Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.
As a monk I cannot deny Paul’s wisdom. Within the dance of a monastic community, the challenges of obedience to one’s superiors come with many unexpected and needful graces. Much of life in community is spent learning to receive the gifts at hand when we do not get our way. But we do not all live within the precincts of a vowed community, and too frequently have these words of Paul been used to lend and air of divine approval to otherwise illegitimate and abusive forms of state power. Colonialism, chattel slavery, the convulsions of the twentieth century, and bold abuses of contemporary leadership, all accompanied by cries of human beings battered at the hands of nations, ring out a warning: be careful not to mistake coercive power for God’s power. For it is Christ—not a Caesar, or an empire, or a nation—who is the Lord of History.
While civil authority’s claim to coercive power rests on an aspiration to do justice and preserve order, this same authority is always liable to abuse and malformation. Civil authorities do not in fact always punish evil behavior and reward good. Sometimes, with great boldness, civil authority actively rewards evil and punishes good. And so a superficial reading of this text will at best leave us sadly distant from a vengeful and coercive God, and at worst lend license to unspeakable crimes.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Some years ago I had the privilege of taking a course with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who was then on the faculty of the Divinity School at Duke University. Dr. Hauerwas, the son of a bricklayer, was a straight-shooting, no-nonsense kind of guy who believed that living as true disciples of Jesus in the world would necessarily put us in conflict with the culture in which we live. I remember being surprised to hear him say that participating in the Eucharist was one of the most radical actions any Christian could undertake. Tonight we will understand why this is true.
Tonight we watch in wonder as the only-begotten Son of God, the Eternal Word who was “in the beginning with God” and through whom “all things came into being” (Jn 1:1-3), stoops to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. Tonight we behold the Incarnate Son of God, the “King of kings” and the “Lord of lords,” tying a towel around himself, pouring water into a basin, and assuming the role of a servant. The King kneels before his subjects; the Master washes the feet of his disciples.