs must be righted by us. It asserts that God is the sole authority in all of creation, and that in the realm of human governance, God is specifically involved in placing and removing people from authority.
That’s a hard pill to swallow, if you’re really honest with yourself.
There is no provision in Paul’s text for revolt against an unjust authority, a tyrant, or a despot. There are no mitigating conditions at all. Paul, the servant of Christ who endured beatings and threats and attempts on his life and shipwrecks at sea and imprisonment – all for the sake of the Gospel – has a keen insight into the nature and purpose of suffering injustice that ought to grab us by the throat and give us a good shake.
Paul was certainly no stranger to the idea of poor governance. He was well aware of the tragic history of Jerusalem alone, but also the larger empire. Of abuses of power back and forth. Of injustice on a mind-numbing scale. Of the crushing power of the State. It is not that Paul is naive to the likelihood – the inevitability, one might say – of the abuse of power. And yet he does not provide Christians (and by extension all peoples) the option of taking things into our own hand. We are not the judges. We are not the agents of destiny or history. Our role is obedience.
A Christian might argue that since the people of Iran are by and large not Christian, and the government is not a Christian one, these rules don’t apply to this situation. But it’s a pretty poor argument that what goes for Christians should not – ideally – apply to all people. Others might be tempted to utilize Augustine’s arguments about the sometime necessity for a just war. But a just war seems to imply an outside threat, not a desire from within a population to change the regime.
One might turn to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his involvement with an assasination plot against Hitler. Yet Bonhoeffer does not attempt to justify his action, or claim that he is not sinning. He knows he is sinning, and he takes responsibility for that volitional sinfulness. He does not attempt to claim some insight into Romans 13 that validates his behavior – he acknowledges that he is transgressing the words of Paul and the Holy Spirit.
So for Christians to comment on the situation in Iran is difficult. I’m sure many if not all Christians would like to see a regime change. The world undoubtedly would appreciate less of a polemical figure than Ahmadinejab in charge, and would like to see the iron grip of Khamenei and whoever might follow him weakened or broken. Yet to advocate for a revolution from within poses very clear theological problems for Christians without easy or convenient ways around.
We can advocate for freedom or democracy, but not at the expense of our clear warnings to obedience – obedience even to a repressive regime, obedience even to an unjust or tyrranical regime, obedience even unto death. It is an unpleasant reminder of the stakes involved in the spiritual realms of creation, and the terrible cost we may be expected to bear to demonstrate that two wrongs do not make a right, even though they may make a profound difference. It reminds Christians of precisely who is in charge, and how ill-equipped we are to determine for ourselves what God is up to in the world, and the means He might wish us to use to carry out His will. The Bible speaks a great deal about obedience, and precious little about self-determination, or freedom, or democracy. At least in temporal terms and applications that we are more used to considering.
And it should be a reminder of how difficult true obedience can be. Which should make those of us who have not – at least as of yet – had to bear up faithfully under repression – so very, very grateful for the grace we have received through no merit of our own. Our country has many problems – many severe and critical problems – but we should at least remember to give thanks for the great freedoms which we possess – and use them wisely.