Submission or Subversion?

Transforming Society: How Christians Can Impact The Public Square in Malaysia (Biblical Perspectives) – Part 2

“Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand – from the outset they must give up, as in appropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: “How can I be good?” and “How can I do something good?” Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: what is the will of God?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the chapter on “Christ, Reality, and Good” in Ethics

After the recent March 8th Elections, even until the month of June, the interest in politics has not waned. In fact, for some Christians there is a sudden boldness towards more involvement, or at least more voice, in matters of public concern. This is heightened by the recent petrol price hike, with economic concerns now entering the mix as well. Again opinions vary on how each of us can respond; even as Christians we may not have a unified response. The specifics we are confronted with is part of the bigger picture in which Bonhoeffer tries to bring some focus to: How shall we live as Christians? What questions can we ask to guide us?

When it comes to answers in general and political persuasions specifically, there seems to be so many options and degrees in which one can operate from as seen in the following diagram which I stumbled upon on the internet.

Many of us in all honesty would intuitively have been drawn to one option more than another. How do we as Christians find a good response?

Rather than deal with the complexities of these different approaches to political and economic systems, it is tempting for some to jump into simplistic answers by quoting a few proof texts from the Bible to justify positions (which might fall into any of the options in the diagram). Worse is when we offer what is our personal over-biased opinions and throw in a verse or two from the Bible to Christianize our views. Bringing God and prayer in at the end does not necessarily mean we speak for God. Many others, even our friends from different religions can use the same “absolutist” tactic. Some out of genuine sincerity, while others for personal gain.

And yet, in Bonhoeffer’s advice quoted above to take a step back and reframe our questions, he warns us not to be locked in a position of mere human effort and centeredness. Bonhoeffer tries to redirect us back to the starting point of faith and ultimate reality, which is God. We must walk with caution as many indeed use religion to manipulate. But to totally ignore questions surrounding the relationship of faith and politics would mean we surrender to the louder voices which often distort the “Will of God” to serve the “Will of the powerful few” or the “will of those who are unable to deal with the complexities of life in this globalized world.” So, we still need to speak honestly, reasonably and with discerning courage, from the perspective of faith.

As Christians, it is right to say we turn to the Bible, which is the norm for our life, faith and practice. At least we start with an external authority to provide the framework for our thinking and decision-making process. And while differing interpretations exist, we must start with a desire to be faithful to the “will of God” as revealed in the written “Word of God”.

In my previous piece in this Transforming Society series, “It’s No Longer Just about Me!”, I attempted to bring to our awareness a common blind spot in our reading of the scriptures caused by a “me-centred” approach, and expressed the need to replace it with a “missional” approach where the personal and public concerns are more integrated, and, in my view, more faithful to the overall theme of the Bible. So, we as enter the Bibilical texts with confidence to get guidance, we must at the same time with humility keep watch on our own prejudices and predispositions.

The most common passage we start with is Romans 13:1–5, which at first glance seems to imply an unquestioning “submission” to governing authorities. Many sincere Christians use this passage as the “handle” with which they try to make sense of their relationship with the governing authorities specifically, and involvement in the public square in general. The passage states:

1 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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 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. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

The Micah Mandate already has an excellent article with a richer interpretation and application of Apostle Paul’s words in Dr Isabelo F. Magalit’s piece “RIGHTFUL RULE: ROMANS 13 FOR TODAY (A Philippines Perspective)”. There he rightly clarifies what being entrusted with “authority” means and how “submission” relates to the understanding of “authority” as rightful rule.

The reason we submit to our rulers is our recognition that their authority comes from God Himself. We submit to Him by submitting to them. We cannot rebel against them for that is to rebel against Him. To rebel here is literally to be anti-what-God-has-established.

A subtle distinction can be made between submission and simple obedience. To obey is to do what one is told while to be submissive is literally to rank oneself under another. Perhaps the reason Paul uses submission is to show that our obedience is not blind but is qualified by God’s law. He may also be stressing the needed attitude: we are to willingly submit to our rulers in recognition of their God-given authority over us. It is for the Lord’s sake that we submit (cf. 1 Peter 2:13).

But, later Dr. Magalit clarifies that that our submission is not blind or unqualified, as our absolute loyalty lies in God alone:

Our rulers do not have absolute authority. When Jesus was asked the tricky question about paying taxes to the imperialistic Roman government, His reply was: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). Some have seen here a reference to the tithe (which belongs to God), but if this is so, then some governments which get more than ten per cent in taxes are getting more than God! What Jesus meant rather is that Caesar is entitled to be supported with taxes, but only God deserves absolute loyalty! When Caesar claims allegiance that belongs only to God, the Christian has no choice but to say no.

When rulers give orders which are contrary to God’s law for example, by ordering infanticide (Exodus 1) or the worship of idols (Daniel 3), or by prohibiting evangelism (Acts 5), then Christians must say: We must obey God rather than men! (Acts 5:29).

What I wish to do in this article is to draw our attention to another important resource on this matter from the New Testament: the book of Revelation. Sad to say, the last book in the New Testament is one of the least read (unless there is an end-time fever in the air), and most misunderstood books of the Bible due to the lack of familiarity of the kind of style in which it is written. Due to the unfamiliar genre of the book, I do advice caution before we use the language of Revelation without appropriate interpretation.

A quick glance through the book will help us to hear a voice that does not sound like uncritical submission to authorities or mere passive surrender to the course of history. In fact, the language used is often downright “subversive” of the empire of that time, challenging the absolute authority of an earthy kingdom and lifting a higher, heavenly kingdom over the course of human history. One passage worth meditating on is Revelation 17:1-5:

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. 2 With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

3 Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. 5 This title was written on her forehead:

MYSTERY
BABYLON THE GREAT
THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES
AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

The way the inspired author of the book of Revelation uses language like “Babylon the great”, “Mother of Prostitutes” and “the abominations of the earth” on the ruling empire of his time does not sound to me as unqualified submission. It clearly shows how a minority people of faith under persecution, with some facing martyrdom, were able to resist and even subvert ungodly and unrighteous powers through perseverance, intercession, worship, and a greater vision of who is really the one in control of the way history will play out at the end.

Such a vision painted in the book of Revelation empowers those who are marginalized in society to not give up, and make the needed changes to show one’s faithfulness to this vision and the one who gave this vision. This is clearly seen in the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor in the first three chapters. John Howard Yoder, in his landmark book The Politics of Jesus presses this point by highlighting a basic assumption in the author of the book of Revelation whom he calls a seer,

The substantial assumption which moves the seer is that God is an actor. How God acts can be expressed only in metaphors which our mechanically formed world vision can only consider fantastic or poetic. Nonetheless, the addressees of “revelation” are expected or commanded to behave differently, within the system of the real world, because of that “information” which has been “disclosed” to them about God as purposeful actor.

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994, p. 245

I resonate with Yoder’s emphasis on God as the actor, and in the light of that reality we need to change the way we act within the confines of human history.

We miss the point of the Book of Revelation if we merely see it as some wacko end time doomsday Nostradamus-like story which scares people to heaven faster. When I was a young Christian this kind of preaching may have made the Bible more relevant to current affairs and fuelled my evangelistic zeal for a moment. But it falls short in helping us to see how its vision may serve as a paradigm of “subversion” to help us reorder the place of ruling authorities (especially corrupt and evil powers) in the light of the one who sits on the throne of the universe deserving the worship of all nations. Revelation is more about faith and faithfulness in trying times than the fear of missing the boat to heaven. It ignites our imagination in how we can unmask the powers which seek to dominate and push others aside, and free the weaker minority to arise and stand up to be counted. This vision out of the future or present unseen realm of God, together with the more “submissive” model in Romans 13, gives two significant resources and guidance to us, especially in our current desire to “impact” the public square.

So for a start, in the midst of the messy convoluted scenarios we are faced with daily, as well as the pressure towards finding faithful solutions to the problems before us in the public square, I believe the 2 paradigms found in Romans and Revelations provide a faith-based framework to work out our specific responses. I see them as parallel and complementary paradigms to guide us to discern God’s will for our decisions to be involved in and thus impact directly or indirectly the public square.

While holding the two paradigms from the New Testament in paradoxical tension together:

… homemakers holding candles during a vigil for religious freedom are united with analysts sitting in academic forums and think tanks debating policies,

… representatives voicing the concerns of the people in parliament are united with intercessors praying in the church,

… bloggers writing freely in cyberspace are united with concerned citizens writing letters to the editor,

… the voice of the more empowered are united with the voice of the less powerful,

… all who are engaged at all levels operate from critical submission and discerning subversion are alerted to be on our guard against being driven by anger, and frustration, but now by reengaging the Biblical perspectives, we act with discernment and decisiveness after drawing from the wisdom of God whom we submit to wholeheartedly!

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