Participatory Democracy in an open society is messy. Unlike tidy authoritarian systems, “Government by the people and for the people” is rough around the edges. Many different chapters of American History record the ragged edges of our civil unrest (Shays’ Rebellion, Whiskey Rebellion, the Haymarket Affair, Jaybird-Woodpecker War, Pullman Strike, Columbine Mine Massacre, Bonus Army March, Zoot Suit Riots, Long Hot Summer of 1967, end etc.).
Recent events seem to be opening another rough chapter of civil unrest. With passions flaring and rhetoric blaring, what should Christians do? The New Testament teaches us to stand aside from the unrest and stand beside law and order.
What Did Jesus Do?
America is not the only nation with a history of civil unrest. The time and place of Jesus’ birth was also politically unrestful. Roman domination of the Bible Lands began when Roman General Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC. Treated unkindly thereafter, the Jews were taxed unmercifully, their internal government and religion was subjugated, and their lands and homes occupied by disrespectful and overbearing Roman Legions. In response, many Jews resisted and even revolted.
These were the Zealots (see Matt. 10:4) and they agitated, often violently, for the overthrow of Roman rule. So widely were the Zealots supported that their popularity was leveraged against Jesus. Taunted about paying hated taxes to hated Rome, Jesus answered, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” (Mt. 22:21). Instead of activism and agitation, Jesus preached a different set of priorities.
The Doctrine of Civil Obedience
Instead of civil disobedience, the Bible commands,
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 whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed… Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience…Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Rom. 13:1-7).
The “respect” and “honor” due to the government is not subject to our approval or disapproval. “Peaceful and quiet lives” on earth (I Tim. 2:2) and “citizenship in heaven” (Phil. 3:20) are our top priorities. “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient,” said Paul (Tit. 3:2). Peter added, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors…For this is the will of God” (I Pet. 3:12-15).
Like many other once-standard terms, democracy has been destandardized to include all sorts of misdeeds against the demos (Greek; the populace). Once, participatory democracy implied peaceful activities such as voting, membership in political parties, support of candidates, and even yelling at FOX News (or at CNN, depending on your preferences). Now, radicals describe rioters and looters as “practitioners of democracy” and say that the charred remains of businesses are “what democracy looks like.”
Standing aside and standing beside does not require our absence from any peaceful democratic process. But aggression and angry passions do not coincide with Christian graces. “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (I Pet. 2:15).