Sunday, June 24, 2018
Enforcing the law and America's alleged Christianity
Submission To Authority, the Bible, and Common Sense
by Pastor Paul J. Bern
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Although I don't often have to write follow-ups to my postings, I'm making an exception with this Sunday's commentary. (For those who may have missed it, you can read last week's column from right here.) Here in the early 21st century, we live in a world where authority has gotten completely out of control, even to the point of being abusive. This abuse of authority has now reached such an extreme that we treat toddlers like criminals! The problem with this is those who enforce America's laws have been proven to be criminals themselves! America was lied to back in the 1950's so our government could start the Viet Nam war. We were lied to about President Kennedy's assassination by the Warren Commission, and we were lied to again five years later concerning the murder of Robert Kennedy. We were lied to yet again about Rev. Dr. King's assassination that same violent year of 1968. President Nixon lied to us about Watergate. We were lied to in 2003 as a pretext for invading Iraq the second time. And we were lied to by president Obama when he won the 2008 election while telling us all that he would bring us “change we can believe in”. We got some serious changes all right, resulting in the largest spy and unmanned drone network the world had ever seen.
Meanwhile here at home, the police have become thoroughly militarized and they are having lots of fun on the job thanks to all their new toys and gadgets, not to mention fully automatic weapons and even tanks! They can stop you and search you without cause and without the Constitutionally mandated search warrant. They are breaking our doors down in the middle of the night and murdering unarmed citizens. A 92-year-old Black woman was shot 19 times and killed by the police more than a decade ago right here in Atlanta where I live and work, and people of color as well as the poor are being arbitrarily killed everywhere by the police, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. Back in 2012 when I tried to renew my drivers license, I was turned away due to a speeding ticket I got back in 1994 in North Carolina – even though I had paid the fine more than two decades previously. So now I no longer own a car, but I'm saving a lot of money by relying on public transportation and “going green”. Still, the state of Georgia's refusal to renew my drivers license makes me feel resentful and disenfranchised by the very system that is sworn to protect and serve us all. (Earlier this year I finally managed to pay off the $418.00 fine for allegedly being clocked at 70mph in a 65mph zone).
US attorney general Jeff Sessions recently quoted Romans 13 as being sufficient justification for America's immigration policies. Speaking as a minister of the Gospel and as an ambassador for Jesus Christ, I have done a little research as to what the Bible says about governmental authority and the abuse of power. It turns out that there is ample argument to be minted for both sides of this same coin. The first part has to do with submission to authority in the context of being a law-abiding citizen as the apostle Paul saw it when he wrote the Book of Romans approximately 1,950 years ago. At the time when this was written, all of what is now modern-day Israel was under the military occupation of the Roman empire. Similarly, much of the world today is occupied by the American Empire. Paul wrote these words in that context, so I will begin with the book of Romans, chapter 13 and verses 1-5.
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” (Romans 13: 1-5)
At the time the apostle Paul wrote this, the death penalty was commonplace. Capital punishment existed as a means of intimidation and absolute control, and that punishment was carried out with utter ruthlessness and without mercy. Moreover, unlike the Jewish religious establishment of that era, Paul was a Roman citizen and as such he was given rights and privileges that were not shared equally with his fellow Jews. But how does this compare with life in the early 21st century? Although the death penalty is still administered for capital crimes such as murder and treason, it is carried out with relative infrequency compared to the days of the Roman empire. There were also debtors prisons in Paul's day. People who ran into financial trouble back in those days were routinely imprisoned until their debts were paid. In contrast, today if one gets into financial difficulty, bankruptcy laws exist that are much more fair and equitable than prison. Compared to the times in which the apostle Paul lived, we get a complete picture of a much more fair, equitable and even lenient world in the present day. Let me now make some comparisons between Paul's world and ours using this passage of scripture as a backdrop to the picture that I will now paint for you with my words.
“The authorities that exist have been established by God”. Although Paul sincerely believed at the time that he wrote these words that he was absolutely correct, he was speaking more as a Roman citizen and a Hebrew religious scholar than he was as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In modern America, our rule of law is the Constitution of the United States and so I am writing today in this same context, but as an American citizen. We have the right to free speech and freedom of religion today that did not exist in St. Paul's time. That right, which is established under the first amendment to the US Constitution, allows me to write these words without fear of punishment. As such I am within the law and I will remain so for as long as the law is fair. It's when it's unfair, unjust or both that things can get pretty dicey. But hold that thought as I continue.
The apostle Paul continues with this same theme as he writes further: “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” The same applies today. Take the “patriot movement” and so-called “preppers” of today. Organizing any armed revolt in modern-day America is an idea that I am totally against, preaching and teaching as a man of peace who tries his best to emulate Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Besides, the police have well-armed SWAT teams, and there is always the National Guard that exists within any given state. So, I think one would be foolhardy to try and take on authority in an American armed revolt.
On the other hand, it is perfectly legal, and I would also say that it is even necessary, to engage in peaceful protests and passive resistance against laws and policies that we disagree with, mainly because they are unjust. The US Supreme Court's decision that money equals free speech is one good example. The counterproductive and sometimes downright stupid War on Drugs is another one. The first amendment gives us this right, something that did not exist during Paul's time all those centuries ago. In this regard, we can interpret this passage of scripture a little differently than what Paul wrote back then.
Paul then continues making his point, and so will I. “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.” It is sad to say that this is not always true in the modern world. Trying as I do to be a law-abiding citizen, I often find myself looked down on by the many godless, faithless people living in our world of today. I put up with the occasional ridicule and those who troll my blog just because I am openly Christian, but I do so knowing that God is watching everything I do and He is listening to everything I say. But to get back to the topic at hand, it is wise to be “free from fear of the one in authority”. The best way to follow this principle is to obey the commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Just by doing this, we can keep ourselves out of a whole lot of trouble. Besides, the Bible says in the Old Testament to “obey the laws of the land, that it may go well with you in the place you are abiding”. Those words were written at least three thousand years ago, and they are still just as true today as they were back then.
I have, however, another Bible verse or two for Mr. Jeff Sessions that he, and his entire staff, along with the rest of the Trump administration, seems to have overlooked. For example, what does the Bible say about so-called “illegal aliens”? “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress them, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 22: 21). For those who were unaware, the ancient Israelis (or Israelite's, as the Bible calls them) were slaves to the Egyptian Pharaoh's for 400 years prior to being led out of Egypt by Moses. This applies to the US as well, since America has the world's second-largest Jewish population. Only Israel has more. If it wasn't OK for Israel's ancestors to be oppressed by Pharaoh, it's not OK for her descendants here in America to be mistreating so-called “illegal aliens” either! Especially when we are breaking up families and traumatizing children!
Allow me just one more verse, Attorney General Sessions, before I conclude this week's message: “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalms 9: 9). Based on this verse of Scripture I would say America has been demonstrably acting in exactly the opposite way that King David wrote about. There are other things happening and situations unfolding within the US government that are similarly contrary to God's laws. Take the ten commandments as an example. The eighth commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”, which can be expanded to include this simple command: You shall not lie and gossip about people you dislike. Yet America found itself embroiled in a war in Iraq that was based on a lie. Specifically, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was still in power. Of course, those WMD's turned out to be non-existent, and it took more than 4,400 US fatalities – and well over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, nearly half of which were children – to find that out!
The same applies to Afghanistan – our troops have been there for 17 years! At first it was to find Osama Bin Laden even though everybody in Southern Asia and the Middle East knew he was in Pakistan. Now that he is deceased, are our troops all back home yet? Absolutely not, effectively making Afghanistan a defacto US territory with an open ended US military presence. And what are US troops still doing way over there? They're guarding the vast fields of opium for the CIA so American pharmaceutical companies can have an ample supply to fuel America's opiate epidemic, that's why!! (The CIA mainly handles the brokerage and logistics.) The US government has been spending $6 billion dollars a week on this occupation, a thoroughly obscene sum of money by any standard. Well over 50,000 Americans per year die from heroin and opiate pain-killer overdoses as a direct result, something I find even more obscene.
Yet all the while, there is unemployment here in the USA that is officially around 3.5%, but that doesn't count all the millions of long-term unemployed who have stopped looking for work, as well as those who are working part-time when full-time work is what is needed. If these facts were figured into this equation, the true unemployment rate is hovering at around 21 percent. There is no money to create over a million badly needed jobs in our country, but there is an unlimited supply of cash for multiple illegal military occupations and drone strikes all around the globe. This is a moral outrage, and anybody with even a little bit of a conscience should be out in the streets protesting against the US military-industrial complex, of which ICE is an integral part. That may not be in the words of the Bible, but it most certainly is in the Spirit thereof.
In closing, Paul then writes in verse 5, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” This is just as true today as it was when it was first written. Being an outlaw will only get us into trouble, and jail is no place for anybody to be except for the worst criminals. For example, it is a bad idea to drive your car at 90 miles an hour because it is against the law, but also because it is dangerous. By the same token, the ten commandments must be obeyed, and let's be sure to include the teachings of Christ while we're at it. We should not steal, lie or commit adultery, nor should we have any false gods in our lives. This includes electronic devices like computers. To find out if something is an idol, simply compare how much time you spend in front of screens to how much time you spend in prayer (time spent in church doesn't count – sorry!).
We are commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your strength, all your mind, all your soul and all your spirit”, and to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves”. We can and should worship the one true God and Him alone, who sent His only Son to die for our sins and then to rise from the dead on the third day after He was crucified. In the same way that we submit ourselves to God, we should, as far as it is possible, submit to authority here on earth. And we should do so not only “because of possible punishment but also because of conscience”. But here in the 21st century we can and should oppose and protest against the government's immigration policies, also because of matters of conscience. It is part of the laws of our land, and we should exercise this right because our rule of law says we can. This is also in keeping with God's commands, and I hope and pray that it always remains so.