The Trouble with Comparing Politics in the Roman Empire to America

I can’t recall how often I’ve heard Christians quote Paul’s approach to the Roman Empire as the blueprint, more or less, for Christians living in American democracy.

Then again, I’ve also lost track of how many times I’ve heard Christians quote Jesus’ approach to the Roman Empire as the blueprint, more or less, for Christians living in American democracy. The trouble that I have found in both approaches is that both assume too many things when aligning the Roman Empire and America today.

Sure, there are plenty of ways that America has brought benefits to its citizens and to people around the world. However, America has also been a force of colonial power and oppression both to the Native Americans in our land and among certain nations around the world. And having said all of that, there is no American leader who claims to be a deity and demands the worship of its citizens.

Dissent in America is welcome and protected by law. Even in the worst case scenario of a citizen taking up arms against the government, there should be a legal process—although that will play out differently in some cases since a black man holding a cell phone may be shot dead by police, while a group of white extremists can take over federal land and then walk out of court free men. Inconsistencies aside in American justice and policing, no one is going to be tortured for days via crucifixion for leading an opposition political party or for opposing the government. The closest America came to this Roman practice of “justice” was the lynching of black Americans, although David Cone points out that this traumatic act of intimidation and terrorism was intended to suppress the black population and to enforce white supremacy.

Jesus and Paul operated in a time of Roman colonial power and exploitation. There were no elections to determine if Caesar would be in charge. There were no political parties. Any kind of political organizing was viewed with extreme suspicion, and it was the mere perception of Jesus’ political aspirations that drove the Jewish leaders to conclude that they would lose their city to a Roman army if Jesus was allowed to continue walking around when people called him their king and Messiah. Their fear of Roman reprisal was so great that Caiaphas concluded it was better to kill a single man, even if he was innocent, then to risk calling the attention of Rome’s touchy imperial leaders.

Living when and where he did, it’s preposterous to use the example of Jesus to assert that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics at all or that Jesus never would have supported government programs like healthcare or social security. Rome just plundered people, period. Under the circumstances of crushing military rule, extreme taxation, and minimal resources or political friends, the Jewish people at the time of Jesus had no other option than to be generous with each other. If they asked the Roman government to give them better services, they would have likely ended up on a cross. If the government only serves the interests of an imperial power, the best that you can hope for is to stay out of its way and to help others when you can.

In the case of Paul, there were even greater concerns that the Roman government and local officials reporting to them would get in the way of his missionary work. Paul and his companions faced imprisonment, beatings, and death, among many other daily attacks and slanders. We shouldn’t expect Paul to suggest working with this government, and we certainly shouldn’t expect him to rally anyone to lobby for legislation. He knew that his only option was to stay off the radar, to be cooperative as often as possible, and to avoid any kind of agitation that would hinder his missionary work or put the churches in danger.

Today, we can elect our government officials and enact policies that can help or hurt individuals. We can charitably debate which political party or ideology is most in line with the command to love our neighbors, honoring the God-given dignity of individuals, and cares for the sacred creation of God, but I don’t think you can argue against the need to vote on politicians and policies for the sake of our neighbors and creation.

I can’t imagine that Jesus or Paul thought of themselves as setting up a once and for all time policy on government and voting. They were trying to survive under the boot of a powerful Empire, avoiding allegiance to an idolatrous and corrupt regime without raising suspicions unnecessarily.

Can we imagine a Civil Rights movement today without the language of Scripture and the law of love resonating throughout the sermons, speeches, and marches?

Today we have the power to use our votes for the welfare of our neighbors, to set up a government that treats all with justice and equality. We all have a part to play, provided that we are wary of being played by the government when it hopes to exploit religious groups for its own gains.

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