Friday, September 05, 2008

Arguments in church/obeying the authorities

First they came for the Communists,

  and I didn’t speak up,

    because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,

  and I didn’t speak up,

    because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,

  and I didn’t speak up,

    because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me,

  and by that time there was no one

    left to speak up for me. [1]


You might have heard this quote before, and probably know that it refers to the appalling programs of genocides carried out by the Nazi authorities in Germany, before and during WWII.  What you might not know is that the person who first spoke these words, a Lutheran pastor by the name of Martin Niemoller, started out on the side of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party – however Niemoller changed from being a supporter to being an outspoken and fearless critic well before the war, and eventually spent 12 years, from 1937 to 1945, in a series of concentration camps.

What a wonderful mish-mash of themes in our readings today!  Trouble brewing in ancient Egypt as God, no less, stops Pharaoh from showing any compassion to the Israelites and at the same time instructs the Israelites to hide under their beds while divine murder and mayhem is underway.  Paul tells us it’s all about love – straight after he’s told us all to behave ourselves and do what the authorities tell us no matter what.  Is it just me, or is there an inconsistency there, for a start?  What about the Egyptian authorities?

You know, the peculiar thing is – so far as I can ascertain, nobody else in the whole world is reading these problematic verses from Romans, chapter 13, today.  My commentary observes these verses of St Paul about obeying the ruling authorities are just about the most troublesome, embarrassing verses in the whole Bible – certainly the Uniting Church, even the US Episcopal Church, neatly snip them out and get on with the unproblematic bit about loving each other.  Except us – just us Aussie Anglicans, so far as I can tell.  It’s in our lectionary, and no matter how many times I checked it during the week, it was still there.  But you know what?  For once, I think the lectionary writers have got it right.  I really think the trick, when you come across the Bible’s more embarrassing bits, isn’t to pretend they’re not there, but to assume that contained in them - somewhere - is God’s Word for us.

That, of course, isn’t the end of our squirming in our seats for today.  There’s the Gospel, as well.  You might have thought last week the mood was starting to turn a bit dark, in our readings from Matthew, ‘deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me’.  And I suggested it was something about living authentically and consistently, having the courage to be open and vulnerable.  Yes, I said, there’s a cost, make no mistake about it, but there’s also the promise of great joy.  So we’ve got that.  We’re up for that.  It’s consistent with what we understand about Jesus, isn’t it?  Taking up our cross represents the little deaths, the things we have to die to every day so that we’ll be open to noticing and stepping into the new life that God is inviting us into.  The path for disciples is not any different, in the long run, from the path we’ve seen Jesus already taking.

But you know what, today’s Gospel reading is a whole lot harder.  Why?  Because it’s not theoretical any more.  This is a hard-headed look at what it’s actually like for us when we start trying to live together as the community of love that Jesus is telling us to be.  ‘This is what you do when somebody in the church does you wrong’, Matthew tells us.  Excuse me?  Who told him about Anglican Church politics?  But he’s got us completely nailed, hasn’t he?  ‘Go straight to that person and tell them about it.’  You see, Matthew knows something about us.  He knows how much easier we find it to go to somebody else, anybody else except the person we’re having a problem with, and tell them instead.  So it’s a process for dealing with disagreement openly and with respect.  It’s an anti-gossip clause, it’s good plain advice about being honest and assertive with each other.  Matthew’s telling us, ‘I know you’re human, I know you’re not perfect.  But give each other a break.  The one who has offended you – chances are they – just like you – are simply trying to listen to what God wants and put that into practice.’  We do offend each other.  We do hurt each other.  But when you sit down with the person who has offended you, and you give each other the chance to speak and to listen, you know what usually happens?  You both change.  As you share the way you feel about what that person has done, and as they share what they intended, and how they feel – something new starts to take shape, a new understanding starts to grow for both of you.  Now, that’s not just psychpop theory.  That’s the actual promise that Jesus makes us.  That’s part of what he means when he says, ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name, that’s where I am too’.  That’s the third reality which is more than my reality, or your reality.  That’s the reality of the Holy Spirit.

But then Matthew goes on – what if that practical reconciliation doesn’t work?  Because sometimes it doesn’t – you know, you’ve only got to read the secular press to see what a muddle our own church, the Anglican Communion, has got itself into.  The global factions aren’t talking to each other, conflicts have escalated to a dangerous level, the conservative global alliance has even developed guidelines for cutting into the territory of progressive dioceses who in their opinion are not teaching the true gospel.  It’s not even just about sex any more – really, thank goodness for that! – it’s about different images of what God is like, different understandings of what the Bible is and how to read it.  Well, maybe parish arguments aren’t as spectacular as that, but they’re no less damaging, and they’re no less hurtful.  So then, Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘if you can’t get through even then – well then the bets are off.  Then you can treat the other party as though they were a Gentile or a tax collector.’

Well, that’s alright then.  Now the gloves are off.  Now Jesus says we can get tough.

Except - oh, what the heck!  Can you think of some examples of how Jesus treats Gentiles and tax collectors?  Yes, those are the stories I’m thinking of, too.  How does Jesus treat notorious sinners, how does Jesus treat outsiders and thieves and good-time girls and ne’er-do-wells?  Well alright, mostly it seems he eats and drinks with them and enjoys their company mightily.  So, what about Jesus’ let’s-get-tough attitude to Roman tax-collectors?  ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’.  Or occupation forces? ‘If an enemy forces you to march one mile with them, go two’. 

So, how are we supposed to deal with people we profoundly disagree with?  The fact is, Jesus is starting to sound a whole lot like St Paul, even in this most troublesome passage that most of the Christian world doesn’t want to hear today.  As Jesus tells Pilate, who at the time is sentencing him to death, ‘you wouldn’t have any authority over me, unless it had been given to you from above’.  Or his most uncompromising words of all – as Roman soldiers were banging nails through his wrists, incidentally:  ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing’.

What would Mahatma Ghandi, that pioneer of non-violent resistance, make of all this?  What should Christians do when they are confronted by government-sponsored violence, by government policies that permit or encourage discrimination or that trade on human prejudice?  What should Martin Niemoller have done?  What should Australian Christians have done about child refugees locked up behind razor wire in desert camps by our own government, or in March 2003, on the eve of the shock and awe bombing of Baghdad?  Doesn’t the command to love also carry the sterner implication, to confront and resist evil in all its forms? 

It certainly does.  And in fact the witness of Jesus of Nazareth, just like the witness of Mahatma Ghandi in opposing the injustices of the British Government in India, and also the witness of Martin Niemoller, shows us the true power of resistance that is based in love.  Resistance that doesn’t accept, for a moment, the absolute authority that human regimes arrogate to themselves – ‘and render to God’, Jesus tells us, ‘what belongs to God’.  The Roman Emperor, St Paul is actually saying, is not divine at all but is answerable to God.  ‘Your real authority’, he is reminding them, and us, ‘is the authority to serve God’s purposes’.  It’s a direct challenge, and it’s a limitation on both sides.  It contradicts that old adage that religion and politics don’t mix.  Because they do – radical love is the most political option of all.  When governments seek to serve God’s purposes – as, for example, both sides of Australian politics have attempted to do in their recent responses to the dysfunction and misery of remote Aboriginal communities – then as Christians we need to say so.  When you find you have no choice but to oppose, then speak your truth openly and directly – just remember that the one you are opposing is also a child of God.  Remember, too, the limitations of your own perspective and the possibility that you might be wrong.  What, as Christians, we must not do, is to substitute the violence of earthly authorities for our own judgement and intolerance.  The resistance that Jesus models is not passive at all, it is supremely active because it is the resistance of love.

The key to all this is the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of love.  Jesus’ way of meeting disagreement, opposition and even violence head-on has a cost.  We know that.  We are not called to be successful, or even, all the time, to be right.  Just to be broken, and to be in love. 


[1] Martin Niemoller, 1945