What we have in this story today, in this situation Paul has found himself, is an encounter between how he is living faithfully and the power of the world. He is caught between the former, yet still powerful, theocracy in Jerusalem and those wielding the power of the Roman Empire.
Festus is a clever and cunning man. What we don’t know from the story is that he was recently appointed to his place as procurator in Roman Palestine. He followed Felix, who was not beloved by, well, anyone. Festus had to find his place, balance the Jewish leaders needs, and still be accountable to the Empire. Festus seems to think that this deal, of getting Paul to Jerusalem, where the Jewish authority would pursue their charges and punishment, death, on Paul, would get him out of having to pursue punishment on a Roman Citizen. Paul wouldn’t leave Jerusalem, but he does. Paul knows he’s been backed into a corner and he decides to cash in the card he has, he has a legal right to appeal to the Emperor. Festus’ hands were tied at that point.
Paul was navigating the relationship between religion and government.
And I honestly, from Paul it seems so much more simple that it might be today. We see the 2 areas that are working between faith communities and the powers. The Jewish Temple leaders in Jerusalem who were working on maintaining some power in the midst of Empire and the that community and the Empire against Paul.
We navigate our own relationship to the Empire, the powers, the government. And as Christians we have options. In Paul’s letter to the Romans it seems he recommends obedience to civil authorities. And John of Patmos in his Revelation writes to incite resistance and martyrdom. How do we hold together these different ideas of best practices? So we look to Paul, and we look to our mentor and saints over time.
Paul knows his rights, he knows that he shouldn’t be tried in this town but has the right to be in Rome, as a citizen. He refuses to let Festus manipulate him, manipulate the situation, make this interaction into something outside of the law. Paul holds Festus accountable. Festus is accountable to Rome, to the Emperor, to the ideals of Rome, which, frankly, I don’t think started with the expectation of being a murderous, conquest-ing empire. This has been one of the ways that the religious have interacted with their government and with the powers–holding them responsible, accountable. It’s Nathan calling David out for his abuse of Bathsheba and murder of her husband. It’s Isaiah calling out the powerful for not caring for the widow or the orphan. Jesus again and again, called out the leaders for their judgement, hypocrisy, and lack of care for the least. He was called out by a Samaritan woman for being neglectful to all of God’s children. Sometimes, we get it wrong.
But history marches on and so it’s Martin Luther King Jr standing up for voting rights, the poor, and racial equity. Archbishop Oscar Romero who advocated for the poor and oppressed in El Salvador. And not to assume that it can only be those who were inevitably assassinated, the work of Sojourner’s and Jim Wallis call Christians to live their faith and call the powerful to live a better ethic. Rev William Barber as part of the National Poor People’s Campaign. And then there’s Mari Copeny who grew weary of advocating for water in Flint that she created a new filter, Shannon Dingle raising her voice for women and children who have been trapped in sex trafficking and often forgotten. Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros and Candice Marie Benbow speaking up for black and brown women, and all people for the governments and their people who treat them with the full inclusion they were promised.
Here of course, it where it gets messy, and it’s seems like what I’m about to say is so nuanced–are we building a Kingdom of God in our own image or a Kin-dom of God.
There’s a documentary on Netflix call the The Family, that tells the story of a particular branch of Christianity that focuses on power, authority, and influence. Their Jesus has no time for weakness, uncertainty, powerlessness. This group has quietly had an influence on every president since the 60’s as well as governments around the world. Their goal seems to be to create a Nation in their version of Christianity, a Kingdom, a power structure, built on their version of Jesus.
The difference, as I see it, is are we working to build a new power structure or are we working for each other, the common good, the children of God made in God’s image. Are we Kingdom people, or Kin-don, without the “g”, people, because we are siblings, family in God–calling out the injustice, the inconsistency, the evil inflicted on God’s good creation. Are we striving to be next to the seats of power or are we demanding that the powerful care for the “least of these”.
Ethicist Tony Campolo says the mixing of Church and State is like mixing ice-cream and manure.it doesn’t do much to the manure but it sure does ruin the ice cream. When he’s feeling sassy, he says you can guess which is the ice cream.
Because when the ice cream gets involved at the table with the manure, gets involved in the systems of power, the ice cream has to make some compromises.
And those compromises might be learning to justify war, turning a blind eye to people who are expendable, less useful, to the ethical norms ice cream of love and kindness and forgiveness for all. The church is ice cream.
And when the church gets too involved, the powers think they can use it to their usefulness. It’s Constantine uniting the Empire around Christianity in hopes to end it’s inevitable destruction, it’s the Crusades that have been romanticized into holy wars that were about land and resource conquest and a Pope Urban expand power, it’s the Spanish monarchy weeding out undesirables in the Inquisition, and by using the Church, the power were able to convince the faithful to participate in wars, torture, and executions. Even Hitler invoked the bible to serve the purposes of convincing nice Lutheran people into, at best, turning a blind eye.
We, have an expectation that the state, the government, the Empire, as long as we’re not inflicting harm on another, to stay out of how we worship, out of work and mission, out of how we live our faith, and out of our ethics. Not prioritizing one group over another but protecting all our rights to worship, no matter what God we worship.
But our leaders, both in the church and in the state are imperfect. Here’s the truth and the hope that we get to hold on to: God has a plan. Paul to before the Emperor was part of a plan. And sometimes it feels like it’s two steps forward and one step back, but we hold on to the hope that the arc of the universe bends to justice, and that God is bending that arc. Which means, sometimes, even the leaders we most struggle with or against, might from time to time, be able to be used by God. I reminds me of a comment that Bernie Sanders made a while back, that under Fidel Castro’s Cuba, literacy increased. Now, there are 100 things to say against Castro, but can we say, perhaps, increasing people’s ability to read increases their education, their prospects, their quality of life, and their ability to stand up to their government and demand change.
Sometimes, God’s plan comes into play even through the most unexpected places. Like a manager of the Empire trying to maintain is position and power while everyone else has different goals, yet sends Paul to Rome and ultimately, changing the face of the Empire. Or an Emperor longing to maintain his position in the world and justify his war, ending persecutions against a small former-sect of Judaism who follow a crucified prophet, making a way for the church to grow without fear.
I’m bursting with modern applications, but much like deciding which is the ice cream, I’m going to let you consider the world we are in, the government we have, the expectations put on church during the pandemic, the erosion of an ethic of love, kindness, and forgiveness, the manipulation of religion by the powerful to convince the nice faithful to at best turn a blind eye and at worst torture, abuse, execute.
We are not called to be passive to the state, we are not meant to be wrapped up in the trappings of power, we are called to be a voice in the wilderness, a lamp on a stand, a hope in desperate times. We are called to be set apart, to stay ice cream. To advocate, to work toward, and to be the kin-dom builders of this world.