Tag Archives: Government

Wrestling with Subjection to Authority

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.
Romans 13:1 (NIV)

For the record, I don’t belong to any political party.

I was just reminded this morning of a passage in The Lord of the Rings when Pippin asks the Ent, Treebeard, whose side he was on. “Side?” Treebeard replies. “I’m on no one’s side, because no one is on my side.”

Along my life journey I have respected certain leaders from both of the major parties here in the States, and I have had personal disdain for leaders from both of the major parties. I’m thankful for living in a representative republic. There is always the possibility of change in every election cycle.

Paul is writing his letter to followers of Jesus in Rome during the time of the Roman Empire. One of the reasons the Romans were able to control such a large area of the western world for such a large period of time was the fact that Rome tended to bring and maintain a certain amount of law and order wherever they ruled. While there were always those unhappy with Roman occupation, there was a certain understanding among the common population that the system of Roman law and order was better than the chaos which was often the reality when a local tyrant or warlord reigned.

In today’s chapter Paul provides a fascinating perspective as he tells the followers of Jesus living in Rome itself to be subject to governing authorities, to pay their taxes, and to respect those in authority. This is the Roman Empire. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, whom Paul once worked for, have an entire terrorist network developing which is going to erupt into outright rebellion in about 20 years from the writing of Paul’s letter. Even one of the Twelve apostles came out of the anti-Roman Zealots. But Paul is direct, authoritative and unequivocal in stating that authority is a construct of God, so we must respectfully subject ourselves to government authority.

A couple of thoughts on this. Underneath Paul’s teaching on this matter is an understanding that on the eternal, cosmic, Level 4, Great Story perspective all things are moving toward the end of the Story, which is already written. If we want to get into the notion of God and eternity existing outside of the dimension of time then one might argue that it’s already happened. Maybe you need another cup of coffee before wrapping your brain around that.

There is also plenty of precedent from the Old Testament (Paul was a lawyer by training, remember) that God raises up and uses certain kings and rulers (Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, for example) who were not the most benevolent leaders. Even David respected and viewed Saul as God’s appointed authority and refused to depose and kill the mad king when he had every reason and opportunity to do so. In telling the Roman believers to subject themselves to their Roman authorities, Paul was channeling thinking and teaching that was quite ancient.

Then there is the most fascinating fact that Paul is a Roman citizen. This is no small detail. It’s a huge deal in his day and age. Roman citizenship was extremely hard to come by and afforded the person all sorts of perks in Roman society. Paul states elsewhere that he was born a Roman citizen, so he grew up enjoying the protection and status of that citizenship. Paul will soon use that status to appeal his upcoming conviction to Caesar himself. Paul will end up a prisoner in Rome itself.

What’s ironic is that Paul and the believers he’s writing to in Rome will be scapegoated by Caesar, blamed for the Great Fire of Rome to cover up Caesar’s own culpability, and they will be persecuted mercilessly. The Roman authorities to whom Paul is telling the believers to submit will throw them in prison, cover them in wax and light them on fire (while still alive) to illuminate Caesar’s garden, feed them to the lions in the Coliseum, and execute Paul by chopping of his head. By the way, beheading was another perk of Roman citizenship. If Paul had not been a citizen he’d have suffered a much more agonizing death by crucifixion, which was the gruesome fate awaiting Peter in Rome.

Would knowing the end awaiting him change Paul’s charge to subject themselves to Rome’s authority? I don’t think so. A few weeks ago I reminded our local gathering of Jesus followers that Jesus told Peter about the death by crucifixion that was awaiting him after His resurrection. Once again, the present, Level 1 daily circumstances were lived with an eternal, Level 4 perspective.

This is one of those mornings when, in the quiet, I have more questions than answers. What about…? What if…? Despite all the questions, I’m reminded that I’m not always going to like those in authority. I’m reminded that being respectful and lawful is part of being a “living sacrifice” (see yesterday’s post). I’m reminded that Jesus subjected himself to cruelty and a completely unjust execution after a series of kangaroo court trials before religious, secular, regional, and Roman authorities to whom He was always respectful. He knew that his Level 1 circumstances had Level 4 purpose. So did Peter. So did Paul.

That is whose footsteps I’m following.

Human Manipulation Present and Historical

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
Numbers 25:1-3 (NIV)

One of the reasons that I enjoy being a student of history is that it so often affords me the wisdom to put current events into historical context. In the 24/7/365 world of network news and social media it is fascinating to watch people getting whipped into a frenzy by every trending story of the moment. In this past year the story about Russian interference in American elections has driven an incredible amount of airplay. The truth is that countries attempting to effect the outcome of foreign elections, or the opinions of a foreign people, has a very long and rich history around the globe and including my own government here in the United States. There are always slimy political agents willing to play both sides, or any side, for profit.

Today’s chapter is an ancient case in point.

Balaam the Seer may have appeared to be a faithful follower of God in the previous few chapters. Balaam knew God’s voice and he knew enough that it was not profitable for him to curse Israel if God was on their side. Balaam was also the prototypical double-agent. If military victory against the Israelites was out of the question, perhaps a campaign of religious and moral subversion would introduce chaos and disruption to weaken the Israelites.

So, women were sent to seduce Israelite men into joining them in the rather depraved sexual fertility rights of the local fertility god named Baal (Btw, men being easily seduced sexually for political or personal advantage is another well-documented historical pattern). It was not just a one night stand, but the narrative says the men “yoked” themselves to the Canaanite deity, which is a word picture of servitude. The disruption worked. The spiritual, moral, political, and religious struggle between God and Baal would continue for nearly a thousand years and eventually become part of the recipe that divided Israel into a long civil war.

What is fascinating is that the shadowy political operative manipulating things behind the scenes was none other than Balaam the Seer. In a few chapters (31:16) we discover that it was Balaam who instigated the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men into Baal worship.

This morning I’m thinking about manipulation. I can be manipulated so easily. I live in a world in which the microphone on my cell phone can pick up my conversation and feed marketers the ads I’m likely to be interested in. I live in a world in which I may see only what the cameras of my news program of choice want me to see. I live in a world where relatively few inflammatory social media posts, strategically placed, can disrupt the collective thought of a nation. This isn’t new, it’s just old spiritual, commercial, political, and social paradigms discovering new and more powerful tools.

As I enter into a new work week, I’m reminded over Jesus excellent advice to His followers:

Be shrewd as a serpent; gentle as a dove.”

Have a good week, my friend.

Cost-Shifting

Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor.
Nehemiah 5:14 (NRSV)

I have witnessed a change in the culture around me during my life journey. As a child, I learned by example that making your own way and being responsible for your own provision was of great importance. There were a few basic principles that were part of the fabric of the culture around. Living by these principles not only said something about your character, but they also benefited society as a whole:

  • Earn your own way.
  • Don’t take what you haven’t earned.
  • If you borrow in need, pay it back quickly (and before spending more for yourself).
  • Avoid needing any kind of financial assistance. If you need help, then get back on your feet and off assistance as quickly as possible.

What I have observed in increasing measure is a shift towards the acceptance of cost-shifting. I receive something and the cost is paid by someone else. This was once considered dishonorable and immoral, but I see it accepted by more and more people without question.

A few years ago I overheard a young married couple talking among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. They were highly educated, healthy, and capable people of middle-class midwestern upbringing. I listened as they proudly espoused their creative ability to “work the system” and get all sorts of welfare and entitlement money from the government. They eagerly encouraged their friends to do the same, explaining how the money and assistance they received from from the government allowed them to work less.

It’s just out there,” they said of the government entitlement programs. “It’s free money. It’s going to go to someone. It might as well be me.

I continue to be bewildered (and angered) by my friends’ misguided thinking. They were blind to their cost-shifting. The money they received were tax dollars others earned. They were quite capable of working harder and earning their own way, but they chose to work less and accept assistance they didn’t really need. The more people cost-shift, the more an economy and a culture struggles.

Nehemiah was dealing with a similar situation in today’s chapter. The people left in Jerusalem after the city had fallen to the Babylonians were cost-shifting in different ways. They were taking whatever they could extort from one another. The leaders were taxing people in exorbitant excess of the King’s minimum in order to live high off the hog. Nehemiah calls a community meeting and confronts the people about how wrong this cost-shifting was in God’s eyes, and how bad it was for themselves as a society.

Nehemiah then led by example. He chose not to take everything to which he was “entitled” by his position and power. He actively pursued a spirit of contentment. He consumed what he needed and was generous with his blessings. He flatly refused to adopt the “take what you can get” mentality he’d observed in his people.

It’s Monday morning and I’m grateful this morning for growing up in a culture that valued hard work and earning your way. I’m thankful for the blessing of my job. I’m grateful for the opportunity to earn a good living, provide for my home, pay my tithes and taxes, and to be generous with what I have been given.

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Featured image by Kevin Trotman via Flickr

Idealism to Cynicism to Hope

This land will be his possession in Israel. And my princes will no longer oppress my people but will allow the people of Israel to possess the land according to their tribes.
Ezekiel 45:8 (NIV)

When I was young, one of my boyhood dreams was to go into politics. With idealistic notions and the strains of Schoolhouse Rock going through my head, I thought that it would be great to serve my country by running for office.

Then I grew up. And, my idealistic notions gave way a more sober understanding of what politics is really like in our day and age. You have to have money to run and pay for all those political advertisements, so your hand is always out and you’re likely going to be required to make deals with donors and special interests so your war chest is full. You can’t get anything done without political alliances with the inside power brokers who have been incumbents for decades and hold all the senior positions. So, you have to make back room deals and support bills you don’t agree with so that you can get your pet project through. Then there’s pork barrel spending, negative ads, and a number of other “realities” that make me happy to put away one particular boyhood dream.

The people of Israel went through a similar wake-up call in Ezekiel’s day. About 500 years before, the people of Israel with their idealistic notions wanted a change in government. They wanted a King to rule over them; A strong centralized monarchy like all of their neighbors had. God, through the prophet Samuel, warned them that they were being naive and said:

[This King you desire] will take the best of your fields and vineyardsand olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

But, they finally got their wish. Now, 500 years later, Ezekiel is giving a prophetic word of eschatological hope that someday the princes of the land will stop oppressing the people by continuing to do exactly what Samuel had predicted.

Today, I am reminded that on this side of eternity there is no perfect form of government, because there are no perfect human beings. Our fallen nature, despite the highest of ideals and best of intentions, is given to corruption, greed, and pride. Monarchy, Parliamentary, Democratic, and Socialist governments all suffer from the same human corruption. As it was in Ezekiel’s day, so it remains these 2600 years later.

A rather sobering and cynical thought to start the work week, but I am reminded that the underlying message Ezekiel is communicating is one of hope that someday things will be restored, reclaimed, and redeemed. And, this morning I take that to heart and join with all others who continue to hope for that Day.

Inevitable Corruption

English: Painting, 1856, by Junius Brutus Stea...
English: Painting, 1856, by Junius Brutus Stearns, Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They also cast lots, just as their relatives the descendants of Aaron did, in the presence of King David and of Zadok, Ahimelek, and the heads of families of the priests and of the Levites. The families of the oldest brother were treated the same as those of the youngest. 1 Chronicles 24:31 (NIV)

Wherever there is power there is corruption. It is as true in a church as it is in politics. When there is a lot of money involved, it happens faster and runs deeper.

I have seen this very thing at work in churches, where large donors influence decisions and control circumstances behind closed doors. As a young man I worked in a county office building and I watched the corruption and power of a political machine and the union doing whatever they wanted despite what was legal. Even in my quaint, small, town with its scrubbed streets and squeaky clean religious legacy I have seen individuals and families who are power brokers, wielding tremendous influence from behind the scenes.

I find it interesting that in the selection of priests for the new temple, David made a legitimate effort to keep things equitable. The casting of lots (think of it like drawing straws) was an ancient practice of letting fate or God decide things. Like all societies there were prominent families, and less prominent ones. There were those with more wealth than others. The casting of lots was meant to keep anyone from influencing their role in the temple.

It was a nice thought.

As time went on, corruption took over. There was money to be made. Whoever controlled the priesthood controlled the temple and with it all of the food, supplies, stores, and money that was offered daily. By the time Jesus would appear on the scene a millennia later, the temple leadership had become reminiscent of a mafia family running a religious racket, which is what Jesus was really addressing when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple (twice).

I am reminded this morning that there is little I can do against human corruption which is at work in almost every human endeavor. It cannot be avoided because sin is at work in all of us, and sin will always lead human beings to grab after power and control. David tried. It’s the same with the framers of the U.S. Constitution who separated powers so that there would be checks and balances between the branches of government. They were trying to stave off the corruption that they saw in every other system of government. I read the headlines daily and begin to feel that they were no more successful than David.

So what can I do? I can work to keep my own heart pure, avoid corruption in my own spheres if influence, confront corruption where I see it, and exercise wisdom in knowing when to speak and when to be silent.

Governing Observations

The dome of the US Capitol building. Français ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So Samuel passed on the Lord’s warning to the people who were asking him for a king. “This is how a king will reign over you….” 1 Samuel 8:10 (NLT)

This morning’s chapter was about ancient Israel’s desire for a new system of government. They were frustrated with the way things were having lived for generations under a theocracy in which God raised up a “judge” to lead the people at different times. The book of Judges is a chronicle of Israel’s history during this time. It was a messy form of government, to be sure. The grass looked so much greener on the other side of the border. Their neighbors with their centralized authority (a.k.a. a king) seemed so much cleaner and easier than the theocracy they’d been attempting to live out for hundreds of years. Despite Saul’s warnings of the flaws inherent in a monarchy, the people continued to demand it until they got their way.

As I read this morning I found myself pondering our continual frustration with government, which seems to be universal wherever you go. As I have sojourned in this life, I have observed and have come to some personal conclusions about human government. Looking at things on a macro level, here are my observations:

  • Governments rarely, if ever, shrink (unless by force or implosion), they only expand.
  • Most who reach places of governmental power and authority will do all that they can to retain and expand that power and authority (so that they can do “more good,” of course).
  • Those in government who make rules for others quite regularly exempt themselves from those rules our make loopholes for themselves, friends, and or loved ones.
  • Politics is a performance played out in sound bytes, tweets, posts, press conferences, and public addresses. Public words cloak personal motives.
  • There is no system of government on the face of this earth which is not given to corruption, waste, fraud, and abuse.
  • Every one of us live under a corrupt system of government because we are all governed by human beings marred by the human condition.

What then shall we do? I continue to ponder that as well. I have no great revelation nor answers to share. Personally, I find myself continually returning to what Jesus asks of me as a follower.

Seek God. Love others. Press on.

My Liege

kingdom workThe Lord is king!
    Let the earth rejoice!
    Let the farthest coastlands be glad.
Psalm 97:1 (NLT)

Over the past weekend Wendy and I discussed the changes we’ve seen in our federal government. This is not a political blog and I choose not to go on political rants. The core of Wendy’s and my discussion was the selfishness and self-centered attitude of politicians on both sides of the isle. Of politicians anywhere, really. When you have elected representatives whose top priority is to look out for their own personal interests, political power, and re-election then the system ultimately doesn’t work. You can create all sorts of rules of checks and balances, but if those who are supposed to be accountable to those checks and balances have the power to change the rules to further their own ends, then the checks and balances are all smoke and mirrors.

Back in college a friend of mine from Zimbabwe and I engaged in a long discussion about which is the best political system. He was a socialist. I defended our representative republic. After long, spirited conversation that meandered across many shared shifts in the college food service department, we both concluded that no system of government works when you have sinful, selfish, corrupt individuals in positions of political power.  And, since we both were Jesus followers and believed that everyone is ultimately sinful and power corrupts, we concluded that no form of human government is perfect because human beings are not perfect.

I thought of these things when I read the opening lyric to Psalm 97 this morning. The people of Israel tried to create an earthly theocracy. In ancient times they saw God as their king and everyone submitted to God, the Levitical priests, a loose system of judges, and the law of Moses. But, that didn’t work either since there were human priests and judges who were corrupt and the people regularly gave only passing lip service to God. Nevertheless, the idea of God as monarch has continued to be a theme throughout God’s Message. The end vision of Revelation is Jesus on the throne ruling for eternity.

Jesus talked all the time about the Kingdom of God. God’s Message tells those of us who follow Jesus that we are ultimately citizens of that Kingdom. No matter what earthly country we live in and no matter what system of government we abide under, we are eternally subjects of a divine King to whom we answer and are called to be obedient.

Checks and Balances. Nice Try.

Diagram of US Federal Government and American ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 53

But no, all have turned away;
    all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
    not a single one!
Psalm 53:3 (NLT)

Having just come through an intense political season and subsequent national election, I have been spending a lot of time mulling over issues of government. Bear with me here. This is not a partisan political rant but a meditation on spiritual principle. Beyond political agendas of the two main parties, my thoughts have been reaching deeper to the system of government itself. The American experiment was, in many ways, unique when our founding fathers hammered out and crafted our current system of government. Not to get all high school government class on you this morning, but I’m struck at how the framers of our constitution understood the corruption of humanity. They acknowledged that without checks and balances, the system would quickly fall to corruption. By separating power and spreading it out between branches of government, between houses of congress, and between the states and the federal entities, there was a greater likelihood that one person or one government entity could not have too much power and grab control of the entire system (which history reveals is always the eventuality).

What the founders of the United States acknowledged was what God’s Message calls the sinful nature and what theologians refer to as the depravity of humanity. Every person who has watched over or parented small children has witnessed and experienced this. Given to him or herself, a little tike will hit their rival, rip the toy they want out of another person’s hands and then lie about doing it. They will hide their vegetables under the table or feed them to the dog. As we get older we hopefully learn that these behaviors are wrong. However, my personal experience and my dealings with other human beings leads me to believe that as adults we just get better at hiding our true nature, excusing our failings, shifting blame and getting away with it.

Prevailing thought in our culture is that we are all basically good and are given to doing the right thing. Therefore, given a little effort, we can reach a level of moral excellence acceptable to God. At the very least, we should be able to tip the scales slightly to the side of “good” and earn a pass on Judgement Day. My journey through God’s Message reveals a very different picture. I find God telling us that despite Herculean efforts to overcome our corrupt nature and moral shortcomings, we will instead find ourselves to be Sisyphus who just gets the stone to the top of the hill only to find that it rolls right back down again. We can never achieve a level of moral perfection necessary to be found innocent.

Which is why I find that even our system of government with all of its checks and balances still slides slowly into the muck of corrupt dealings, power grabs, deceptive advertising, pork barrel spending, blame shifting, and inside trading.

God help us. Despite our best efforts we still fall short.

We need a Savior.

Chapter-a-Day Deuteronomy 14

WASHINGTON - MARCH 26:  A smiley face was draw...
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At the end of every third year, gather the tithe from all your produce of that year and put it aside in storage. Keep it in reserve for the Levite who won’t get any property or inheritance as you will, and for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow who live in your neighborhood. That way they’ll have plenty to eat and God, your God, will bless you in all your work. Deuteronomy 14:28-29 (MSG)

God’s Message talks more about economics than you might think. I’ve come to realize that there is a system that I like to call God’s economy. In the economic system of God’s kingdom each and every individual is called upon to personally set aside provision from their regular income that he/she will then give away to bless those who are less fortunate or in need. The thing that I appreciate about God’s economic system is that it applied to everyone across the board. Those who were more fortunate had larger portions to set aside and share, but even those with little income were responsible to use a portion of whatever small amount they were given to give to others. Everyone participated and the local community benefited.

Somewhere along the way we lost touch with the personal responsibility and management piece and handed it over to our representative government. The government takes it before we even receive our paycheck and so we lose sight and touch with how much of our income is even taken from us to feed the system. The government handles all of the distribution so we lose touch with any personal responsibility for managing it nor do the vast majority of us get the blessing of actually giving it to a person who needs it. Not all who produce share in the responsibility of giving to those in need and who gives what becomes a quagmire of political machinations.

Certainly, we all have the opportunity to save, tithe, and give above and beyond what we are taxed. I get that. The thing that I find really sad is that God’s economy was set up to build individual character along with building up the local community. Neighbors provided for neighbors. There was local accountability and local blessing. There were deep spiritual lessons and the development of maturity that came from the personal responsibility required of each and every person to manage and give away a portion of their income to family, friends, neighbors and strangers in their community who were in need.

I understand that this still happens to varying degrees on a small scale, but I find it sad that our economic system has strayed far from the economic system God prescribed. I believe it has happened to the detriment of ourselves, our communities and our society as a whole.

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Chapter-a-Day Isaiah 16

Ballot box. "A Ruler you can depend upon will head this government, A Ruler passionate for justice, a Ruler quick to set things right."Isaiah 16:5 (MSG)

While in college, I worked breakfast shift in the kitchen. My friend Claudius, who hailed from Zimbabwe, worked the same shift and we would clean together after breakfast. We talked as we cleaned and the discussion would often turn to politics. Claudius came from a very different experience in Africa and we would talk about the pros and cons of different systems of government. Democracy, Monarchy, and Socialist, we walked through them all in our after-breakfast scrub fests.

There was a lot on which Claudius and I did not agree, but as fellow believers we did come to agreement on a couple of key points. First, every system of human government is ultimately flawed because of our imperfections and sin. Because human beings are self-centered and given to lusts of the eyes, lusts of the flesh and pride, then the power of humans to govern is ultimately corrupted no matter what the system of governing might be. Therefore (and here is the second point on which we agreed), the perfect government is a loving, just, all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God sitting on the throne.

Compared to having God Himself on the throne, every other government is just shadows, smoke and mirrors.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and blackplastic