Fear God, Honor the Emperor

Fear God, Honor the Emperor

The most pressing civic duty for Christians is to insist upon the lordship of Christ. We must witness against the idols of this world. As was the case in the early years of the Church, when the cult of the emperor demanded loyalty, so today our most powerful witness will be the act of ­refusal. Christians are called to obey the magistrate. But we must first honor God, never bending the knee to civil authorities, institutions, and movements.

Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement urged resistance to laws that enforced racial discrimination. They appealed to natural law and God’s law, with the aim of reforming our civic order in accordance with transcendent standards. In our time, the rule of law denies nature and usurps the authority of God, making the powers of this world into the supreme lawgivers. In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States took political possession of the institution of marriage, redefining it so that men may marry men and women may marry women. The same has been done in other jurisdictions in the West. More recently, the Court adopted the view that men who wish to be regarded as women, and women who want to be seen as men, must be accorded protection against ­discrimination.

This refusal to acknowledge nature and recognize divine authority puts Christians, and all citizens, in a perilous position. For when transcendent truth is denied, whether natural or revealed, the once fitting and proper instruments of civil authority become absolute. They are deified as all-powerful idols.

Secularism encourages political absolutism. It removes religious authority from public life. In ­doing so, it claims to secure neutrality in civic affairs. We are told that this ostensible neutrality brings religious freedom and allows for a social contract based on needs and interests shared by everyone, without regard to theological convictions. Yet secularism’s promise has shown itself to be hollow. It is a metaphysical project with political consequences, engaging in soulcraft by another name.

A society that makes no reference to God implicitly claims that all the goods worth pursuing can be found in this life. Consequently, it sponsors a regime that privileges—and at times imposes—its purely immanent and this-worldly projects and ambitions. On the one hand, therapeutic ideals of self-invention insist that individually determined projects and modes of self-expression have final authority. Our social policies must pay homage to the sovereign self, even if it means violating the sanctity of life and denying the moral truth inscribed upon our bodies as male and female. On the other hand, the regime accords our bodies a defining role. Powerful i­­deologies concerning race, intelligence, and sexual desire insist that we are defined by our biology.

This seems a contradiction: A self-chosen identity that denies the authority of the body is privileged alongside an identity politics that accords the body supreme significance. But these two understandings of identity have in common a repudiation of transcendent authority. The expressive self rejects the demands that moral truths place on our freedom; God’s creation must not hinder self-­creation. Identity politics rejects God’s transcendent call and bids us accept our place in the prisons of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

In Genesis we read: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him” (1:27). We are not simply bodies; the human person is stamped by the image of God. But neither are we purely spiritual beings who transcend our physical condition. Our souls animate our bodies, which are formed in accord with the divinely ordained difference between men and women. We are at once capable of transcendence and firmly rooted in God’s creation.

When political authority no longer serves something deeper—the moral order—or something higher—the promise of transcendence—it becomes sheer power. Liberty becomes grandiose self-invention, an ideal that masks our captivity to anxiety and our vulnerability to social control. In a world unable to acknowledge the laws of nature and nature’s God, traditional limits on state power fall away—and without moral authority or divine authority to anchor human affairs, we turn to the state as our only hope, inviting it to become all-powerful in order to hold everything together.

As Evangelicals and Catholics, we regard our political inheritance as noble. The best of our constitutional and civic traditions draw upon Christian sources. But secularism has spent down the Christian inheritance of the West. It is urgent, therefore, that we recover a biblical understanding of government and of our duties as citizens. The Christian tradition affirms two sources for the right ordering of human affairs: Temporal authority ensures peace and tranquility in the civic realm, and spiritual authority guides and governs souls toward the end of their salvation in Christ. The two authorities—“two swords,” as the Christian tradition sometimes puts it—are distinct. But both are required. A political community that does not accord proper scope to political judgments about our temporal well-being becomes a theocratic parody. A society that refuses to acknowledge God’s call for us to cleave to him in faith cannot sustain the authority of men, and will devolve into anomie and ceaseless struggles for power.

The Church is a community in exile. ­Justin Martyr observes: “Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world.” We journey as pilgrims toward the final consummation of the created order, when Jesus, whom the Father has raised from the dead and seated at his right hand, will return in glory, with all things under his dominion (Acts 2:22–36; see, also, Ps. 110). As Christians, therefore, we recognize no worldly authority as ultimate. The words of St. Peter before the priestly council in Jerusalem must serve as the foundation of any Christian understanding of citizenship: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Our constitutions, governments, civic traditions, and institutions do not operate independent of God’s authority. Even now Jesus is Lord. Human affairs are ordered in God’s providence toward their final end in Christ, to whom all things have been made subject. Christians cannot accept the secular conceit that the legitimacy of government stems solely from a social contract or the consent of the governed, however useful such concepts may be as part of a fully developed political theology. St. Paul is unequivocal: “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).

The particular purposes for which God has instituted temporal authority are not transparent to our understanding. We are not privy to God’s designs. As believers, we must resist shallow judgments that too quickly baptize (or demonize) political movements and public personalities: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34; Isa. 40:13). Moreover, the Church has functioned in a remarkable variety of regimes. There is no Christian system of government. Nevertheless, Scripture and the Christian tradition offer a general account of the legitimate purposes of civil authority.

After insisting that every person is rightly subject to governing authorities, St. Paul explains that governmental authority is ordained by God for the sake of restraining sin. Civil authorities exist to promote good conduct and punish bad conduct. They bear the sword of coercion as agents of God’s judgment against the actions of wrongdoers, chastising the wicked. This is an important office. A society that fails to deter murder, theft, and other crimes does not deserve our loyalty. This does not mean that a regime must be perfect. Insofar as wrongdoing is prohibited and grave transgressions of the moral law are not ­overlooked, we must provide our support, according the respect and honor due to civil authority (Rom. 13:1, 4–7).

The First Letter of Peter makes a similar argument: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (2:13–15). God has given the power of the temporal sword to those who rule so that wrongdoing is met with firm rebuke and the wicked do not lead others astray. History has seen governments that rage against God’s law. If the rule of law perversely turns against morality and justice, civil ­disobedience may be required, and even rebellion may be justified. But if temporal power is used properly, Christians are called to be the most loyal of citizens. Christians need not be blind to the ­injustices that characterize all regimes in our fallen world. We may be active in efforts of reform. Yet when the temporal sword seeks to honor God’s intentions, however imperfectly, we must not foster rebellion or simmering dissent.

Restraint of sin allows civil authority to secure the good of peace. As Augustine makes clear, the peace of the earthly city does not rest in the harmony of wills that comes about when we honor and worship God in one accord. This peace is found only in the City of God, when love of God has conquered love of self. In our pilgrimage toward that end, we can experience a foretaste of this peace, most often in the life of the Church, but also in civil affairs, when we join together to achieve common ends. But Christians recognize the limits of political ambition. We accept that we must function in political, economic, and social structures that presume a preponderance of self-love. Often, the only realistic alternative is to moderate the destructive effects of self-love “by a kind of compromise between human wills” (City of God, XIX.17).The well-regulated marketplace can control greed. The rule of law can constrain the powerful. The pain of want, if allowed in proper circumstances, can motivate the indolent. As St. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

Too often, modern Christians chafe against the limits of earthly peace. We undervalue its relative good, disparaging it in comparison to the ideal of true harmony and integral solidarity that characterizes the City of God. Some fall into a theologized activism, urging the inauguration of the New Jerusalem here and now. But the Church is the sole custodian of God’s heavenly peace that passes all understanding—not governments, constitutions, civic institutions, or legal traditions. A failure to recognize the limits of earthly peace can lead to the exasperated refusal to countenance God’s delay of the final consummation. The result is a social Pelagianism, a political works righteousness that seeks to confect heavenly peace out of human movements, ideologies, and efforts. Some of the greatest crimes of the modern era have been committed by those who imagined themselves capable of transcending, through social engineering and revolution, the mediocrity of the earthly city, which is always hobbled by self-love.

The Pelagian rebellion against the limits of earthly peace is mirrored by a social Donatism, a perfectionism that will not be sullied by worldly loyalties. We wash our hands of the sin-infected institutions that govern society, insisting that our civic covenants make no legitimate claims upon our soul. Like the zealous social activist, the Christian purist often makes correct judgments about the inadequacy of even the best governments. ­Augustine observes that as the peace of the earthly city rests in the absence of violence, it is not a true peace. But we must not scoff at the negative peace of the earthly city. Rather, as Augustine teaches, we are called to make good use of the relative tranquility of a well-ordered society, neither disturbing it with utopian dreams nor spurning our duty to honor and protect its limited but genuine goods.

Our different traditions have different views of the degree to which faithful Christians can exercise the office of the magistrate. Some of us believe that a life of discipleship forbids the use of lethal force, which backstops civil authority. But we agree that civil authority is ordained by God. And we agree that our commitment to the triumph of Christ’s peace need not contradict our loyalty to the civic order, however imperfect that order may be.

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