Thursday, July 4, 2013

Why I Don't Celebrate the Fourth of July

[note: This post is a revision of the one I posted a year ago on the same topic].

I am an American, but I do not celebrate the Fourth of July. Let me be more precise. I gladly accept the day off from work the way the British do their periodic Bank Holidays. Spending time with family and pursuing beloved leisure activities are always to be welcomed. But I simply cannot celebrate the ideological raison d'être of the holiday.

Those who know me will automatically assume the reason is my confirmed Anglophilia. "McGahey," they will say, "even has a Union Jack on the ceiling of his study and pompously pronounces words like 'process,' 'harassment,' and 'controversy' in the British fashion." Well, I must confess to being an Anglophile, like anyone else raised in my family couldn't help but being. Nonetheless, I am hardly so blind or naive. I know my history, and am well aware of the shameful legacy of such British imperial moments as the Opium Wars and the Second Boer War. Kipling may have spoken reverently of the "White Man's Burden," but such philanthropic impulses are just the bright side of the darker, more basic impulses to power that have driven all major world empires, from the Roman to the (de facto) American.

I am also a Philadelphian. My hometown has many virtues as well as faults, but there is no question that what drives the City of Brotherly Love as a tourist destination is its well-preserved buildings—the destruction of more recent Victorian buildings by the NPS in the 1950s in favor of unhistorical grass lots, no matter how scenic, gives the impression of the buildings being preserved in formaldehyde—that played a central role in the American War of Independence. I was schooled to revere the founders of my country, and unquestioningly accepted what I was taught about the righteousness of the American cause.

One person differed in his opinion: my father. For those who didn't know him and/or don't know of him, he was no ordinary man. Raised in an immigrant Protestant (and, hence, British) family from the north of Ireland, he fought in the US Army in WWII, was the first in his family to attend college, and wound up earning a doctorate in theology and teaching at Philadelphia College of Bible for 29 years. For years he told me the American cause was not just, but—rebellious teenager that I was—I brushed him off in my youthful arrogance. In the arsenal at his disposal was one paragraph from St. Paul's letter to the Romans. In the long run it was this text that eventually forced me to stop "kicking against the goads":
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7, NET Bible)
This text would appear, on the face of it, to be straightforward and clear. Yet a number of various proposals have been offered to mitigate its prima facie force. Some modern writers have proposed that the exhortation is situationally-dependent and hence limited to the socio-political context faced by Paul's Roman leaders. Paul, so it is argued, was naive in his praise of the Roman empire because of the grand treatment he supposedly had received from governmental authorities. Moreover, even though Nero was the emperor on the throne at the time, Romans was written during the early, promising years of his reign, before he became the erratic, anti-Christian despot he is infamous for being (recently, e.g., Christopher Bryan, A Preface to Romans: Notes on the Epistle in Its Literary and Cultural Setting [Oxford: OUP, 2000] esp. 205).


Such an evacuation of the text's force is hardly credible. If there is one thing certain about Paul, it is that he was neither naive about the sinfulness of human nature nor about how Christians should expect to be treated. It was St. Paul, after all, who later reminded his protégé Timothy that "all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Tim 3:12). Is it likely that he would have assumed such persecution would only come from private or synagogal sources? Was Paul, of all people, not aware that the Romans brutally executed his Lord and that people who worshipped the "king of the Jews" and whose confession, "Jesus is Lord" (Rom 10:9), implied that Lord Caesar was not, would inevitably receive similar treatment? Was Paul not aware of the Emperor Claudius's expulsion of the Jews (including Jewish Christians) from Rome in (probably) 49 CE "at the instigation of Chrestus," clearly a reference to disputes within the Jewish community over the messianic claims of Jesus, called the "Christ" by his followers (Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25.2)? Such questions answer themselves.

Another escape was provided by preachers in colonial America. By and large, when Romans 13 was discussed, such preachers believed that Paul was prohibiting rebellion against the institution of government itself (i.e., the promotion of anarchy) rather than individual rulers themselves (cf. the argument of David Barton here). More recent writers have limited the necessity of obedience to instances in which the governing authorities govern justly, i.e., when they act in accordance with how Paul says they should act in verses 3-4 (for a popular presentation, see Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans [Interpretation; Atlanta: John Knox, 1985] 205).

The text, however, will allow for none of these escape hatches. Verses 1-2 could not be more clear. Submission is due to the "governing authorities" (exousiais hyperechousiais). The participle hyperechousiais has comparative force, indicating that the authorities "surpass" the believers to whom he is writing. The reason (gar) for this is that the powers who exist (hai ... ousai) have, like all rulers, received their “authority” from God (ou estin exousia ei mē hypo theou) by specific appointment (hypo theou tetagmenai). Exhibit A in how the Roman Christians were already acknowledging this authority is presented by Paul in verse 6: they were paying taxes (phorous teleite), which was illustrative of their responsibility, as the apostle writes in verse 7 (reflecting the dominical tradition of Matthew 22:21), to “pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”


Paul provides two motivations for such submission in verse 5. First, they should be in subjection “because of wrath” (dia tēn orgēn). Despite the ESV’s interpretational translation, “to avoid God’s wrath,” this almost certainly is a summary of the authorities’ punishing capabilities illustrated by their “bearing the sword” in verse 4. Secondly, and more fundamentally, Christians are to submit “for the sake of conscience” (dia tēn syneidēsin), their recognition of what God wants them to do. As Doug Moo says, "The 'necessity' for Christians to submit to government is therefore no mere practical expedient, a means of avoiding punishment; it arises ultimately from insight into God’s providential ordering of human history (The Epistle to the Romans [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996] 803)."

In the context it is also noteworthy that the apostle’s exhortations are governed by the programmatic exhortation in Romans 12:1-2 for Christians to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God. Such submission to human government is thus part of the “spiritual worship” (tēn logikēn latreian) or “liturgical service” that defines the Christian’s life before God in all human relationships.


I have left the exhortation itself for last because it is the crux of the issue. Christians must, as Paul says, submit (hypotassesthō) to the governing authorities. In the context, this exhortation is not qualified, and indeed the apostle is often criticized for his apparently rose-colored opinion of such authorities (12:3-4). A little stepping back for reflection might be in order here. For does not the fact that, of all issues, the apostle devotes a paragraph to the matter of the Christian’s response to governing authorities imply that perhaps there might be a reason not to submit to them? Jesus, according to the basic Christian confession, is “Lord.” This confession thereby deconstructs the pretensions of Caesar. And the belief that the eschatological reign of God had been inaugurated in the Christ event certainly did result in eschatological enthusiasm among some of Paul’s less theologically-sophisticated converts. I would suggest that the purpose (one of them, anyway) of this paragraph was to define the proper Christian response to governing authorities in the interim between Christ’s enthronement and glorious return, when the kingdom, already inaugurated, will be consummated.

Nevertheless, it would be mistaken to assume that such “submission” always entails obedience to the authorities. Paul, to make his basic point, writes of the authorities as God had, in his common grace, designed human government to be. Bu, as I asserted earlier, the apostle wasn’t so naive as to imagine that human rulers are always humane in the execution of their rule. Indeed, an implied qualification to the Christian responsibility of obedience is provided by Luke in Acts 5. When the Jewish authorities tried to prohibit the apostles from proclaiming the message of Jesus Messiah, Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).” There are, as it were, differing levels of authority. Believers, like all people, must place themselves under (hypotassesthō) the ruling authorities, subordinating themselves to their authority. But, as Paul states, these earthly authorities stand under God because they owe their positions to the appointment of God. When conflict arises, believers owe their ultimate allegiance to the highest power, God himself. And so civil disobedience, as Martin Luther King knew so well, is at times called for.

Where does this lead us with regard to the issue at hand? Certainly the British crown handled the colonial situation poorly and heavy-handedly. That is not in dispute. What is surprising to me (though it shouldn’t be) is the telling fact that most “patriot” sermons of the period avoided Paul’s exposition in Romans 13, preferring instead to compare the American experience to the Israelites in Egypt prior to the Exodus. In other words, they defended their hoped-for rebellion against “tyranny” by invalidly comparing America to God’s Old Covenant people.

Moreover, despite legitimate grievances against the crown, descriptions of George’s “tyranny” often were characterized by typical polemical distortion. As Notre Dame (and evangelical) historian Mark Noll has reminded us, King George himself was a Christian who believed himself acting on Christian principles, no matter how, in hindsight, we can demonstrate that he failed to do so. And, as the theologian John Wesley proclaimed at the time, the colonists themselves had no grounds to complain since they refused to pay taxes and hypocritically refused rights to the African slaves they exploited for their own gain.


The colonists certainly were not simply inventing grievances. The proper question, however, is whether such “tyranny” justified taking up arms to rebel against it. Once again, history has plenty to say on the matter. It is an indisputable fact that the early Christians, even under such brutal regimes as the later Nero, Domitian, and Trajan, refused to take up arms to defend themselves against martyrdom and attempted extermination. Likewise, as Wesley noted, the American colonists, as British citizens, were granted more human rights than almost every other person on the face of the globe at that time (we must always attempt to avoid the bane of anachronism). The Founding Fathers had a better vision, or so they thought (and I would agree), but that in itself does not define “tyranny.” Indeed, when would-be “evangelical” apologists for the Fathers boldly compare the British crown with Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, I can only conclude that their "thinking" has gone off the rails somewhere, most likely at the starting point of an assumed metanarrative detailing America's presumed righteousness and "exceptionalism.”

The Bible, of course, does not speak of such matters as “just war.” To use the Israelite conquest of Canaan as justification would, of course, be theologically mistaken. Early Christian practice is far more suggestive. As is well known, Christians until the time of Constantine refused to fight in the Roman war machine, despite the pax romana that it engendered. “Just War” theory was developed later as a response to a new set of cultural circumstances by such theologians as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Major elements of such theory include the provisions that the war must be defensive, must be waged against a grave evil and as a last resort, must respect the distinction between combatants and ordinary citizens, must have a reasonable chance of success, and must result in a set of circumstances better than what obtained prior to war. Using such criteria, I would argue that the American Revolution, like most of the wars this country has fought (except for WWII), was unjustified. And I am hardly alone in this judgment. As Noll and Messiah College’s John Fea suggest, perhaps the only ones justified to rise up were the black slaves held against their wills by the colonists.

Political grievances do not justify the taking up of arms. Good ideas—and I repeat, the Fathers had many great ideas which had influence both at home and ultimately in the old country—do not demand violent rebellion against authorities who don’t espouse them. And the desire for more “freedom” did not justify the loss of 27,000 American and 10,000 British lives on the fields of battle. One cannot but help thinking that, in time, the colonies would have gained their independence peacefully as did both Canada and Australia, both of which have kept their commonwealth ties to the crown. That, I suggest, would have been more in keeping with a genuine Christian worldview and submission to the Scriptures evangelicals claim to be their ultimate authority for doctrine and practice.

I am happy to be an American, a citizen of a country that allows me to worship God as I choose and that functions by the rule of (a mostly benevolent) law that I, as a grateful citizen, must submit myself to. Even so, I have to acknowledge that its genesis occurred as a result of what St. Paul would have considered a sinful rebellion against a crown whose authorization to govern ultimately derived from God himself. As much as I admire Thomas Jefferson, I must bow to the authority of St. Paul.

That being said, I can now look forward to those grilled burgers and hot dogs …

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