This year, I’m happy to say I haven’t watched a single TV ad endorsing candidates for this fall’s election. This is because I actively avoid them. I also refuse to watch shows featuring people bickering about the election. I don’t watch debates, I rarely read news articles about candidates at any level. And I certainly won’t be tuning in to watch the Republican and Democratic party conventions.
Yes, I’m an independent voter. And I’ve decided it doesn’t make sense to complain about an electoral system based on negativity, personal slander, and blatant propaganda, yet continue to participate willingly in the worst of that system by listening to messages we know are false at worst and twisted and manipulative at best. Surely, in this information age, we can find ways to make decisions on our own terms.
Believe me, intentionally avoiding propaganda doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about the candidates for the upcoming election. I’m not trying to be an uninformed voter. I just want to save my brain cells for what’s worthwhile. I try to be intentional about taking in the information I want and need to make good decisions. Unfortunately, I take in plenty through osmosis as well. I’m not cut off from the world–I see headlines, hear conversations, notice political messages inserted where I wasn’t expecting them, and just feel the temperature in the world around me. And I see plenty of emails, Facebook posts, and tweets set forth by private citizens–many of whom are fellow Christians. Coming from both sides of our nation’s political divide, a high percentage of these personal expressions are venomous, libelous, gossippy, unsubstantiated, destructive, and disrespectful.
Believe me, I get it. I can be as cynical as anyone. And some of these attacks are coming from a place of true and heartfelt concern for the future of our nation and the world. I feel it too. But as a Christian, I just can’t justify the way many of us choose to express our frustration.
The Bible is full of instructions to respect people in authority–along with warnings about what happens when people neglect to do so. These warnings have become almost universally unpopular in our culture (except among parents and pastors). We Americans have a rebellious streak and a historically based fear of being ruled. We also highly value our freedom of expression–and pretty much figure we have an obligation to keep it well-exercised.
But we ignore God’s instructions at our peril, and to the detriment of the world around us. So in that spirit, here’s a passage we don’t read aloud very often: “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. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:1-7).
How are we doing on this, sisters and brothers? Where do our insults, passing along bitter rumors, and laughing at cruel jokes fit into this picture? Perhaps our government “for the people, by the people” has convinced us we are ultimately powerful. We thank God for the right to vote, and we pray for the outcome of elections, secretly hoping God will interpret our prayers as orders to make other people vote the way we think they should. We allow politicians to play on our fears, win our loyalty with a few calculated words, and use us as weapons against one another. We call them names and in the process, reveal our lack of faith in God’s sovereignty.
Then again, these biblical words were written in the ancient world. Perhaps we can discount them. Perhaps life was simpler. The writer didn’t live in the kind of world we live in.
The Apostle Paul wrote these words to the Roman church. He was a Jewish man living under the rule of foreign conquerors, devoting his life to promoting a belief system that was very unpopular among people in authority. He was writing to the newborn Christian church, composed of Jews and Gentiles, established in Rome itself–the heart of the mighty and corrupt empire.
He wrote these words around 55 AD, roughly 10 years before the Roman Emperor Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome and incited a wave of intense and horrific persecution. Why did this accusation and the state-sponsored terror catch fire so quickly? Because Christians were already at odds with the culture around them. Persecution of Christians had begun during the time Jesus was on earth and continued in the 50 or so years after his death. These new believers were not valued citizens. They weren’t powerful, well-represented, or cozy with their government. And they certainly did not enjoy freedom of expression.
The Roman Empire was full of corruption and legal flexibilities, each outlying province run at the whim of its governor. The population was a mishmash of conquered, overtaxed, and largely powerless people groups, unified by nothing but their resentment of Rome. Paul himself was beaten, tortured, unjustly imprisoned, and ultimately killed by the people God had placed in authority over him. And as a Jewish person, he had been waiting his whole life for someone to free his people from tyranny.
Yet he refused to disrespect people in authority, or question their right to be in leadership positions. He told them the truth–not what they wanted to hear–but he didn’t disrespect them.
Like it or not, and whether they acknowledge it or not, God ordains our leaders for his own purposes. That doesn’t mean he endorses all their actions, but he crowns, uses, and dethrones them in his time and in his way–sometimes through the efforts of those who respectfully resist evil. We don’t have to like our leaders, agree with them, trust them, or even follow them when they want to lead us toward the wide gate. But we do have to respect them out of respect for God.
Ultimately, what will make a greater difference in our world: rudely promoting the issues and candidates we espouse, or carrying ourselves with a respect and dignity rooted in God’s peace? Living as if our faith and hope are in our fellow human beings and it’s up to us to play the games of power to put them there–or affirming that God is our ultimate ruler and our hope and trust are in him?