The Gospel, Romans 13 and Oppositional Politics

It’s easier to explain to non Christians than to Christians why I am in an Opposition party – but well, DAP is now the GOVERNMENT of Penang, how’s that Church?

For one, there is always the cold, “apolitical-ness” approach which the Church in Malaysia adopted.

This is probably for most bred by the culture of fear inculcated by the BN government to maintain their hegemony beginning in the late 80s with ferocious attack of the Executive on the Judiciary which led to the sacking of the then top judge Tun Salleh Abbas (and five other judges of the highest Court) and the rape of our consitutional rights when the Executive gave orders for a “cleanup” operation which saw the silencing of idealogical and political dissents and religious minorities through the gravely unjust preemptive law, ISA.

And not least because of the fact that a majority of Christian views we receive are the loud voices of urbanite churches consisting mostly of middle class folks. Their economic and social position stiffened them to take any active part in national politics. Whatever risk they may take, it is either in secrecy under the pretext of being wise or kept minimal within a “religious” context. A number of Christians would profess readiness to suffer for the gospel, but that usually means proselytizing non believers.

And of course, in view of the above, our theology either became a reason or a coverup for our non-involvement.

I have written elsewhere about being Christian and being political, but how about being Christian and being Oppositional?

One passage which I often hear quoted against participating in oppositional acts against the ruling government is Romans 13.

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 to 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. (Roms 13:1-7)

To put things in perspective, Rome was the super power of the day, in the 1st century. She was the economic and political force which dominates that world, much like the Great Britain in the 18th century or the United States today. Rome’s imperial propaganda was the Emperor, Caesar, is Lord and Saviour and only through him the world can have peace, Pax Romania – the peace of Rome.

Within the dominion of this superpower (or any superpowers for that matter), there can be only one Lord, any contender would be considered a threat.

It was in such a context that Paul penned (or rather dictated) his seemly innocent opening to the letter to the Romans. Here’s my paraphrase:

Paul, in the service of King Jesus, called to be an emissary, given the task to proclaim the good news of god which he promised beforehand through his messangers in the holy book, concerning his Son, who is of the royal line of David according to the flesh, and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, King Jesus our Lord, through whom we have received grace and the appointment as emissaries to bring about faithful loyalty for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to King Jesus [in Rome] (Rom 1:1-6)

This was an blatant and outright challenge of Caesar, and therefore, Rome’s power. Paul was in effect saying in the heart of the Empire, there were a group of people whose loyalty was not ultimately to the Lord of Rome who claimed to be the Lord of the World, but to Jesus, another king, of the Jewish royal Davidic house who is the true Lord.

Epistle to the Romans was not the demure-obedient-to-the-government sort of letter most Christians would like it to be. That was just too convenient for the gospel (the euangelion, a term which incidently Caesar adopted to proclaim the news of his ascension or victory). Paul’s was not a dichotomize theology where the religion and politics are separated by a thick wall of indifference and where the church ought only concern herself with the thing called “religion” and leave politics to those outside.

To be sure, Paul was not a politician. And he never intended to be. But the tone of his message was clear. The gospel is confrontational in all sense of the word to the power-claims of the rulers of this world.

Two points to consider about the gospel in relation to authority, and in our context, political authority:

Firstly, the gospel is oppositional to the powers that be which make absolute claim of authority. There is always the tension of earthly (super) powers against that of Christ and the gospel made it clear that in his Resurrection, Christ was proclaimed the son of god in power, the Davidic king who will rule over all the world now in parts and one day completely. Any other claims of absolute kingship is in opposition to the claim of the gospel of “Jesus is Lord”. The imperial ambitions of earthly powers must submit to the eschatological reality of the lorship of god’s chosen Servant.

Secondly, the gospel is good news to the people, most especially good news to the downtrodden. The gospel is biased, politically not least, towards the mass. It is their gospel, given for their happiness. The target audience of the gospel is the “world” because god so loved the world he gave his only Son. Because the bad news was the mass being cut off from the love of god through one man, the good news was the reconciliation of the mass to god, also through one man, Jesus. Jesus’ ministry, Luke told us, was opened with the reading of the portion of Isaiah which hinged on the proclaimation of blessedness and emancipation of the marginalized mass. The gospel sought to restore not only the imago dei (image of god) in the human person, but also the relationship between humanity and god. And therefore, the gospel is oppositional to the powers which sought to inflict sufferings on the mass, which sought to deface and degrade the value of the glory of god in the living humanity. All political powers and structures which reduced humanity from the beautiful and glorious image of god to mere political serf are in direct conflict with the gospel.

I am no party loyalist and I do not believe in the total transformation of humanity by political ideologies alone. But I am convinced that while the power of god works in the transformation of individuals, the gospel which I believed in and proclaim compels me to be biased in the above directions. And not least because, the transforming power of god through the gospel is also at the same time a challenge to the powers that be.

When the Church today calls for an apolitical stance, it is a self-abdication of her responsibility as agents of the gospel in the civil sphere. We have forgotten Moses who challenged the despotic rule of Pharaoh, we have forgotten Elijah the troubler of Ahab, we have forgotten the prophets through whom the wrathful words of god’s displeasure often came to the rulers and kings of their times.

We have forgotten the earliest disciples who went against the good will of Rome who offered amnesty for the desert of their faith in Christ. We have forgotten Polycarp who at old age refused to bulge one step in his allegiance towards Christ, the true Lord over and against Caesar of Rome. We have forgotten Ambrose who stood against the Emperor and refused to administer the sacraments to him before the Emperor perform a penance for his cruel massacre. We have forgotten the Rt. Rev. Desmond Tutu who lived out the biased of the gospel for the marginalized mass and defied the powerful overlords of apartheid.

When today we call for a blind submission towards the government taking Romans 13 as prooftext, we reduced the gospel from a powerful force of public transformation into merely one of the private religions vying with other religions to proselytize non believers.

But what of Romans 13?

We must firstly understand that the types of government in biblical times, whether in OT or NT, are different from that of our own times. Even within our times, there are many different forms of government and political structures that we cannot afford to take Romans 13 or the Daniel account as a one-fit-for-all political stance without being awkward if not absurd.

I believe that Paul, after his subversive opening greetings in Romans and proclaiming the radical gospel of “Jesus is Lord” against “Caesar is Lord”, was making a point that there are sub-authorities (or Kam Weng’s sphere authorities) whose powers are derivative from god’s. These earthly authorities, not least political ones, are here to maintain order and facilitate daily business. In other words, Paul was asserting that the gospel is not anarchy.

There is no power which can be the ruling authority forever and likewise no power can be the oppositional force forever. March 8th has taught us this lesson in Malaysia. But the contention of the gospel remains, Jesus is Lord, and if Jesus is Lord, all other claims to lordship are challenges which the Church must reckoned with. This does not mean that only Christians can rule or that a non Christian government is necessarily to be disposed of. But the Church is always called to play the role of the prophet in the wilderness inviting the people to welcome the Lord, the true and loving King of the world and as we make way for the righteous rule of the true King, we can anticipate a world of justice, peace and reconciliation.

One Reply to “The Gospel, Romans 13 and Oppositional Politics”

  1. In support of Steven Sim’s article, I would like to draw readers’ attention to articles and website of Dr. Charles “Chuck” Baldwin, a Baptist minister of contemporary America. He also advances the thesis that Romans 13 is not a divine fiat for all Christians to kowtow to despotic, unrighteous or corrupt governments. It is good for Christians today to realise that the so-called orthodox interpretation of Romans 13 (surrender all to Ceasar) is not the only one.

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