by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 2.13-17 (click to see Scripture text)
On December 10, 1933, Karl Barth preached in the Schlosskirche at the center of the University of Bonn in Berlin where he was Professor of Theology. The Third Reich was only in its first year of power— elected power— but already the university, just like most of the Christian Church, had acquiesced to the racist demagoguery of an administration that had pledged to make Germany great.
On that day in Advent, Barth stood in the university pulpit and, taking his text from Romans 15.5-13, preached on our indebtedness as Christians to God’s primal and eternal election of Israel. Halfway through his sermon, to a proud congregation who assumed they were on God’s side of history, Barth preached:
“Christ has received us, received us as a beggar is received off the street. We can even go so far as to say: we have been accepted, like an orphan is accepted into an orphanage. Christ sees us as Jews in conflict with the true God and as Gentiles living peacefully with the false gods, but he sees us both united as “children of the living God””
Christ sees us both, Barth said, quoting the prophet Hosea, united as “children of the living God.” Both races, both Christians and Jews— indeed, Jews before Christians— Christ sees us both the same, as children of the living God.
Barth’s well-educated, ivory tower audience got the message. Many of them got up and walked out of the Schlosskirche right there in the middle of his sermon.
At one point, later in his sermon, Barth looked up from his manuscript and, as an aside, he lamented, “The suicides!” Everyone left in the pews knew to what Barth was referring. That year in Berlin, after the administration had quelled peaceful protests by police and military force, Germany had witnessed a rash of Jewish suicides. His remaining listeners were unmoved. Not wanting to be bothered about politics in church, they stood up and left worship. Or rather, as Barth would say later, they departed to worship another god.
Karl Barth, who already had members of the Gestapo monitors lurking in the back of his lecture hall, left the Schlosskirche that day in Advent, folded up his sermon manuscript, slid it into an envelope, and sent it to Adolf Hitler.
Soon after, Barth was fired from his position and exiled back to his home in Switzerland.
But what was Barth thinking, using his pulpit to poke the administration in the eye?
Karl Barth wasn’t stupid. No less than Pope Pius XII who called Barth the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. So, what was Barth thinking, protesting from the pulpit? Over the course of his career, Karl Barth exegeted and translated nearly every verse of the Bible. So, what was he doing preaching politics? Surely, Barth knew our text today. “For the Lord’s sake, be subordinate to the governing authorities… Fear God. Honor the governing authorities.”
There’s no way Barth didn’t know today’s text or the one just like it in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”
How do we square the instruction we heard from the Apostle Peter today with what Barth’s listeners heard that Second Sunday in Advent?
Karl Barth said the doctrine of election, God’s choosing us in Jesus Christ from before creation, is “the starting point and goal of all of scripture.” “Election,” Barth said, is “the Gospel in nuce.”
The Apostle Peter would agree.
At the top of his letter, Peter addresses the Church as God’s elect people. And then at the top of chapter two, Peter reveals to what purpose God has elected us. We have been elected in Jesus Christ, Peter says, to be a “royal priesthood.”
Notice, those are two words (“royal” and “priesthood”)— they don’t naturally belong together. Peter takes that phrase, a royal priesthood, from the Book of Exodus where Israel receives the covenant at Sinai and there learns the indivisibility of their religious and political life.
The indivisibility between our religious and political life is why Peter then goes on in verse nine to call the Church what God calls Israel in that same passage in the Book of Exodus.
Peter calls the Church a “nation.”
And bear in mind, God calls the Israelites a nation long before they ever enter the Promised Land. What constitutes them as a nation among the nations is their election; that is, they are unique among the nations for they heard and they embodied in their life together the commandments of God.
Peter calls the Church a “holy nation.”
If any word contradicts our privatized, spiritualized reductions of Christian faith, then it’s that word with which Peter addresses the Church of Jesus Christ, ethnos.
A holy nation.
The purpose of our election in Jesus Christ is to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation among the nations. Meaning, the Church is God’s New Israel. The Church is God’s particular, peculiar People in the world, elect not only to bear witness to what God has done in Jesus Christ but also embody publicly the reconciliation He has made possible in the world.
To be a royal priesthood is to proclaim the Gospel of Christ our King in our liturgical life (priesthood) and to display His Kingdom in our political life. Neither the Old nor the New Testament will abide the distinction we prefer to make between the private and the public.
Christ our King wants not personal decisions for him but public disciples of him.
Having told us that God has elected us in Jesus Christ to be a royal priesthood, Peter then turns in our text today to specify what it looks like on the ground, in the concreteness of everyday life, to be a holy nation within the nation.
And for Peter, the first and abiding and most determinative word for our witness and way in the world is ὑποτασσέσθω.
Be subordinate to the ruling authorities.
Submit yourselves to the governing authorities.
Wait, hold up— submission? Subordination?
That’s what it means to be a royal priesthood a distinct and different kind of nation?
Submission does NOT sound very subversive.
Subordination sounds likes the opposite of revolution.
For many of you, the protests provoked by George Floyd’s murder didn’t just happen a few miles away. They hit you personally. For that reason, I would be surprised if many of you did not flinch when you heard this text read today. Indeed, along with a nearly identical verse in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, today’s text has been used for centuries to suggest that to resist the authority of the government is to resist Almighty God.
Today’s text has been used over the centuries to justify every conceivable kind of oppression and tyranny and to disqualify as many movements for social justice. Today’s text was hurled back at Sojourner Truth. Billy Graham quoted today’s text to Martin Luther King, Jr. to persuade him to cease and desist from his Civil Rights work. Dictators and church bureaucrats used today’s text to silence liberation theologians in the Southern Hemisphere. In 1915 on Stone Mountain in Georgia the KKK launched their second iteration with a consecration on an altar decorated with a flag and a Bible open to today’s text.
As Attorney General, Jeff Sessions used today’s text to dismiss those Christians who protested the 2016 Muslim Ban, and, to show that this is a bipartisan verse, the Democratic Party used today’s text to quiet Fannie Lou Hamer and other black activists who demanded their representation at the party’s National Convention.
Submit yourselves to the governing authorities.
Queen Elizabeth I used this text to cement her authority over Church and State. Antonin Scalia used it to attempt a Christian justification for capital punishment and state-sponsored torture. White moderate pastors in the South used it to excuse themselves from the Civil Rights Movement, endorsing order over justice.
Submit yourselves to the governing authorities.
It’s easy for these verses to sound like a repressive Peter or a regressive Paul preserving the status quo and emphasizing the importance of Law and Order. No doubt, for many of you texts like today’s text are the reason you prefer Jesus and the Gospels over the Christ of the Epistles.
But the Law and Order interpretation doesn’t jive with the context of Paul’s entire letter or the New Testamant. Why would Paul tell you in Romans 13 that to resist the authority of the government is to resist Almighty God? Paul has already told you repeatedly in Romans 1-8 that the Power of Sin in our world is such that it can bend even God’s holy, right, and good Law to its own purpose. The Power of Sin and Death (i.e., Satan) rules the whole of human life, Paul says throughout Romans. So why would we think Peter and Paul are telling us the government and other institutions are somehow immune to Sin’s contagion?
Not only is the Law and Order interpretation of today’s text at odds with what Peter tells us in the Book of Acts, “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” it strains credulity to believe that Peter or Paul would have anything like a positive, providential view of the government. All of their encounters with the ruling authorities led to beatings, stonings, and unjust imprisonments.
If the Law and Order safeguards the status quo, salute the flag, respect the president, eat your vegetables interpretation of this text is the right one— the one that the apostles intended— then how is it exactly that both Peter and Paul managed to get themselves executed by the state? How is it that the most common arresting charge against Christians in the ancient world was anarchy?
Caesar knew that Peter and Paul were not saying what we’ve so often said they said.
You can recite this word every time you profess your faith using the Nicene Creed. It’s a word that describes the very being of God, the life of the Three-Personed God. Pay attention now— The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit exist eternally in a relationship of mutual submission.
This isn’t a word meant to safeguard the status quo. It’s a word meant to convey a posture that is itself the only power to overcome the status quo. This is the shocking, invasive, liberating word of the Gospel, itself. This is the word Paul says has unmasked and disarmed the Principalities and Powers and triumphed over them.
Peter and Paul are NOT telling you to passively acquiesce to the ruling authorities, because “God has a hand in everything.” Peter and Paul are exhorting you— that the way you are a royal priesthood, a nation within the nation, is to engage the nations by imitating your King whose way is cruciform.
As a royal priesthood, you should confront the ruling authorities, even the emperor, with the same forbearance as everyone else. You imitate the Triune God whose way was made flesh for us to see in Jesus Christ.
You see, Peter’s commending us to practice Gospel inequality. As a holy nation, we act like all lives matter MORE THAN OUR OWN. Just as the Lord became the Servant of all in Jesus Christ, we are His exemplification in the world.
This isn’t about passivity in the face of the Principalities and Powers. This is about participation in Christ, in whom your life is already hid, Paul writes, ready to be revealed.
It’s not a strategy to endure the world.
It’s to follow in the way Jesus Christ has overcome the world.
Like the cross of our Lord, it’s a revolution that looks like it’s not one. It’s a revolution that Karl Barth called a “strange not-doing;” that is, it’s a revolution that refuses to take up the weapons of the losing side.
Peter and Paul are not tweeting today about Law and Order.
They’re calling you, as a royal priesthood, to a messianic, apocalyptic, cruciform engagement in history, against history, for the sake of history— a call to history-making that takes the form of revolutionary subordination.
To be a revolutionary in this royal priesthood is to be become, like our Risen King and Great High Priest, a servant of all.
What’s this “strange not-doing” look like?
Maybe, like Peter attempts to do today, I should make it concrete.
It looks like Givionne Jordan, a young black man who protested police brutality on May 31 in Charleston, South Carolina.
A video of Jordan went viral.
Whether the video is dark and dispiriting or hopeful and uplifting depends on…well, I think it depends on “faith.”
Along with a group of protesters, in the video Givionne Jordan is standing across from a dense row of cops with batons in their hands, ready to pounce.
But before they do, Jordan assumes the posture of that word from Peter today.
Jordan kneels on the ground like a servant to all of them.
And then he starts preaching.
Directly to the cops:
“We are all people. All of you are my family. All of you are my family. I love each and every one of you. I cry at night because I feel your pain. I feel the pain. I feel the pain of Black people. I feel the pain of white people. I feel the pain of innocent cops. I feel the pain.
We’re all scared. Black, white, cop—doesn’t matter. We’re living in fear. We’ve got to stop living in fear. I am not your enemy. You are not my enemy. We have to share this land no matter what. At the end of the day we have to share this land, no matter what.
I’m here for you. I’m here with you. I’m not angry at any of you. In Christ Jesus, I love all of you…all. I don’t care if you’re dark skinned, I don’t care if you’re light skinned, I don’t care if you’re white. You are my family and I love you and I respect you.
And I want to understand you all. I want to understand every one of you.
I would love to come to your house. I would love to meet your kids. I would love to meet your family. I would love to see the best side of everybody here.
This is not the best side of everybody here. But I would love to see the best side of everybody here.
You can change your whole perspective of how you view someone. Because of their size. Because of their life. Someone might have a bad day and you think they’re a bad person—no, no, no. We all got bad days. We all got bad days.
We’ve got to stop judging people only on our bad days, because we all have them to some degree.
How are you on your good days? Do you want to make a stand? Do you want to make a change? Because if we charge you and you charge us, what is that really doing?”
It’s a beautiful, inspired moment— this young Christian speaking from his soul, his voice trembling with emotion.
And at the end of this moment, a cop strides across the grass, singles this guy out, reaches out to him.
And arrests him.
On the pretext of “disobeying a lawful order.”
Givionne Jordan was the only one of this group of protestors who was arrested.
He spent the night in jail.
Said one observer, “Disobeying a lawful order” is legal speak for “they felt like arresting you and what are you going to do about it?”
But said another observer, “Even as they walked him off in handcuffs, it was clear to everyone Givionne really had all the power.”
Only those in the royal priesthood know it was because, even subdued in cuffs, he was armed with the weapons of the winning side.
For the Lord’s sake accept 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. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.