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Soul Force

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”

— Paul, The Apostle - Romans 13: 1-6

Paul's treatise on authority. Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable passages in the New Testament. Written to the emerging Church in Rome, the centre of the Roman Empire.

I am reminded of a line from the film, The Life of Brian -  "What have the Romans ever done for us?" Those of us who have seen (and enjoyed) this classic spoof, will know the answer. Rome was one of the most advanced civilisations of the ancient world. The Romans brought sanitation, irrigation, roads, education, medicine and 'peace' - by force - Pax Romana.

Yet, Roman rule was one of the most oppressive in history. Indeed they were the prototype 'fascists', the word 'fascism' deriving from the Roman fasces:

“The original symbol of fascism, in Italy under Benito Mussolini, was the fasces. This is an ancient Imperial Roman symbol of power carried by lictors in front of magistrates; a bundle of sticks featuring an axe, indicating the power over life and death.”

The Romans conquered the known world by brute force, enforcing their rule with the cruellest of punishments, of which one of the most fearful was crucifixion. The crucified lined the roads as a warning to anyone who might 'disturb' Pax Romana. Jesus' crucifixion was just One among many (which is its hidden message).

Yet, here in Romans 13 Paul is urging Jesus-followers in Rome to submit to the very same (fasce-ist) 'authority'. Why? Its hard to understand. And for those of us concerned about justice, it can read like an affront.

Think about the make-up of the nascent Roman Church. Some might have been Jews, like Paul (also a Roman citizen - which saved his skin on more than one occasion). Others would have been new converts and Gentile Romans, perhaps with positions of responsibility within the state apparatus. You could say that they were a 'broad church'.

Let us fast forward to late-1960's America for a modern-day parallel. As Vietnam is aflame with American bombs, America is aflame with demands for greater liberty and freedom. A Civil Rights Movement is on the march, calling for an end to racial segregation and for equality between American citizens of all races. It is a movement led by a young (some might have said, naive) Baptist minister named Martin Luther-King.

MLK would have read Romans 13: 1-6 closely. Very closely. Recordings of his sermons show that this is the case. He would also understood its words in the context of those which followed.


“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

— Romans 13: 8-10

There are rights and wrongs, clearly. Yet, for Paul and MLK, in both exercising these rights and exorcising the wrongs, love is the measure (and the weapon). 'For whoever loves others has fulfilled the law'.

MLK's Civil Rights Movement challenged the unjust and their unjust legislation, not by hate-filled conflict, but through a higher (agápē) love, transposed into non-violent resistance. Legislatively they were victorious. At least in part. 

For MLK and the broader American civil rights movement, Jesus' teaching on loving enemies (Matthew 5: 43-48) was also central, as is conveyed in this quotation:


“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ”We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

— Martin Luther-King

MLK will be remembered long after the memory of many of his contemporaries has faded. History has shown that as a man he was flawed. Like the rest of us. Perhaps it was these flaws, hidden as they were at the time, which gave him such empathy, even towards the faults of his enemies. His message, as uncompromising as it was, let to his martyrdom, much like the One he followed.

If MLK had been crucified, he might have been hung, not between two thieves, but between two southern racists. To whom he may have turned and said, "Today you will be with me in paradise". 

Soul Force.

Keith Hitchman, July 2017