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.