Friday, December 22, 2023

Not Rome

Christians often blandly use Romans 13:1 as a slogan for political power, assuming it settles the issue, without considering what Paul actually said in his letter.

A well-known theologian recently gave a slightly more sophisticated version of their argument,

Biblical political theology is predicated on the fact that the one God who made the world wants the world to be wisely ordered, and to be wisely ordered through human government. So even people who would be seen as a bad ruler would have a God-given job which must be honoured. Even a cruel, wicked, stupid government has a role that is God-given.
This type of political theology, which is very common, is used to interpret Romans 13 and claim that Paul was authenticating the authority of the Roman emperor. The evil man Nero was probably emperor at the time when Paul was writing, so if he was God's servant, we must submit to every political power. The implication is that God gave the Roman emperor authority so that he could bring order to the earth. Therefore, all Christians should submit to him, even if he often does evil things. The same principle is applied to all rulers. We are required to submit to rulers, even when they do evil, because they are carrying out a God-given rule.

This logic is flawed. Firstly, God never said that he was appointing rulers to ensure that his creation was wisely ordered. He gave responsibility for caring for the world to all humans. And he gave the law for the specific purpose of maintaining order on the earth (1 Tim 1:8-11). The idea that God appointed kings, presidents and other rulers to ensure that the world is wisely ordered is simply not true. In fact, they have been the main cause of disorder (1 Sam 8). Therefore, the claim that they have a God-given role that should be honoured is incorrect.

More important, even a cursory reading of the words that Paul wrote in Romans 13 shows that they are not a description of the Roman Empire. Rome did not do what Paul claimed that good judges would do.

The idea that Rome was interested in order and peace is a myth. The Caesars wanted control. They expanded the area under their area, so they could extract food and other resources and bring them back to Rome.

Roman soldiers were not scattered around the world to protect the people of the nations from trouble. They were there to keep people under control, and they were ruthless in putting down all opposition. Roman soldiers were cruel and heartless in dealing with ordinary people. They would defend countries against invading armies, not for their protection, but to ensure that another empire did not get control of their resources.

Paul was able to travel fairly freely around the Roman empire, but that was not the result of Roman efforts to spread peace. It was an accidental consequence of their attempts to expand the areas they controlled.

If Paul was claiming in Romans 13 that political power could bring peace and order in the world, he was certainly not talking about the Roman emperor.

Paul was not describing the Roman justice system when he wrote in Romans 13:3-5.

Worldly rulers (archon) cause no fear for the good way, but only for those choosing the bad option. So, if you don't want to be afraid of his authority, be doing good and you will be commended. For you who are into the good, it can be God's servant. But if you do bad, be afraid. A ruler does not carry the sword for no purpose; it is a servant of God making right in anger to the one committing evil. Out of necessity, order yourselves under it; not just to avoid its anger, but due to common awareness.
The Romans were not interested in providing justice for the ordinary people. Roman law provided some protections for the noble families who controlled Rome, but even that was quite capricious. A nobleman could be up one day, and down the next. Most ordinary people got no justice at all. Roman justice was used to enslave people and extract wealth for the benefit of the Empire. Beatings for trivial things were frequent and crucifixions were common for people who had done very little wrong. Even a Roman soldier would be lucky to get justice, if their commanding officer took a snitch against them.

Paul was not thinking about Rome when he said that people who do right have nothing to fear. Good people had very good reasons to fear the Roman authorities. Paul was able to appeal to Caesar because he was a Roman citizen. That put him into an elite group. Ordinary people could not make that appeal. And the appeal did not seem to work for Paul, because he died in Rome, despite a representative of Rome recognising that he was innocent. King Agrippa said,

They began talking to one another, saying, "This man is not doing anything worthy of death or imprisonment." And Agrippa said to Festus, "This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar" (Acts 26:31-32).
This was not justice. True justice would have set Paul free once it was understood that he had not committed a crime. But Agrippa and Festus wanted to protect their own reputation, so they were scared to do the just thing and set him free.

Paul's statement about good people having nothing to fear does not fit with Jesus' treatment by Pilate. He agreed that Jesus was innocent, but he had him flogged and crucified anyway, because he was scared the Jewish power brokers would report him to Rome. Jesus was killed by Roman justice, like many others of his countrymen, so it could not be said that good people had nothing to fear from Roman justice. Paul knew what happened to Jesus and many other disciples, so he was clearly not writing about Roman justice in his letter to the Romans.

When Paul spoke about giving money to those we owe, he was not writing about Rome.

Pay back debts to everyone. If you owe a tax, pay the tax; if an excise duty is owed, then pay it. Respect those worthy of respect. Only honour those worthy of honour (Rom 13:7).
Paul was not saying that people should pay taxes to Rome in return for the services that Rome provided them. He did not see Rome as a service provider. Rome was not committed to providing services for ordinary people. Any benefits that fell to ordinary people were a mistake.

The Roman tax system was not set up to raise money to support ordinary people in the way that modern people think about taxes. It was an extraction system designed to seize as much wealth as possible from subservient peoples. Rome-appointed tax farmers would take as much as they could get, leaving their victims with almost nothing to live on. Roman soldiers would wreck the house of anyone thought to be hiding grain or gold. Romans 13:6-7 is not a description of the Roman tax system.

When Paul wrote Romans 13, he was clearly not thinking about the Roman Empire. He must have been thinking about something quite different, so this passage cannot be used to demand submission to all political power.

This is explained further in Understanding Romans 13.

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