I have a confession to make. Just occasionally in my life, not very often, some little incident provokes me into a sudden passion of blind fury. On one occasion, I remember my unreasonable anger with the doctor who suggested that something might be wrong with my heart—something which eventually needed me to go into hospital for surgery. Last week, though, it was when, after attending a meeting of the Small Business Banking and Finance Committee of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, at which some very uncomplimentary things were said about the G.S.T., the government and tax collectors in general, and then I found that St. Paul had taken an entirely opposite tack in the Epistle set for this Sunday. It’s at least the second time this year that I’ve found myself compelled by the Bible to take a line in my message that is very much different from what my natural inclinations would dictate!
I guess my fury comes from the fact that neither I, nor, I suspect, many of us here, are quite happy to live with the fact that we, too, have to accept the inevitable fate of all humanity—death and taxes. They happen to someone else, of course—but we would like to think we will be different from all the rest of mankind: somehow, by some special dispensation, the Lord will make us able to escape these two scourges. St. Paul brings us back to reality.
In this passage, which comes towards the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul sums up the consequences of the Gospel of Christ in practical life, and its revelation to Gentiles as well as Jews, as he has outlined it in earlier chapters. He discusses it in terms of behavior to God, to other believers, and at this point, to Government. He stresses a number of points.
We are to be obedient to the Government. We are to recognize that it has the purpose of controlling evil, through the mechanisms of the justice system, for the ultimate benefit of those who follow the path of good. We are to keep the law not just to prevent ourselves being punished. We are to align ourselves with the purposes of the Law, which is to maintain civil order, as a matter of conscience. We are to pay our taxes—willingly and in full. We are to show respect and honour to those who have the task of government. We are not to get behind with our debts or other obligations: the only obligation we should have to anyone is the Christian one to love our neighbours.
This is a tall order even in a democratic society. We need to realize that Paul is asking Christians of his day to show respect, pay taxes, and conscientiously obey laws imposed by a government that was arbitrary, unelected, and far more oppressive than any we have ever known in this country. From the time of Julius Caesar, about a century before Paul’s time, Roman government had become a succession of dictatorships, chosen essentially by the army, and particularly by the Praetorian Guard in Rome, who once auctioned off the right to govern the Empire to the highest cash bidder. General elections and votes for all simply did not exist. Taxation was not a matter of justice. The right to collect taxes was something that was privatized: tax collections in an area would be auctioned off by the central government to an investor, who, after paying for the privilege, got his money back by collecting everything he could from his allotted territory. It is as if your local Senator could pay Ottawa or the right to collect a sales tax in St. Albert, and get his investment back by making the rates as high as, with the use of the army, he could persuade the public to pay. The Goods and Services Tax looks mild by comparison—yet these are the taxes, and this is the kind of government, that Paul is asking Christians to support.
This is not a popular message for Canada today. Even from Church sources, we find criticisms of the rule of law: people defy the law of trespass on the abortion issue, for instance, and then seem surprised when the law insists that they be punished for their ‘moral’ conduct. If there is a T.V. camera in sight, the opportunity to make a statement by defying the law takes precedence over our obligation to respect it. On the street, the police are kept busy by a steady stream of thefts, assaults, drunkenness, traffic offences, frauds, sexual offences and homicides. The idea of keeping the law for the sake of conscience-driving at the speed limit, for instance, out of respect for our neighbour’s safety, rather than because we know that the police have a radar trap out—seems to have gone out of style. The same people who would scream their heads off if their U.I.C., welfare or pension cheques were a day late, are late or avoid sending in their own payment—without ever seeing the connection with what they are doing and the dangerous mountain of debt now faced by Federal and Provincial governments. Respect for politicians and civil servants is at an all-time low. Staying out of debt, and keeping up with payment obligations, are not first priorities in our consumer society. We don’t score at all highly by the standards that St. Paul is setting us, even within the church.
I wonder if in Canada we have come to a point when we should take a critical look as how we are behaving towards the whole process of government. It is very easy to say that our rights are being trampled on, and point out injustices, ancient and modern, perfectly correctly. But the other side of the coin is that so much defiance of a government that does not suit our private preferences one hundred percent, in the end makes the whole process of government impossible. Perhaps you know the story of the politician who once desperately said to his friends: “I don’t just want people who will follow me when I’m right. I want people who will stay with me even when I’m wrong!”
If we force the total breakdown of law and order, the injustices that the innocent will suffer will be ten times anything that they have to put up with at the present time. In 1917, remember, the Russian revolution overthrew the Tsar and established a democracy in Russia. By the end of the year, the Bolsheviks had seized the government by military power, and the Russian people endured seventy years of vicious, anti-religious dictatorship before freedom broke through again. People who take the sword can perish by the sword.
What Christians should realize, but do not, is that they do have within their power the key to political change, but perhaps it is too uncomfortable for them to use! It lies in suffering the penalty of the law, even when their conduct does not deserve this. The guilt imposed on the human race—priests, governments, traders in slaves alike—by the death of innocent Jesus, has made him the most powerful political force the world has ever seen. It has been the blood of the martyrs that has formed the seed of the church. This is the technique that made Gandhi able to free India from British rule. This is how Nelson Mandela is bringing about the end of Apartheid in South Africa. It may well be the way in which midwives will gain legal recognition in Alberta!
Paul concludes this particular passage, just after the piece we read today, by saying that “It is high time to wake out of sleep.” True, we have something less than perfection in government—after all, politicians are our representatives: they are meant to be people like ourselves. If they are a little too much like ourselves in promising one thing and delivering another, in irresponsibility in their use of power, is it perhaps because they are representing their electors only too well? People do get the government they deserve! Government, Paul reminds us, is an institution doing the work of God. It may do it well, or it may do it badly. In Paul’s time, that was something to be accepted, which could not be changed. In our own day, we have the dearly won right of democracy to change it if change is needed. Let’s wake out of our sleep, pay taxes to whom taxes are due, and give our governments the respect they deserve as institutions carrying out a purpose of God—no matter that their performance sometimes leaves more than a little to be desired.