Sometimes culture differences between Cameroon and the US can be pretty shocking. In Cameroon, for instance, and I am not even joking…children respect their elders. I know, it’s a bit hard to believe. This means that when adults are talking, children are seen and not heard. Though I am certain when youth get together they sometimes badmouth their parents, you would never see it in public. This attitude of respect carries over to authorities for adults as well. When the president of the Kwakum language committee arrives to any meeting, people stand. They offer him the seat of honor. Again, they might grumble about him in private, but in public Cameroonians go out of their way to show respect to their authorities.
The American in me hates honor systems. Part of me dies every time someone in Cameroon calls me “father” (a term of honor). When I go and see the mayor, I want to look him in the eye and treat him as an equal. He is, afterall, no more created in the image of God than I am. In fact, should the mayor remain an unbeliever, I will one day rule over him. If I disagree with my authorities I want to let them know, and I don’t like to beat around the bush. When I do end up going through the “honor” motions, to be honest it often feels like I am just playing a stupid game.
So, like any good eisegete, I looked to the Scripture for verses that reinforce my own culture. And I can find some of the more equalizing passages to reinforce my desire to stand at the same level as my authorities. In Christ, after all, there is “neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28). However, over and over again, I am struck by how much my forebears in the faith demonstrated honor in their relationships to their authorities.
The Example of Daniel
Take the example of Daniel. As a young man, Daniel was kidnapped from his home and thrust into Babylonian culture. He was forced to live in a strange place, speak a strange language, and called to eat strange food by a foreign king. Did Daniel knock aside his dish in scorn and hold his head high and say, “I would rather starve than to eat your idol-tainted food!” No. He pulled aside the eunuch in charge of the young men and requested a diet change. Even after being refused, Daniel came up with a way that could both spare his own conscience and the eunuch who was afraid for his own head. In Daniel 1:11-13, Daniel asked him,
“Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.”
He was respectful, but remained firm in his conviction. He was wise and kind. And as a result, he found favor and was allowed to follow his conscience. Later, after hearing one of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, Daniel was distressed because the dream foretold the downfall of the king. Before explaining the meaning, Daniel said, “My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you and its interpretation for your enemies!” (Daniel 4:19). I am tempted to say that this was just some sort of formal politeness on Daniel’s part. However, immediately before he said this the passage says that Daniel “was dismayed for a while, and his thoughts alarmed him” (Daniel 4:19a). I take this to mean that Daniel not only honored King Nebuchadnezzar, but he actually cared about him.
The Example of Paul
Perhaps we could set Daniel aside as an anomaly. Perhaps he was just a nice person, more polite than the average kidnapped Jewish young man. Or maybe, even though he destroyed Daniel’s homeland, kidnapped him, made idols of himself which he forced people to worship at pain of death, and even declared that all dream tellers (including Daniel) should be killed at one point…maybe Nebuchadnezzar was a nice guy. Maybe he was just easier to submit to than my authorities.
This doesn’t work for obvious reasons, but not the least that Daniel is not our only example. Consider Paul, who was at one time a rising Jewish authority. After he began following Christ Paul experienced little other than suffering. Much of that which he endured came at the hands of authorities like himself in his pre-Jesus life. He was arrested, beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked while imprisoned. Though he often asked for it, he was rarely given an audience with these authorities. One exception was the opportunity he had to speak to King Agrippa, a Roman ruler. When given leave to speak, Paul began,
“I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.” (Acts 26:2-3)
At bare minimum you have to admit that Paul is polite, respectful. He doesn’t lash out and say, “You are not MY king!” He doesn’t speak to the king as an equal, but politely requests that he be able to make his case. But again, I don’t think Paul is merely being polite. I don’t think his respect is merely outward. There is a very interesting conversation at the end of this particular story of Paul before the king. After a lengthy speech Paul is interrupted by Festus, a Roman procurator:
And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” (Acts 26:24-29)
Of particular interest is the last verse above. Paul was not just making a defense of himself, he was not polite so as to get out of prison. Paul wanted Agrippa to be saved. Like Daniel, Paul loved the king.
OK, OK, OK, so Daniel and Paul interacted with their authorities with respect. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to honor mine. Well, Peter cuts me off at the knees here. He just comes out and makes it an imperative:
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
(1 Peter 2:16-17)
As an American I love that first line: “Live as people who are free!” But then he gets into what it means to be free. In God’s economy, being free means being a servant. Freedom doesn’t mean that you get to say whatever you want whenever you want to say it. Freedom doesn’t mean that you get to mock your authorities when they don’t do what they are supposed to do. Freedom means honoring our authorities. And I do not think it is an accident that “Fear God” comes before “Honor the emperor.” There is a connection there, made more explicit by Paul in Romans:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-2)
“Fear God” and “Honor the emperor” are connected because all authorities have been chosen by God and therefore, in a very real way, to dishonor our authorities is to dishonor the Lord.
Now, this certainly does not mean that we blindly follow our authorities, nor always do what they say. On Sunday we heard a great sermon about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. With respect and honor they told the king they would rather die than obey him. Their respectful words and outright disobedience betray not an American love of personal freedom, but submission to a greater authority. These three men were both respectful and disobedient because they feared the Lord.
Respect is a Fruit of Love
Out of all of these reflections, my greatest conviction has come from a realization that my resistance to honoring my authorities is not just cultural. Reading of how these men honored wicked kings, I can tell that they were not just “going through the motions.” These men honored their emperors because they loved them. And at its core, my desire to avoid honor is not merely a cultural expression, but a lack of love.
When you love someone, you don’t call them an idiot. You don’t say, “I don’t care how this makes you feel, it is the truth.” Paul tells us that love is KIND. Our culture has become such that disrespect of political opponents is assumed. Neutrality towards a president in another camp would be surprising, let alone kindness.
However, we have to consider our goal. Yes, I want a president that is pro-life. I want a president that will uphold my religious freedom. I want an America in which my kids can get jobs even if they are Christians. But those are all worldly, temporary things. What was Paul’s goal? He wanted everyone who heard him to be saved. Jesus told us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48). I don’t think this is just “do what you are told because it is best for you.” I believe that the command to love has as much to do with our enemies as it does with us.
Consider a pro-choice woman who has spewed anger and condemnation on Christians for her pro-life stance. However, after having an abortion, she can’t shake a deep feeling of loss and guilt. She has trouble sleeping and begins to consider suicide. Who are they going to turn to? Are they going to go out to the man on the sidewalk screamed that she was a murderer, and coldly told her she was going to Hell? Or will they seek out those who walked alongside her, pleading with her, and letting her know that they would still be there when she came out?
We should honor and respect our authorities because of the biblical imperatives. We should do it because we fear the Lord. We should do it because of all the examples in Scripture. But we should also do it because the way we speak and interact with people can either draw or repel people from Christ. Daniel was a respectful, kind, loving man. And God gave him favor in the eyes of kings. Sure, Paul was killed by his authorities, but he also says that his prison guards came to understand the Gospel in his time (Philippians 1:12-14). We should love our enemies for all of these reasons, but we should also love them because God is going to save some of them through our love.