Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in a national crisis

Thursday, June 14, 2018

I am posting this sermon, preached at the Harvard Memorial Church 18 years ago, because in the week of June 17, 2018, the Attorney General of the United States and the President’ press secretary coldly referred to Romans 13 in support of immigration laws purportedly requiring the separation of immigrant children from their parents. It is the responsibility of church leaders to teach the historic interpretive discussion of the biblical witness in regard to the observance of civil laws.

This sermon was published as part of my sermon collection on Romans, The original context was the contested election of George W. Bush, which after several days of suspense was just beginning to be resolved by November 12, 2000.  

Between the Two Thirteens

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Commemoration of Benefactors and of the War Dead

Harvard Memorial Church

Sunday, November 12, 2000

Do this, understanding the present time.(Romans 13:11, NIV)


            The present crisis in the Electoral College has called forth many reflections on what it means to be the United States of America. No one last week, to my knowledge, approached the hubris of Madeleine Albright when she called America “the indispensable nation,” but there have been many sober reminders that, in the words of one editorialist, “the world looks to the United States as a model of political stability.”[1]And another wrote, “For everyone’s sake, American democracy must be seen as being beyond manipulation. The stability of the world rests on that.”[2]

            Today we remember those whose names are engraved on the wall in the Memorial Room. These Harvard men and women who died for their country have, whether they knew it consciously or not, died for more than their country. Those of us who were young in the late 60s remember what it was like to be bitterly disenchanted with America’s role in the world, but nevertheless America, through something much more like the grace of God than the superior virtue of her citizens, continues to embody the best hopes of the whole world. Thomas L. Friedman wrote a few days ago about “what makes Americaunique in the world;” the more he travels abroad, he says, the more he appreciates the United States. Even something as mundane as our Washington bureaucracy is cause for thanksgiving, he reflected; people in countries like Indonesiaand Nigeriaknow what it means to be at the mercy of government that is truly venal and corrupt and soul-killing.[3]Virtually every commentator on television has reminded us to be thankful that “the tanks are not in the streets.” A foreign-born friend said to me the other day that although Americahas all sorts of faults, nevertheless it continues to radiate “a sense of generosity and possibility.” Today, in this service of commemoration, we pause to reflect that this priceless legacy and solemn responsibility has been bequeathed to us by those who have gone before us.

            A list of benefactors—those who have given particular service to this University church—will be read today as part of our worship. The list touches me more deeply than I, being a non-Harvard person, would have expected. On that list are both parents of a close friend, and also a former rector of the Episcopal church that I served for fourteen years in New York City—as well as Dr. Ferris of Trinity Church, Copley Square, who has meant so much to me as a preacher. We give thanks today for such people, for as Dr. Gomes said in his sermon on this commemoration day four years ago, we are reminded that “we are not on our own, nor did we get here on our own, nor is that which we have ours alone, or ours forever. To give thanks, then, is [to acknowledge] that we are beholden to someone else.”[4]

            It is not always so easy, however, to figure out who should be honored in this way. The soldier who rescues a comrade from enemy gunfire may not be any more courageous than the paraplegic who is struggling to make a life for himself, or the medical missionary who knows she will be exposed over and over to tropical diseases, or the teacher in the inner-city school who fights for her students’ minds and hearts day after day, year after year. There are many kinds of wars, and there are many kinds of war dead. There are many kinds of battles to be fought, and many decisions to be made about when and whether one should enlist. We’ve all heard the common expression that something is “to die for.” This is generally said with regard to some consumer article—the latest in fusion cooking or personal electronics or Manolo Blahnik shoes—they’re “to die for.” But what really is to die for? This week’s issue of The New York Review of Books has an article by Timothy Garton Ash about the Serbian revolution. He describes his visit to one Serbian town as the mayor and various local citizens were preparing for the trip to Belgrade. Garton Ash asked one of them what the object of his journey was. The “burly former paratrooper” replied that the object was to put Vojislav Kostunica on state television that very night. This day, said the mayor, “We will be free or die.”[5]

            Another journalist, Misha Glenny, was in Belgradethat day, October 5. As the demonstrators and protesters and freedom fighters poured into the city from the surrounding countryside, he went to Kostunica’s headquarters. He was taking notes; realizing that he had forgotten the date, he asked one of the young receptionists what it was. “Sudnji dan,” she replied: Judgment Day.[6]The next morning the whole world saw the images of the smoke going up from the Parliament building. My mind went immediately to the 19th chapter of the book of Revelation where the wicked city is destroyed and the multitude in heaven exults, Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever (19:3).

            This morning we have before us two Biblical texts, Romans 13 and Revelation 13. These two passages have quite a history of being brought together and allowed to speak to one another. I would be surprised if many of you didn’t flinch when you heard the Romans passage read a few minutes ago. 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 he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. This text has been used over the centuries to justify every conceivable kind of oppression and tyranny. It has also been used to stifle criticism of “the powers that be” and to resist any effort at reform. This passage has been quoted at Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King and the liberation theologians of Latin America. To most people who hang around places like Harvard, the passage sounds repressive. That was not always so, however. Until the Nazi era, most citizens were perfectly happy to acquiesce in this assessment. As Hitler rose to power, however, the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself forced to rethink all that he had previously taken for granted. Sometimes it was necessary, he mused, “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.Such action would be direct political action.”[7]Pastor Bonhoeffer himself became the spoke; he was hanged by the Nazis in April 1945. Exercising the spiritual gift called discernment, he had chosen direct political action against the Beast of Revelation 13.[8]

            Discernment, wrote the Christian lay theologian William Stringfellow, “is basic to the genius of the Biblical life style.”

This gift enables the people of God to distinguish and recognize, identify and expose, report and rebuke the power of death in nations and institutions…while they also affirm the Word of God incarnate in all of life, exemplified preeminently in Jesus Christ…This [discernment] is the gift which exposes and rebukes idolatry. This is the gift which confounds and undoes blasphemy.[9]

            The juxtaposition of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 calls for discernment. At this time of remembrance, at this time of suspense in our national life, at this season of the church calendar when one liturgical year comes to an end and the great season of Advent approaches, the community that gathers around the Word of God reflects on the next portion of Romans 13: You know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep (Romans 13:11), or as the Revised English Bible translates, Always remember that this is the hour of crisis. The word for “hour” in New Testament Greek is kairos, which is distinguished from chronos, ordinary time. To discern the kairos is to see through the events of the day to perceive the activity of God in and through those events.

            But what is meant by the “hour of crisis,” or kairos? There was a full-page advertisement in the Friday New York Times, paid for by media figures like Rosie O’Donnell and Robert de Niro, writers like Toni Morrison and E. L. Doctorow, academic stars like Peter Gay and Ronald Dworkin; it states that we are in an “election crisis” which threatens to become a “constitutional crisis.” Leaving aside the question about whether the present situation really is a crisis or not, is this the kind of kairos that St. Paul has in mind?[10]What exactly does he mean by these words in Romans 13 (and by the way, this is the passage always associated with the first Sunday of Advent, now only three weeks away):

…you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…put on the Lord Jesus Christ…(Romans 13:11-13)

What does this mean, and what does it have to do with the earlier part of the chapter about honoring the government?

            What Paul means is that the coming of Christ into the world, his crucifixion by the powers and principalities, his Resurrection from the dead and his coming in the future have overturned all previous perspectives upon human life in this world.[11]The section in Romans 13 about the government sounds like ordinary conservative rhetoric about bowing down before the powers that be until you see it in its context. Our text is bracketed by, on the front end, Paul’s radical world-displacing call, Do not be conformed to this age (New American Bible) and on the back end by you know what hour it is…the night is far gone, the day is at hand. For most of the twentieth century, these dramatic texts have been the companions of Christians who have struggled against tyranny and oppression. Romans 13 in its context and Revelation 13 matched with it have created an extraordinary dialectic for reading the signs of the times.

            William Stringfellow wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation. I once heard him say that “We have been sold a bill of goods on Revelation. I don’t think it is such a difficult book.” Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of the Harvard pinity Schooldoesn’t think so either. Much of her life’s work has been focused on Revelation. Here is something she wrote:

The present time [and by that she means any present time that we might find ourselves in] is of critical importance because a cosmic-political struggle has ensued with the death and exaltation of Christ. Revelation seeks to encourage Christians to participate actively in this struggle, the outcome of which is already known….a qualitatively new earth will be the outcome of this struggle, a world that is free from all dehumanizing oppressive powers.[12]

            In our own day and in my own denomination, the person whose life is most closely associated with this perspective from Revelation is Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, one of the heroes of the struggle against apartheid. In the dark days of that evil system, Bishop Tutu, with a large band of demonstrators and activists, was attempting to meet with government officials. This was not permitted, so they proceeded to the cathedral where they had a worship service. Standing ranks of police lined the walls, keeping a wary eye on the congregation. An eyewitness reported that, as his sermon gathered steam, Bishop Tutu suddenly looked out directly at the police. “You have already lost!” he cried. “We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!”[13]I don’t need to tell you who was free and who was in chains that day. It was said also of Bob Moses, the charismatic leader of Freedom Summer in Mississippi, 1963, that he drove the white segregationists absolutely crazy because he persisted in behaving as though he were already free—even though he could have been shot at any time. Similarly, Adam Michnik, the intellectual leader of the Solidarity movement, wrote these words from prison during the struggle against Communism: “How has our nation been able to transcend the dilemma so typical of defeated societies, the hopeless choice between servility and despair? It seems that the Polish nation does not think it has been defeated.”[14]This is the courage of those who have seen through the phenomena of the present age into the new world that the letters of Paul and the book of Revelation bring before us.

            It is common to contrast Romans 13 with Revelation 13 as though they were total opposites. According to this understanding, if the governing authority is benign, then it is from God and Christians should obey it (Romans 13). If the governing authority turns oppressive, then it is Satanic and we should resist it (Revelation 13). This is the most familiar interpretation of the two texts. No better formulation of it exists than that of Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, shot in the back at his own altar. In a sermon he said, “Let it be quite clear that if we are being asked to collaborate with a pseudo-peace, a false order, based on repression and fear, we must recall that the only order God wants is one based on truth and justice.”[15]

            As certain other commentators have pointed out, however, the relation between the two passages is even more subtle and more radical than the familiar interpretation allows.[16]Both of the passages call government into question because both of them make clear that government is only provisional. Neither Paul nor Revelation give ultimate legitimacy to any human institution. Once we know this, it keeps us from taking any present arrangement with anything more than temporary seriousness. So what Paul is saying is that we should take the government seriously, and we should not take it seriously. It’s like that passage in I Corinthians 7 where Paul says as though not several times:

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time (kairos) has grown very short; from now on, let those…who mourn live as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this age is passing away.

                                                                        (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

            That may sound like the ultimate ethic of disengagement, but it isn’t. It is the opposite. It means that we can enter into the challenges of the day with a kind of joyful confidence, knowing that the future belongs to the Lord. It is not our part to bring that future about. God is doing that. Our part is to discern the signs of what God is already doing and to take up our positions there, knowing that God’s future of human liberty and human wholeness is, truly, to live for and, if necessary, “to die for”. Wherever God is on the move, that is where we want to be.

            As the whole world knows, Mr. Kostunica did appear on state television in Belgradethat night, and he called out, “Good evening, dear liberated Serbia!” It was a moment for the history books, as Garton Ash observed; the kairoshad been seized. The beast from the sea had been overthrown. How shall Americanow respond? What we can do for the Balkans now, and for the Middle East, and for the developing nations, is to be the very best America that we can be—now more than ever. You and I most likely are not going to be called upon to die for what American democracy means for the world, but we may surely live for it. A few days ago, there was an obituary in the Timesfor a Harvard Law graduate, a man named Joseph F. Haas. He was a prominent leader of the Voter Education Project, which gave powerful support to the voter registration movement in Mississippiand made the Civil Rights Act of 1965 possible. VernonJordanwas quoted in the obituary: “In the South in those days, you knew who the stand-up men and women were in the white community, and he was one of them.”[17]Joseph Haas is one of a host of witnesses who discerned the kairos and went to take their positions on the front lines where God was—and is—at work to create a new reality for America. May the God of justice and mercy grant each of us the courage and faith to do the same in our own time.


[1]The New YorkTimes, 11/10/00.

[2]Thomas L. Friedman, “Original Sin,” The New York Times, 11/10/00.

[3]Thomas L. Friedman, ”I Love D.C.” (Foreign Affairs column), The New York Times, 11/8/00.

[4]Peter J Gomes, “What the Dead Have to Say,” November 10, 1996.

[5]Timothy Garton Ash, “The Last Revolution,” The New York Review of Books, 11/16/00.

[6]Misha Glenny, “The Redeemers,” The New Yorker, 10/30/00.

[7]No Rusty Swords (New York: Harper & Row, 1965)

[8]aisthesis (Philippians 1:9, Hebrews 4:14), “the power of moral discrimination and ethical judgment” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. I, 188)

[9]An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1973), 139.

[10]It is no accident that the New Testament Greek word krisis refers to a distinction, as between time and eternity or death and life, which calls for judgment and decision, and is thus related to kairos.

[11]Paul Louis Lehmann, The Transfiguration of Politics (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 37 and passim..

[12]Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World(Minneapolis: Proclamation Commentaries, Fortress Press, 1991).

[13]Told by Jim Wallis in his new book Faith Works (New York: Random House, 2000).

[14]Adam Michnik, ”Letter From the Gdansk Prison,” The New York Review of Books, July 18, 1985.

[15]Sermon, July 1, 1979.

[16]E.g., John Howard Yoder (The Politics of Jesus), Vernard Eller (Christian Anarchy: Christ’s Victory Over the Powers), Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway (Up To Our Steeples in Politics), William Stringfellow (op. cit.), Hendrick Berkhof (Christ and the Powers) and Jacques Ellul (The Ethics of Freedom, various other works).

[17]Obituary, The New YorkTimes, 11/8/00.

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