Inaugurating the Holy: Romans 13, Heeding Authority, and Protesting Trump as an Act of Faith and Love
So, Donald Trump will be inaugurated on Friday as our next president.
No one who knows me or has read my blog will be surprised that I am not happy about it, not one little bit.
In the name of my faith, I stand at the ready to oppose him wherever I find him offending the Christian gospel of care and concern for the Least of These, the oppressed, and creation, not to mention him denigrating, debasing, and dismissing basic expressions of human decency and democracy.
Given what we know of Trump, I’m sure hoping that my well of oppositional water is deep.
Turns out, though, that if my personal reservoir runs out, I’m not exactly going to need to be in the market for a dowsing rod: there’s a veritable deluge of concern and outright indignation about Donald Trump across the religious spectrum.
Springs are popping up everywhere.
In no particular order, a short list of conservative and liberal religious bodies, theologians, pastors, and laity who vehemently oppose Trump, Trump’s agenda, and his nominees:
- The National Council of Churches (comprising and representing the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Alliance of Baptists, the American Baptist Churches USA, the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Church of the Brethren, the Community of Christ, the Coptic Orthodox Church in North America, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Friends United Meeting, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the Hungarian Reformed Church in America, the International Council of Community Churches, the Korean Presbyterian Church in America, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Mar Thoma Church, the Moravian Church in America Northern Province and Southern Province, the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, the Orthodox Church in America, the Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USA, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, the Polish National Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) (of whom Trump ostensibly claims as his denomination), the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., the Reformed Church in America, the Serbian Orthodox Church in the USA and Canada, the Swedenborgian Church of North America, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church)
- The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
- The conservative Christian Post (in an article which calls Trump a “scam,”)
- Jewish historians
- Baptist theologians
- ELCA Lutheran pastors and congregations
- Lutheran and Jewish teaching theologians
- Diverse faith communities who welcome immigrants
- Evangelical leaders
- Conservative Christians
- Roman Catholics
As I posted on my personal FB page, although I was recently called a religious nutcase for my blog on Trump, I am proud to be even a small peanut in the same bowl as these many people of faith…with whom, wonderfully, I might otherwise disagree about any number of matters!
Donald Trump has at least this to his credit: ambassador of ecumenical and inter-religious agreement.
Religious people realize that Donald Trump’s inauguration has implications, profound implications, for people of faith.
Even the word ‘inauguration,’ it seems, is a sign of the role of religion at hand, for the word “inauguration” comes from the Latin term meaning not only ‘to install,’ but also ‘to consecrate.’
Well, that’s interesting.
Why? Because the word ‘consecrate‘ means to make holy: con-, ‘together,’ and sacrare, ‘to make sacred.’
But wait! That’s not all.
One of my favorite websites is www.etmyonline.com (I look at it at least once a week–just ask my children, who hear the phrase, “Well, the etymology of that word is…” almost as often as “I love you more than you can possibly know!”).
Under the search for “inauguration,” the site offers this quote:
INAUGURATIO was in general the ceremony by which the augurs obtained, or endeavoured to obtain, the sanction of the gods to something which had been decreed by man [sic]; in particular, however, it was the ceremony by which things or persons were consecrated to the gods …. If the signs observed by the inaugurating priest were thought favourable, the decree of men [sic] had the sanction of the gods, and the inauguratio was completed. [William Smith (ed.), “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities,” 1842]
Upshot here is that in the ancient Greco-Roman world, a person attained office, and then was inaugurated. However, during the ceremony a religious leader was appointed to watch for signs indicating whether the gods thought that the new authority were indeed the right pick.
This is why the word ‘inauguration’ became associated with ‘consecration,’ with, that is, making the event holy.
Personally, if I were the appointed religious leader on the 20th, given what we know of Trump, and given the wide dismay about him from religious leaders and laity alike, I’d be not a little nervous about being too close to potential incoming signs.
It is worth mentioning, however, that the religious leaders whom Trump requested to bless his inauguration are, well, not mainstream. As NPR relates, these are pastors who preach the heretical Prosperity Gospel (wealth is good and a sign that one is blessed by God; poverty is a sign that you are not….I don’t think that these folks have read Amos or Luke much, for starters); who themselves live in million-dollar mansions (I bet Jesus lives right next door!); and who, conveniently, donated extensive dollars to Trump.
That critique aside, there is a passage in the New Testament that would seem to support the notion that Trump’s election is, indeed, holy, and blessed by God: Romans 13:1-4.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.
Now, this is an interesting, perplexing set of verses.
They seem to operate exactly opposite of the Greco-Roman understanding of inauguration referenced above: there, the ruler was chosen and people waited to see if the gods approve, whereas here, if a person is in authority, they are by virtue of that position and by default approved by God.
It’s worth noting that Nazi Germany, the South African Apartheid Government, and pro-slavery forces (as but three examples) have employed this text to justify acquiescence to governing authorities.
Left alone, any critical thinker (certainly anyone who reads Paul elsewhere) must wonder whether this text truly asks us to believe that dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mugabe, or Mao are appointed by God, or whether policies set in effect by governments are necessarily divinely approved, like slavery, women’s lack of right to vote, and even the death penalty.
So maybe this text is an occasion for some worthy (not to mention timely) nuance.
Paul wasn’t exactly writing in a time of democracy.
As my family and I were talking about this text over supper last night, we started tongue-in-cheeking 1st Century Election Day news reports: “A donkey-jam as everyone is making their way to their local voting precinct stations. Pay attention to your sundials, everyone, only a few more hours until the polls close. Due to smeared chalk tallies, some are questioning the results–watch your toga sleeves, everyone!”
Paul’s message was less about acquiescing in the face of political oppression and injustice, and more about recognizing that society needs order, and that God’s will can work through government, and that when it does, we are to accede to it.
Lutherans in particular talk about this notion by way of the Two Kingdoms: Luther’s approach to talking about God’s involvement in the world by orchestrating systems by which we can live in secular community, and God’s involvement in the world by working in and through the life of faith and trust in the gospel of grace.
Still, the text from Paul raises questions, if not hackles.
The late German New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann, a man who lived through Hitler’s Germany, spent no small time thinking about the implications–and the mis-implications–of this passage.
And here’s what he wrote in a twenty-page piece called, simply, “Principles of the Interpretation of Romans 13″ (for you German-readers, it is also found in Exegetsiche Versuche und Besinnungen: Zweiter Band, Zweiter Auflage, Grundsätzliches zur Interpretation von Römer 13,” (Göttingen Vendenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1965, 204-222).
“Is there anything which might rightly be called a limit to the obedience here being demanded of the Christian and, if so, where is it to be drawn?….The boundary of our service is the point at which we cease to acknowledge Christ as Lord of the world…This raises the problem of the possibility of Christian resistence to the existing political power; it raises, that is, the specific question of participation in revolution…Is there such a thing as participation in revolution as an authentication of the service of God in the world? When and where can this be possible–not merely for that citizen of a democratic community in the carrying out of his political responsibility, but for the man [sic] who being such a citizen, yet wills to be, and to remain, a Christian also? My own personal answer would be, that such a possibility could only exist when the possessors of political power are threatening and escorting in a radical way those ties which hold together a political community as a whole in bonds of mutual service. When it becomes impossible any longer to render whole-hearted service within the total context of a common life, but every concrete act of service within the individual’s province takes on the character of participation in a common self-destruction–and in my view this possibility became reality for every man [sic] with eyes to see in the Third Reich (at least after Stalingrad)–then it also becomes impossible to deny to the Christian his [sic] right as a citizen to take part in revolution. Christin obedience in everyday life takes its significance from the fact that we have both the duty and the privilege of service; for this reason, and in the same way, in the conditions of democracy, Christian obedience can and must end at the point where, because of the nature of the existing political authority, service, though still possibility as an act of the individual, is yet robbed of all meaning within the total context of the life of a given community.” Ernst Käsemann, New Testament Questions of Today: Study Edition (London: SCM Press, 214-216).
Well, even translated from the German, it’s a heady mouthful.
Here’s Käsemann’s basic gist: We are called to serve authorities as long as the authorities do not ask, as a fundamental element of their rule, a habitutal abdication of our calling and allegiance to God.
In fact, engaging in revolution can itself be an expression of faithful Christian service: think, for example, of the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr, and Rosa Parks; the resistence to the South African government of Nelson Mandela and Bp. Desmond Tutu; and Dorothy Day (though the list can go on and on).
Now, to return to Paul’s point, civil disobedience does not mean that we aren’t subject to the–often unjust–civil punishments.
But is that not what we are freed to do by the gospel, by the news that death doesn’t win?
Does that news not in fact rush us headlong into the headwinds?
Is it not so that the reality of suffering because of the implications of our faith is precisely what Jesus implied when he said, “Take up your cross and follow me?”
No act of faith is necessary for our salvation: grace trumps all–even Trump and his own acts of un-faith.
But as Gerhard Förde said, “Now that you don’t have to do anything to earn salvation, what are you going to do?”
And as Walter Bouman said, “Now that you know that death doesn’t have the last word, there is more to do with your lives than preserve it.”
The point both men were making is this: the news that Jesus is risen frees us to not be afraid of death, in whatever shape it might present itself in our lives.
Indeed, not least of all with Trump’s inauguration, freedom is, in fact, at stake, and brings us right back to that word “consecration.”
If to ‘consecrate’ means to make, or deem, something holy, what is it to be holy?
Let’s call up Paul again, this time in his letter to the Galatians. In it, he wants to identify signs of the Spirit–the Holy Spirit (read more in this OMG blog about how the adjective before Spirit–like community, Christmas, school, mob, and, of course, Holy–helps us grasp the otherwise ghosty sense of Spirit).
That is, when we read the description of the Spirit below, we also read the description of what it is to be holy.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Let’s see: reference points for holiness are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Hmmmm…gotta say, I’m not seeing a lot of Trump’s habitual character traits here.
How about the unholy, then?
“…fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”
Um….I don’t believe, given the topic at hand, that I have any commentary to add to that.
But I do have something more to add to how Paul begins this text: Christians are called to freedom.
This freedom is not about doing what we want.
It is, paradoxically, to be bound to only one thing, and it is not the governing authority–at least where that authority trespasses on the holy.
That can get dicey, and for the Church and faithful Christians, come Friday, it is about to get just that.
Ernst Käsemann again: “So long as we are not in heaven, the challenge of freedom is always controversial, a cause of vexation both to the Christian church and to ourselves.” Jesus Means Freedom (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968, 9).
But here in the States, we live in this land we call the Land of the Free.
As US Citizens, we are free to engage in civil disobedience, and we are free to speak our minds, and we are free to vote people in…or out.
As Christians, we have those freedoms, and we have even more: we are freed to engage the risks of speaking truth to power in the name of our faith, and we are freed to directly address malevolent power in the name of Jesus, and we are freed to not be afraid, for the gospel tells us that death and fear do not win.
However, our freedoms are curtailed, more than others are: we are not free to engage in unrighteous anger and petty disputes. We are not freed to lie to advance our cause. We are not free to hate or malign our neighbor; rather, we are called to love them.
Donald Trump, much as it might make me wince to say it, is, indeed, my neighbor.
I do not malign him when I call him out with truth, nor when I object to his policies which offend and harm the ones we are called to most protect.
In fact, much to his dismay, I honor him with these actions.
While that is true, I am moreso honoring my higher authority, the one whom (I hope) is the primary governing authority in my life.
That is, in the name of Jesus, out of my claim to be a Christian, and on behalf of all things holy, I will love Donald Trump–and this nation–enough to engage in necessary, regular, organized, committed, vigilant struggle against his presidency every single time his authority clamors for more respect than, presumes to be worthier than, insists on higher allegiance than the gospel.
Inauguration Day, then, has the potential to inaugurate a new way, a rededication, an invigorated way of faithful living for people of faith.
If such a renewal comes to pass, January 20th may, in fact, be a holy day after all.