Submitting to government is a topic that often gets preached from pulpits. Especially when the congregation is faced with difficult laws that they don’t agree with. South Africans have been having a hard time since our lockdown started at the end of March, and as such, we’ve had pastors reminding us of our duty to submit.
I’ve wrestled with this sentiment a couple of times. In some seasons, it makes sense. In other seasons, I vehemently disagree. And then the question pops up – “Should I be submitting to government?”
If we look to the Bible, the easiest answer would be in the Epistles (Romans 13:2 – 5; 1 Peter 2: 13 – 14). But there is another answer, and that lies in the subtext of the New Testament stories. The main one, is Jesus’s story. He didn’t submit to government, and it cost him his life.
Who Killed Jesus?
It is a pity that the gospels of Matthew and Luke portray Jesus’s trial and crucifixion as a Jewish driven event. It has cost many millions of Jews their lives because they are (incorrectly) seen as the “people who killed Jesus”.
If it had been the Jewish Elders who wanted to execute him for blasphemy, which was the case brought against him by the Jewish Elders, they would have stoned him according to the Law (Lev 24:10-23). But he was killed by crucifixion. And crucifixion was a popular method used by the Romans to dissuade uprisings and rebellion in the holy land.
The first time I thought of it in this light, I realised that there must be something we’re missing as Christians about Jesus’s death. And according to Biblical scholars (like Marcus J. Borg), Jesus was executed because he was opposing the state of Rome and the Jewish Elders and High Priest. It was this protest that led to his brutal execution.
The Government of Jesus’s Time
In the first century, Jerusalem was part of the Roman Empire. Being part of an empire meant that you owed annual tribute to Rome. Tribute was never a light burden to carry and was collected in the form of taxes by local government. These taxes were so severe that it often resulted in families being sold into slavery to pay off their depts. The system was rife with injustice.
Because it is hard work to keep an empire in check with brute force, the Romans collaborated through bribery (and force) with the ruling class in a specific region. They appointed the local government, which was the High Priest, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes in the case of Israel. A Roman governor, who resided in Caesarea, overlooked the province and ensured that the locals complied.
Another way to think of it – the Temple (High Priest and Elders) worked in collaboration with the Roman empire to ensure that the system of oppression continues to function in favour of the empire.
In this political setup, the ruling middle-class (and the religious elite) owe their prosperity and power, to the Romans and the local governor. It is important to note that these elites weren’t immune to the swift and brutal “justice” of the empire. If the local government failed to keep the citizens in check, they would be removed (violently).
Jesus Proclaims a Different Kind of Kingdom
Enter Jesus. His ministry starts in the backwaters of Israel, Galilee. It’s the backwaters of the backwaters. People in this region are dirt poor, sick, and suffering. And it is to this crowd that he announces a new kind of kingdom. A kingdom where the meek will rule and inherit the earth.
As Jesus proclaims this message, heals the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead, a very dangerous idea starts to form in the minds of the oppressed and poor: Jesus is the king of this new kingdom. He is the long-awaited Messiah who will liberate them from their oppressors. As he’s journeying to Jerusalem, his followers’ expectation of the fulfilment of this promise grows.
This belief is proclaimed on Palm Sunday, when Jesus enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. When the Pharisees ask Jesus to shut his followers up, they’re doing it for fear of retribution from Rome.
The Culmination of Jesus’s Protest
The week leading up to his crucifixion is filled with stories where Jesus confront the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. The context Christians usually take out of this is that we’re not supposed to be super religious and forget mercy, justice, and peace. But what’s happening here is a full out confrontation with the government of the day.
Jesus indicts the Pharisees for consuming widow’s houses with these laws. He clashes with them about their adamance to keep the strictest interpretations of the law, while they forget what justice is about. In fact, he goes so far as making a whip, and rioting in the temple to show how dissatisfied he is with the political and justice systems of the time.
Jesus is growing in popularity among the people, which is a dangerous thing to be happening in the week of Passover. It is an incendiary time in Jerusalem, where patriotism is running high as Jews from all over the diaspora gather to celebrate what God had done in Egypt. It is for this very reason that the Roman governor (Pontius Pilate at the time) left Caesarea for Jerusalem to maintain order.
It is in this setting and political turmoil that Ananias, the High Priest says,
“You do not realize that it is better for you that one man dies for the people than that the whole nation perish.””
Why Judas betrayed Jesus remains speculation. But the Jewish elders and high priest handed Jesus over to Pilate, who had Him crucified to make a point – There is only one king, and his name isn’t Jesus of Nazareth.
In the end, God vindicates Jesus by raising Him from the dead. It is the start of the Christian faith, and a movement that believes non-violent protest against oppressive and unjust systems is God’s way of changing the world.
What this means for Christians in relation to government and submission
Like every part of being a Christian, there isn’t a “this is always correct” answer. Churches in Apartheid submitted and supported government in its segregation laws, even though this is obviously unjust. Just like whether women should be allowed to lead a church is up for interpretation, so is submitting to government.
The question that you should ask yourself is, “Am I willing to go to prison for the thing that I’m protesting by not submitting to government?”
I’m pretty sure you’ll feel like a fool if you go to prison for buying illegal cigarettes. But I do believe you will feel at peace even when you are ostracised for protesting for equal rights.