“Give Caesar His Due?” Christian Faith and the Limits of Government

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Do we need a government, or are we better off in an anarchist society? This isn’t as easy of a question to answer as many might suppose.

The arguments in favor of government are pretty well-known. Government is necessary, we’re told, to help restrain evil. Without armed officials, there would be nothing to stop people from killing, raping and stealing at will. In order to maintain some sense of “order” and civility, such control is needed.

In response, anarchists typically argue that our government creates at least as much evil and violence as it restrains, and that it’s often used to promote racist, classist and colonialist agendas. This is how all governments tend to be, say the anarchists; thus, we would be better off without them.

While most American Christians tend to support the government in one way or another, this hasn’t always been the case. Throughout the history of the church, there have been more than a handful of Christian anarchists, and our age is no different.

It would be tempting to think that such disagreements could be resolved by turning to the Bible, but there’s just as much tension here as anywhere else. Both sides of this debate can quote Scriptures that seem to support their claims.

Those in favor of government force can cite St. Paul’s teaching thatthere is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom 13:1-2).

They can also point to Saint Peter’s admonition toaccept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14), and Jesus’ teaching to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21).

Conversely, Christian anarchists can cite the apostolic response to persecution, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29), Paul’s statement that Jesus’ death  “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them” (Col 2:15), and Jesus’ words to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36).

Personally, I have been back and forth on this a lot, and am still not completely sure when (if ever) an anarchist society would be a good thing.  One thing does seem clear to me, however: government can’t provide us with true security.

While many would like a well-armed regime to keep us “safe,” no government can really do this. At best, it may be able to restrain some violence for a time. But suffering and death will find all of us eventually, no matter how well-armed we are. The sooner we can face this fact, the better.

We can never reach true security simply by delaying death. True security can only be found when we know that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.

This is why Jesus tells us that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

As long as our main goal is preserving our mortal lives, we will never know true peace of mind. We will constantly be living in fear. But when we come to see that our life extends far beyond our mortal bodies, we can live without any fear of death.

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus tells us (Matt 10:28). A lot of bad things can and will happen to us, including our death and that of those close to us. But no one can ever take away our eternal spirits.

“Not a hair of your head will perish,” Jesus said to those facing martyrdom (Luke 21:18).  I have come to know, through experience, that this is true. Death may separate us from our loved ones for a time, but we will see them again – whole and entire.

Nothing truly good is ever lost! When we come to know this, we experience a freedom that no government can give, and no government can ever take away.

 

 

 

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