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.

Christians Need Compassion More Than Ever

A year ago today, I was having a panic attack over the 2016 presidential election.

Unlike many other anxious situations in my life, I believe my panic was justified looking back over a year later. In fact, I remain more susceptible to panic attacks ever since the election that made a president out of a man with deep criminal ties, a history of telling lies, a tendency to brag about sexual assault, provokes countries who have nuclear weapons, and deeply troubling tendency to express racist and xenophobic remarks and policies.

I have turned to Thomas Merton for guidance. How do we remain centered in God and compassionate toward others when the world appears to have gone mad?

For one thing, Merton didn’t mince words. He spoke plainly and passionately when he detected injustice or hypocrisy. When politicians twisted language to distort their ill intents, Merton took no prisoners in his replies to deceptive ideas, propaganda, and any policy that threatened the image of God in another person.

As we are swamped with a deluge of conspiracy theories, social media division tactics, and dubious stories from less than credible sources, a plain and simple commitment to truth and clarity is very valuable. In the search for the truth, I never want to lose sight of the people who may hold these views.

Merton has helped me to continually question my motivations for any engagement in politics.

Do I desire peace, human flourishing, and the full dignity of God for every person?

Am I capable of compassion and love toward those who believe differently from me, even if I believe they are supporting a dangerous demagogue?

I could make a laundry list of things that Christians need to do better in order to work toward peace and to guard the Gospel message from political polarization. Perhaps at the root of everything that Christians could do better in a time of fake news, incendiary social media posts from international actors seeking to divide us, and false flag media companies seeking power by sowing discord is to develop greater compassion for others.

Centering prayer daily has prompted me to continue letting go of my anger and anxiety. Negative thinking loops that revolve around politics can be shut down if we learn daily to release our thoughts and entrust ourselves to God.

Praying for others, especially those ensnared by news outlets awash in partisan propaganda, has helped me to seek their liberation from fear and anger. Sites like FOX News and BreitBart thrive on creating controversy, false intellectualism, and stirring up divisions.

Mind you, each day with centering prayer is hardly a gentle float down a quiet stream. There is a discipline involved in prayer. We will feel legitimate anger when we learn about people who have been cruelly detailed, unjustly punished, or singled out by racist or xenophobic groups. Even if we respond with prayer, love, and compassion, there is an unmistakable need to show up and act for truth, justice, and peace. I never want to be the sort of Christian who advocates for prayer and nothing else!

Love is a political act when it drives us to seek the best for others, when love prompts us to seek human flourishing because all bear the image of God.

Compassion isn’t partisan. It isn’t based on political affiliation, on the size of the government, or who you voted for in an election.

As I advocate for justice and peace, I don’t want to lose sight of those trapped by lies, hatred, greed, or fear—I suspect that many in America are trapped by all of those things.

The more we learn about false news stories being pushed by foreign powers on social media with the intent of dividing us further, the best response I can think of is one of prayerful compassion.

One year after this catastrophic election, let us resolve to do the hard soul work of silence and centering.

Let us continue to learn to let go of our anger and fear, trusting fully in God.

Let us resolve to pray for those in the grip of fear and even our enemies who stoke those fears.

There is wisdom in being slow to anger, slow to speak, and slow to condemn.

I can only put my hope in love and compassion winning someday, somehow because I believe at the root of everything is a single heartbeat that unites us all: “God so loved the world…”

This is God’s world. He loves it dearly. He is present. If anything will save the world from its madness and division exposed and stirred up in last year’s election, the redemptive and uniting love of God is the only hope we’ve got.

Monday Merton: Love, Love Only

merton-jan-23-2017

As I’ve reckoned with the uncertainty and anxiety brought about by the 2016 election here in America, I’ve sought out wisdom and guidance from someone who is both grounded in contemplation and action-oriented critique. It just so happened that I was reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation and The Echoing Silence during the election.

While The New Seeds of Contemplation offered the insight I craved for contemplation, The Echoing Silence, which offers a collection of Thomas Merton’s writings and letters related to writing, provided unexpected wisdom for today’s partisan politics. As I tracked down some of Merton’s additional writings on current events (he primarily wrote about the 1950’s and 1960’s) in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he provided extremely relevant insight for today’s political climate.

In Merton I found someone who was unapologetically committed to the central orthodoxy of the Christian faith, while deeply suspicious of political events. He did not attack individuals with vindictiveness, but he did critique ideologies and the actions of individuals that were truly harmful.

I have craved Merton’s mix of contemplative spiritual formation and piercing political insight. To that end, I’m collecting quotes from his books to share on Mondays, starting with Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. While this isn’t the book I’d recommend starting with if you’re interested in Merton (try Thoughts in Solitude or New Seeds),  this is the book that speaks most directly to events in my country and what contemplative action could look like:

 

“So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own peculiar truth.*

Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth. As long as we do not have this love, as long as this love is not active and effective in our lives (for words and good wishes will never suffice) we have no real access to the truth. At least not to moral truth.”

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (p. 63).

 

*Paragraph break added for online readability.