POLITICAL AUTHORITY . . . Remembering the past and looking to the future

“While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law–settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” So he had them ejected from the court.” (Reference: Acts 18:12-16 )

The editor’s of Reading the Anabaptist Bible had an interesting comment pertaining to this scripture passage and the historic Anabaptist they quoted for this day. They said, “The government of the New Testament was more lenient than those of the sixteenth century, argued Dirk Philips in “Sending of Preachers.” And Philips does make a compelling argument. He said in part, “We also see before [our] eyes how perilous the times now are, much more than at the time of the apostles. Then the apostles and Christians could flee form one city to another, Matt. 10:23, but now all lords and princes, cities and lands have made a covenant against us. Then the heathen government was so reasonable and proper that they did not wish to oppose strongly the faith and affairs of the Christian religion, Acts 17:9; 18:14-15; 23:22. But now almost everyone wants to be a lord over the conscience [of others] and a judge of faith (which after all belongs to Christ alone). Now the papal caesardom with all who are included therein, persecutes our faith as abominably as Antiochus persecuted the God-fearing Jews.”

An equally interesting and compelling post was written by my former writing partner, Will Fitzgerald, five years ago. He said at that time; “Gallio’s legal theory–that that government shouldn’t be involved in religious disputes–is much more profound than he realized, I think; and eventually became one of the bedrocks of the US constitutional law: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” I can’t get the government to take my side, or fear the government taking another’s side, on a purely religious matter. Further, of course, Paul was engaging in “speech,” and the US government is prohibited from “abridging the freedom of speech.” The Jews’ case against Paul would be thrown out in US courts just as it was in this Roman court. It is no wonder that many people from the Anabaptist heritage have come to the US and Canada where their freedom to exercise their religion is less restrained.

So, on this Veteran’s Day in the US, and Remembrance Day in Canada, let us be grateful for the religious freedoms we have and (though we be pacifists) let us be grateful for the bravery of men and women who fight to protect those freedoms.”

I have to wonder though, beloved, where we are currently in religious freedoms. Not in the same place as the historic Anabaptists – at least it is my hope that there is more freedom than the oppression, persecution and death than was known to the historic Anabaptists. But globally I do not think there is the level of freedom that Fitzgerald identifies. Perhaps we are in “New Testament” times. The Orthodox Jews and the Christian Jews were in tension conflict over the emerging Christian faith. The Gentile Christians also felt pressure and censure from their fellow citizens. We see in the United States the divisions between Christian groups, as I am sure there are divisions in other countries. It is a good thing to appreciate what freedom we have to practice our faith; it is also good to realize that animosity between groups does harm to the Christian story.

Now for a bit of a surprise. I also agree with Fitzgerald on thanking the men and women who have laid their lives on the line defending our freedoms. And November 11 is a good day to remember that. It is also my fervent hope and prayer that the day will come soon – today or tomorrow in fact – that no more men and women have to do that. While I thank them for their dedication, I so wish that dedication could be directed to bringing peace without the use of military hardware and software.

It was political authority that sent them out to endanger their lives; but it was also political authority that caused the situation in the first place. It wounds me that faith and religious conflicts and dissension has been a part of that. While constitutional law may intend to keep government and religion separate, it does not always work out that way. And less so it seems at times in our global society. Good intentions do not guarantee good outcomes.

May you, beloved, remember this day those you know who have risked all for the good of others. May you keep a firm divide between political authority that is contrary to your faith beliefs. Selah!