Remind people to be loyall subject to the government and its officials, to obey the laws, and to be ready to do whatever is good.
With this passage I am transported back to my childhood with the minister droning on about being good and productive citizens. Later in my adolescence it became clear that bad citizens were equated with sin and good citizens – those that “obey the laws” – with salvation.
In my early adult years I threw this passage back into the face of its writer. Sometimes citizens have the right to rebel when in the course of events governments participate in the oppression of their citizens. Nazi Germany is a great example, so many “good citizens” obeying the law. The U.S. culture's treatment of indigenous people is another example.
As a part of the sexual minority we face laws specifically designed to keep us from supportive and loving relationships. These laws are generally known as "Sodomite Laws," and makes us a special type of sexual criminal. The term comes from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and originally refers to anal sex between males, its meaning has been somewhat broaden to refer to any same sex activity between men and as a heading for anti-gay laws refer to women engaged in same sex loving as well. Why would I ever counsel anyone to obey these types of law? To the contrary, I have blessed queer people and encouraged them to violate the law: a sodomite is not a criminal.
It is an easy temptation to toss the writer of this letter out and write him (or her) off as a buffoon: just another Roman citizen, privileged by laws written with a slant toward Roman males. It is easy to think, “Screw you. After you spend some time in my life, then we’ll talk about the law.”
Curiously, the writer (which may/may not be Paul) did spend time in our life as a leader of a small religious movement which was misunderstood and maligned. Christianity was a fast riser on the Roman Empire’s most hated list. The writer knew by experience what it means to face rejection by the dominant culture and to live in fear of its wrath.
It is hard to reconcile the writer’s treatment at the hands of the Romans with his regard for Roman rule. While we should not disregard this tension, when I step back and think about what larger picture the writer may have in mind my imagination percolates. No government is perfect – even one administered by queer people. If private motives are a jumble, how much more public motives tugged on by battling interest groups?
We cannot plumb the mind of the writer for his philosophy of civics, but I can offer a bit of my own. When laws build community, strengthen the rights of minorities, and protect the innocent I am happy to obey them. However, when laws serve to oppress, when they are devised to exploit and punish the non-guilty, when they tear at community or prohibit supportive relationships then we must rise up. With all means at our disposal we must work to dismantle privilege and prejudice masquerading as justice.
In the end, this is the only way I can be a good citizen.