By the Ear of Malchus! The Border, the Law, and a Kingdom not of this World.
By The Ear of Malchus! Thoughts on the Border, the Law and a Kingdom Not of this World
By Daniel van Voorhis
Breathe. Think. Leave the issue and come back in a few hours or days.
Ours is an age of outrageous political stories flanked by inflammatory cheerleaders on both sides. Over the past few years, my vocation has been commenting on religious and political issues from a historical perspective. It’s a dream job. It’s just that… well, things seem really crappy and everyone is mad at everyone else, and we treat politics and religion like sporting events in which we only have the colors we root for, and it seems like we’re only really interested in winning. And so, I have found myself dodging things that I would have never dodged in my twenties and early thirties. There are also so many seeming sycophants and wannabe demagogues I suspect staying quiet might save me some trouble.
Breathe. Think. Leave the issue and come back in a few hours or days. And then I hear rumors of the current administration using the separation of children from their parents for political gain and I wonder if there are enough deep breaths in the world.
I think I understand what St. Peter felt when he unsheathed his sword and lunged at the Roman soldier, Malchus. Peter was mad and indignant and scared. I can’t really defend him, nor do the Gospel writers. But whatever was happening, it was: a) a visceral response to a confusing and troubling situation b) an arrest that seemed in complete opposition to the ministry of Jesus and c) something regrettably reactive and condemned by Jesus.
You know the story: Jesus is going to be arrested after he was betrayed by Judas, and so Peter in a fit of rage, and in defense of his friend, lops off a soldier’s ear with his sword. Jesus slaps the ear back on the soldier’s head and rebukes Peter. Peter’s zeal is unfortunately paralleled with his later cowardice in soon rejecting Jesus out of fear of public shame (turned in by a friend of none other than Malchus). May I be spared the further iniquity that followed that zealous and foolish saint.
It started when the Attorney General quoted Romans 13 (tl:dr: “Obey the government!”) in response to criticisms from the church, including many on the Religious Right from Franklin Graham to Ted Cruz. I and many others quickly pointed out the chilling nature of such an authoritarian move, and many others, across the political and theological spectrum, condemned his religious and political interpretations. This still led to squabbling on the regular outlets with the outrage, sincere and faux, that have come to mark the age of… well, whatever this age is. And in the meantime… crickets. Nothing is happening.
My concern with the Attorney General’s use of the book of Romans wasn’t simply about an exegetical issue or interpretation of a political dictate, but rather because it misunderstands the radical nature of God's new kingdom. Here are the verses in question from a rather useful vernacular translation:
Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear. Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live.
Sure, these verses have been used by tyrants in the past. But that is not enough to disqualify them completely, that is if you want any of the surrounding verses to have any authority. Is Paul validating even the kindliest of despots as instruments of God? Maybe. I don't think that's the point of what he's writing. He didn't seem to care a bit for Nero. I don’t think Paul is telling us today that we should be good Democrats or Republicans, or either for enhanced border security or the whims of any regime.
Is Paul preaching absolute submission to temporal authorities? Temporal authorities think so. But if he was, his own arrests as well as encouraging others to resist evil in authority, doesn’t seem to fit. Rather, Paul, like Jesus before him is saying “play the game, follow the rules, don’t cause a scene…. yet, we’ve got bigger things to do, my Kingdom is not of this world”. Dr. Jeff Mallinson pulls on a few different traditions when he suggests that the Bible is more inclined towards a type of anarchy. In Christianity, the state has no real power. It, and its policies cannot save you, and are likely to come to worship elements of the state as an idol. So in the meantime, be generally obedient. We don’t need to cause any more offense than we are trying to cause with the scandalous message of grace. We stand neither on the left nor right. Our kingdom is not of their parties.
Government systems might be more efficient or permissive than others, but those who claim citizenship of the new Kingdom know that government exists for the good of our neighbor. I admit, various “Benedictine” “quietist” or other such options are enticing. I’ve unsheathed my sword, only to be rebuked by my Lord too many times. Sometimes I think my sword is my intellect, used to rebuff the enemies of the coming Kingdom. Or sometimes I see my sword as using whatever public platform I have to teach and speak about the news that breaks the oppressor’s chains. Sometimes they are legitimate swords, but I, like many of us need to learn when and how to use them without lobbing off too many ears, or worse.
Now, about the children on the border who are being separated from their parents. Ignore the barks on either side of what “this might lead to”. In a crisis involving children, we must suspend party loyalty and long term political gains. Don’t worry, the politicians will keep all that going while we tend to this. We have a calling to tend to the least of these. We should be people who are trained to run towards the child crying for their parents. We should oppose systems that break up families whether in the name of the blue, red, elephant or donkey.
So is this ultimately a political issue? Some would say so, as there are political questions and solutions. Is it a religious issue? Partly, insofar as religious people have opinions about what is right and these things tend to blend together. Is this hysteria driven by the left or the right to advance an agenda? Yeah, there’s probably some of that too. But the optics of what we’re doing should be shaming us. I understand tough decisions and people with certain views of citizenship and don’t want to belittle their positions as inherently inhumane or unloving. It does no good to demonize the other or lionize the opposition to our opposition. Think of the pro and anti-Trump camps as bickering, divorced parents. The President and the Press are at it again and we are like the kids in a divorced family, wishing the two parties would simply start having the decency to at least stay out of the same room. I’m calling for time-outs all around.
In the particular case of obedience to superiors and the separation of families, we need to have a conversation and it needs to happen fast. I’ll keep my sword sheathed, I promise. I’ll simply finish by suggesting that when Samantha Bee, Graham, The Pope, and Cruz are against something….
Dr. Daniel van Voorhis received his PhD from the University of St. Andrews in History in 2008. He has since taught modern history and politics at university as well as having served in various administrative capacities. van Voorhis recently stepped away from the world of the academy to write and speak under the auspices of the 1517 Legacy Project. He has recently written for both popular and academic audiences and continues to host Virtue in the Wasteland and speak nationally. You can find him at danvanvoorhis.com, on Facebook as Dr. Dan van Voorhis and on Twitter as @dan_vanvoorhis