Thursday, October 24, 2013

on authority

En route to Cape Town earlier this month, I bought a copy of the Cape Times, my interest piqued by a front page photo of church ministers prayerfully blessing South African State President Jacob Zuma.  The accompanying article described the scene.  Zuma, "addressing the 33rd Presbyterian Synod in Giyani, Limpopo", had stated that "whether we like it or not, God has made a connection between the government and the church."  More specifically, Zuma shared his views on the nature of authority.  "If you don't respect those in leadership, if you don't respect authority, then you are bordering on a curse."

The president's sentiments stirred in me a fair amount of discomfort which I herewith put into words--if indeed by doing so I am not "bordering on a curse."

First, the president's words are remarkable in historical perspective.  As one who struggled against apartheid, a particular form of "authority" and one of history's most conspicuous examples of "the connection between the government and the church", was the pre-1994 Mr. Zuma himself thereby "bordering on a curse."  Was apartheid, by virtue of it being both government and authority, worthy of "respect"?

Second, the president's words are decidedly unremarkable from a cultural perspective.  Every land and culture has its own traditional or civil religion(s).  It is a commonplace of religion to ossify into a simple guardianship of culture, to uphold the traditions of a particular nation, party, or people at any cost.  Because, therefore, culture itself is the highest good, any attempt to modify or reform culture will be met with the threat of "curse" from those entrusted with its guardianship.  The president understands that he occupies the highest office in the land and quite "naturally" pronounces the curse upon all who confront the order which he serves.

Third, the president's words are deeply offensive from a theological perspective.  Since the president has drug the debate on authority into the church, the church will respond (with the exception of those church leaders who have welcomed him in).  There are church traditions, the Anabaptist being one, which have maintained for centuries the faith that in certain and not infrequent circumstances disobedience to earthly authorities is the crucible of obedience to God.  God has not, in fact, "made a connection between the government and the church", but has ordained the church as the witness against the idolatrous and destructive powers with which the state so often exercises its authority.  Such a church considers it pure joy when it is reviled for pursuing the justice of God; that which is cursed of humans may be blessed of God (Mt 5:10-12).

Finally, authority in the president's perspective is ultimately impotent from a biblical perspective.  Human authority has no power to curse what God has blessed, for "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming for us a curse" (Gal 3:13).  Hung on a tree and cursed by the vile and ungodly collaboration of religious and political authorities, "God . . . raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand . . . far above all rule and authority and power and dominion" (Eph 1:20-21).

With faith in its risen Lord, then, let the church confront without fear the pretensions of earthly authority.

-Joe

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