Excerpt: The Bible explicitly charges us to obey governing authorities, and rightly so. But when governing authorities descend into barbarism and draconian rule, what must we do as Christian activists?
Throughout history, we have heard of one form of oppression or another against certain groups of people based on their unique demographics. From slavery to colonialism, these forms of oppression was justified by a lot of people for hundreds of years in order to advance their own selfish interests. While many people view the Bible as a tool that “perpetuated” these forms of oppression, I am of the opinion that the Bible was selfishly interpreted by the people that had them at that time (white folks) and they exploited the illiteracy of other people, thereby forcing them into oppression. In a nutshell, the Bible is a Holy Book with God’s written instructions for humankind; however, people misinterpret and misquote what is written in the Bible to advance their own selfish interests even though these interests might be damaging to another person’s life.
My main reason for writing this is to correct an arguably false notion that according to Romans 13:1-5, Christians are meant to obey the higher powers in government, EVEN IF they themselves (the government) commit crimes that are punishable by law; roll out draconian policies that chokes and gags the right of their people to live comfortably (which can be interpreted more broadly); or even commit crimes against humanity (like the Lekki Massacre during the #ENDSARS protests). I am writing this from a very Nigerian perspective because of the recent happenings in our country and so I hope to encourage young Christians (especially those who have been specially called to activism and social justice) who are unsure of how to react in situations like these.
Governments Are Created “For Your Good”
In the book of Romans chapter 13, Paul admonishes Christians to be “subject to the higher powers” (KJV). The MSG version says we should “be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar there is PEACE AND ORDER, it’s God’s order so live responsibly as a citizen.” It is clear. God wants us to be responsible citizens, pay our taxes, vote during elections (based on the laws of the land), obey rules and regulations and basically fulfill your obligations as a citizen of the state.
By the way, if you are currently in Nigeria today, I believe you can independently make a sound judgment if the current happenings in the country looks like “peace and order” or not.
Verse 4 states “for he [the government/leader] is God’s servant FOR YOUR GOOD” (ESV). The KJV states “he is a minister of God to thee FOR GOOD”. Now think about what “for (your) good” means in this passage. I don’t think corruption is good; I do not think high levels of insecurity is good; I do not think injustice is good; I do not think oppression and suppression of the freedom of expression (i.e. Twitter ban and censorship of all media outlets) is good; I do not think forcefully taking what’s not yours is good; and you’ll also agree with me that rigging and ballot snatching during an election is not good. We do not need a soothsayer to tell us that all these are predominant in this current government administration.
What to Do When the Government Meant for “Our Good” Goes Rogue?
Since we now understand that they are appointed for our good and now that they have turned from being good to being bad, what shall we do? Some people will say we need to pray or even pray more. The thing is, prayer is an essential part of a christian’s life and all christians everywhere are charged with the honorable responsibility to pray for their leaders at all times (1 Timothy 2:1-4). So suggesting that we pray more is not a new thing; it’s not a solution per se; it’s what Christians everywhere do and are supposed to do. Based on my church experience in Nigeria, I can confidently say that prayers for the nation are taken very seriously just as Sunday services are. In fact, in some churches every Sunday, there is a special session for praying for the nation. Also, most Christians who understand how to pray understand the importance of faith in prayers; in fact not just in prayers but faith is the foundation on which the Christian experience is built on. Hence the question: if we have faith and we pray for the nation, what then is wrong?
Faith Without Works is Dead
“Faith without works is dead…” (James 2:14-26). Faith without action is dead; which means whatever that person aims to do without action is fruitless! Prayers can be seen as an action in itself but we ought to understand the differences in spiritual action vs physical action because according to my understanding, these are two separate realms. In some instances, the two realms can intersect (for instance, how do you explain someone with an eye defect for many years instantly getting healed at a crusade? This is not hearsay; I know who this happened to personally). However, there are several instances where prayers should be done AND must go hand-in-hand with some form of other actions in the physical realm. An example is if someone is seeking a job; you should pray but you should also take action like submitting your CVs, sending emails, networking, etc. You should pray like you have not received what you want and also search for what you want like you have not prayed.
The Example of Nehemiah, a Powerful Social Justice Reformer
But let us go back to the Bible to answer the question of “When leaders appointed to good become rogue; when they become bad, what should happen?” Well, Paul the apostle didn’t say much about that but I do not think anyone would allow themselves to be trampled upon by a few people who are leaders in a society because the Bible says we should “obey” them. I’m sure you have heard the story of Nehemiah, especially looking through the historical context of how he was crucial to rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. However, based on the story I am about to share, Nehemiah can be said to be a strong activist and social justice reformer. This was what happened in Nehemiah chapter 5. I have used the MSG version so it breaks down the words (You can also use the KJV if you want). The MSG version calls it: The Great Protest; the NKJV version titles it: Nehemiah Deals With Oppression.
5 1-2 A great protest was mounted by the people, including the wives, against their fellow Jews. Some said, “We have big families, and we need food just to survive.”
3 Others said, “We’re having to mortgage our fields and vineyards and homes to get enough grain to keep from starving.”
4-5 And others said, “We’re having to borrow money to pay the royal tax on our fields and vineyards. Look: We’re the same flesh and blood as our brothers here; our children are just as good as theirs. Yet here we are having to sell our children off as slaves—some of our daughters have already been sold—and we can’t do anything about it because our fields and vineyards are owned by somebody else.”
6-7 I got really angry when I heard their protest and complaints. After thinking it over, I called the nobles and officials on the carpet. I said, “Each one of you is gouging his brother.”
7-8 Then I called a big meeting to deal with them. I told them, “We did everything we could to buy back our Jewish brothers who had to sell themselves as slaves to foreigners. And now you’re selling these same brothers back into debt slavery! Does that mean that we have to buy them back again?”
They said nothing. What could they say?
9 “What you’re doing is wrong. Is there no fear of God left in you? Don’t you care what the nations around here, our enemies, think of you?
10-11 “I and my brothers and the people working for me have also loaned them money. But this gouging them with interest has to stop. Give them back their foreclosed fields, vineyards, olive groves, and homes right now. And forgive your claims on their money, grain, new wine, and olive oil.”
12-13 They said, “We’ll give it all back. We won’t make any more demands on them. We’ll do everything you say.”
Nehemiah could have sat and prayed. Maybe he did pray for God to touch their minds. But he also did something else: he spoke against those people (the nobles and the rulers), and they listened.
What Giving to Caesar is and What it isn’t
Romans 13 may not have been written when Nehemiah mounted up this challenge against the “leaders” of his time and corrected their wrongdoing. Yes, they were not “political leaders” but they were leaders in that society. The Bible says we should “give what belongs to Caesar to Caesar…” (Matthew 22:21) but we need to understand what this means. Giving to Caesar is not enforcing oppression at the detriment of the masses; it is not brokering corrupt deals and hiring hoodlums to disrupt protests for your oga at the top because “your hands are tied”; it is not looting the money that belongs to the people for your personal use as a public servant; and it is definitely not using the power you have as a leader to manipulate the law such that you are above the law and can trample on anyone you want simply because you were elected as a “leader.” If you commit the above actions as a leader, how do you expect the law and order mentioned in verse 2 of Romans 13 to be maintained? Don’t you know that there cannot be law and order where people are oppressed? Giving to Caesar is paying your tax (Romans 13:7); it is obeying laid down rules by the government of the day; it is voting during elections, etc.
Democracy- An Imperfect System and the Importance of Checks and Balances
We must understand that democracy is a man-made system for the world (physical realm); it is an imperfect system. If governments are left unchecked, what do you think will happen? In a completely imperfect system, like democracy, governments must be checked so while we obey the governments of the day according to Romans 13, we must also stand firm and speak against any form of injustice EVEN if it does not affect us directly. In my opinion, this is a general problem in Nigeria: When a particular situation does not affect us directly, we refuse to say anything about that situation. We only care to speak up or react when it directly affects us. And while that might be okay, as Christians, loving others is also speaking up for them even if the harsh conditions of the country are not affecting you. We must also understand that there are several laws that may be unconstitutional and so it is within your right as a Christian to be highly critical of these laws and if necessary, not to obey them. Take for example the Twitter ban in Nigeria. Two foremost pastors in Nigeria came out to defend their actions of not standing by the government in regards to the Twitter ban. They continued to use Twitter. It is not because they do not obey the government, it is simply because that law [to ban Twitter] is unconstitutional, and honestly, it doesn’t make sense.
Even the person that enforced the ban, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) used a VPN app to access the said application to “deactivate” his account while a sitting governor who is an ally to the ruling party came online AFTER the enforcement of the ban to “share” an article advising the USA to copy this draconian policy from Nigeria. What do you call a country where the leaders draw up laws that they themselves cannot obey? Does this look or sound like the obedience or type of leadership mentioned in Romans 13:1?
Rounding it All Up
We need to stop justifying mediocre leadership, oppression and evil, especially from governmental powers using the scriptures to enforce their oppression. A lot of white folks used the Bible to justify their oppression against black people. Never again! And no, not Africans trying to do the same with each other using the same holy text. Going to church is good but not enough. God wants a personal devotion with Him from you. When you do read His Word and dwell in His presence regarding these salient issues, I pray that you are able to discern what God is speaking to you regardless of what others may say.
It is clear that we are charged to be law abiding citizens, however, when people’s lives are threatened because the government has failed to do the “GOOD” that it is appointed to do (Romans 13:4), then it is possible that the people, especially those specially called to activism and social justice, will speak out. Of course we all have our unique callings in this world so I do not expect everyone to be involved in a protest or any other campaign speaking out against injustice, but let those who want to fulfill their calling do so. They are not disobeying God’s word.
Remember that man that stood as a strong force against oppression in the 1960s; the man who vehemently spoke out against racial discrimination and other forms of injustices through his signature “peaceful protests.” Did you know that he was a Baptist pastor and he never stopped speaking out against the injustices that existed against black people at that time? He fulfilled his purpose on earth and his legacy still lives on! His name: Reverend (Dr) Martin Luther King Jr.