Where Taking a Knee and Taking a Life Differ

Reporters and academics appealing to the Bible – have we gone back to Christian America? To see arguments over the Bible’s meaning that implicitly accept its authority is mildly amusing if only because the whole endeavor is so patently selective. Do reporters ever write stories about the Fourth Commandment and Christians playing in the NFL? They might if it turned out the chaplains running devotionals for football teams were part of President Trump’s team of religious advisers.

Anyway, the recent kerfuffle over Romans 13, political authority, and immigrants was another window into the weird world of Donald Trump. At Slate, Ruth Graham wrote about Jeff Session’s invocation of Romans 13 to explain law enforcement — as in, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Of course, she threw in for bad measure opposition to the American founding (from John MacArthur), defense of slavery, and submission to Hitler as further examples of Romans 13 interpretation. She does not consider that pitchers batting in the National League, submitting tax forms by April 15, or using physicians licensed by the state as other instances of honoring civil government and the rule of law.

Still, the stunner in the piece was the idea that martyrdom only made sense if Christians refused to honor and obey the law:

Romans 13 goes on to command the early church to “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Arbo pointed out the importance of the clause about giving what is owed, which allows for the possibility that some authorities are not owed honor and respect. “If Sessions’ interpretation of Romans 13 were followed, it would render martyrdom meaningless,” he said. “If the Christian were always in every instance to honor the authority’s command then as a result there would never be an instance of dying for allegiance to Jesus Christ.”

I understand that part of what makes martyrdom possible is refusing to obey the law. A Christian may not disobey God to submit to Caesar, though the rationale for disobedience may not be as straightforward as the civil disobedient thing.

Still, the kicker is that martyrdom also makes no sense unless the state has the authority to execute those who disobey and uses it. You may refuse to bow before the emperor’s statue and the authorities decide not to prosecute you. If the United States required standing for the National Anthem, Colin Kaepernick would have been guilty of breaking the law. But for him to become a martyr, the state needs to use its bearing-the-sword authority to execute law breakers. Also required is that Kaepernick submit to death, another way that someone may honor the state and submit to law. Defiance does not simply make someone a martyr. Running away from executioners . . . . well, you get the point.

So as much as the administration’s opponents might like to think that this government is dishonorable, they need to see that only if the executive branch has legitimate power and uses it will those who defy it become martyrs.

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