Last time, in this space, we mentioned that, for Paul, as for Jesus, the state has real authority (a word rooted in the idea that human beings have an Author). But that authority is not absolute. It is a delegated one. This means that Caesar does not have unlimited licence from God to do Whatever He Likes. On the contrary, as Jesus warns his other servants with delegated authority, the apostles, if those with delegated authority mistreat those in their care “the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt 24:50–51). So Caesar’s authority ends where it violates the laws of God. As Augustine put it, an unjust law is no law at all. Therefore Christians not only may but must disobey laws that command them to sin gravely. In short, Paul is happy to honour the state as long as it doesn’t demand divine honours.
What modernity has figured out (for the most part) is that the reason a state has authority is that people are made in the image and likeness of God, therefore a state (in the words of Thomas Jefferson) “derives its just powers from the consent of the governed” who are, so to speak, the conduits through which God delivers his authority to civil authorities. This is why representative government is compatible with Church teaching. (Monarchy is too, which is why you guys in Oz both vote and officially sing “God Save the Queen”, when royalty comes to town). This is why human rights come (to quote John F Kennedy), “not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
Part of the way modernity has figured that out is from the work of thinkers — both Catholic and Protestant (and sometimes secular like Jefferson) — and part of it comes from brutal experience of tyranny, brought to exquisite fruition in the last century. Christianity was born in a crucible of tyranny whose first act with respect to the Faith was to murder God in cold blood via two acts of judicial corruption, one courtesy of the Sanhedrin and the other courtesy of the Roman territorial governor of Judea.
What is remarkable is that early Christians appear to have a much more sober view of the state than many of my countrymen, who sometimes seem to talk as though the state should have virtually no role to play in obtaining the common good and who fantasise a libertarian paradise in which the state withers away and everybody naturally gives alms and it all works beautifully. To this, James Madison replied, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But of course, the corresponding problem is that it is often devils who wind up getting elected —and sometimes they crucify the Son of God or erect death camps.
The trouble comes when we ordinary schmoos in the pew take the reality of state corruption as an excuse to ignore just law ourselves. That’s what Paul is getting at when he tells his audience that (as a rule of thumb) if you don’t want trouble with the law, just obey the law. Yes, there are unusual circumstances when the law is unjust and, for instance, comes along and uses Roman Christians as human torches to light Nero’s gardens. The Caesar of whom Paul writes will, just a few years later, cut off Paul’s head, putting him very close to the beginning a long line of Christians killed by Caesar over the past two millennia.
But Paul still insists that, as a general rule of thumb, if you do the right thing the state leaves you alone and does tolerably well (not great) at “forming a more perfect Union, establishing Justice, insuring domestic Tranquillity, providing for the common defence, promoting the general Welfare, and securing the Blessings of Liberty” (as the US Constitution sums up the function of the state). Relatedly, if the state is corrupt that’s not a licence to break the law of God. Even in Nazi Germany, if you speed in a school zone, you deserve the ticket you get from the cops. “I’m doing this for the Revolution!” is a lousy excuse to punch out a grade schooler and take his milk money. Just because you live under an unjust regime does not mean you can’t be a jerk too.
Does that mean we just have to take it on the chin from tyrants? Well, yes and no. Of which more next time.
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