“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth” ~ Albert Einstein (1879-1955) scientist
On February 1, 1933, two days after Adolph Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany, a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address which he had entitled “The Fuhrer Principle”. In this speech he chastised Germans and Hitler for setting up for themselves a leader, an “anointed one”, who was accountable to no one, not even God. He contended that without such acknowledgement of divine authority the Germans were creating for themselves nothing more than an idol, submitting blindly to its orders, no matter how evil. Before he could finish his speech, the radio address was cut off. Twelve years and millions of dead innocents later, Hitler would have him executed.
Bonhoeffer was a devout Christian who actively stood against the evil actions of the Third Reich, even while so many German Christians stood by and submitted to the authority of the Fuhrer. I always had trouble understanding that. How could they remain silent in the face of such evil perpetrated by their own government? What was it that prevented them from standing boldly against the injustice done to fellow citizens? It was then I realized that Hitler and many German Christian leaders were twisting the meaning of Romans 13 (submission to governing authorities) and Mark 12:17 (give to Caesar what is Caesar) in order to justify compliance. In their zeal to be faithful, Germans had forgotten to be righteous; in their zeal to give unto Caesar, they chose to ignore who Caesar truly was.
As a Christian I believe that our God is one of order, who appointed the mechanism of government to reduce chaos, punish evil and further justice. It is for this reason as Christians we are called to be submissive to it. However, we must not forget that earthly government is still made up of fallen, imperfect people, and still subject to the ultimate authority of God. To quote Bonhoeffer, the Christian’s “duty of obedience is binding on him until government directly compels him to offend against the divine commandment, that is to say until government openly denies its divine commission and thereby forfeits its claim”. We are not supposed to sit idly by and let government do the exact opposite of its calling. We are called to stand boldly and call it out, exhorting it to return to its divine mandate, not use Romans 13 as an excuse for allowing injustice to continue. When the righteousness of God and the unrighteousness of government conflict, it is government that must give way.
Which brings me to Caesar. Who is Caesar today? In biblical times Caesar was a conquering emperor. And as emperor, he ruled; he WAS government. All authority rested on him alone. His decisions were the ultimate law. But can we fairly view modern Western governments, specifically our American government, in the same manner? We don’t have an emperor. We have a representative government, whose delegated authority is shared amongst three branches: the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial. Unlike Caesar’s Rome, ours is a Constitutional Republic, where it is written into our founding documents that the ultimate sovereign authority rests with the people, not on those whom they elect. So dear friends, who really is Caesar for Americans? Caesar is us.
I have a growing concern that too many Americans are forgetting on whom our government’s authority truly rests. Too many of our elected leaders are seeing themselves as more like Caesar than as elected temporary servants. Too many Americans are treating our elected leaders as more like emperors to be obeyed than as fallen men subject to citizen authority. And too many Christians are blindly submitting to those who allow injustice, evil or chaos to reign in our country, when He whom we claim to serve represents the exact opposite. Like Bonhoeffer, we must understand what it takes to truly be follower of Jesus, boldly standing for and calling our leaders to righteousness, regardless of the personal cost. To do otherwise merely makes us a party to illegitimate authority, and proves us ashamed of the Gospel.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act….We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism