Respecting the office

We are edging closer and closer to Election Day. The political climate is going to get nasty and brutish.

Even, unfortunately, within the church.

Or perhaps I should say “between churches” — because it is not clear to me that people on either side of the theological and political aisle are willing to own those on the other side as their sisters and brothers. We are the true believers, and they…? Well, they’re just lost.

Is that the way it must be? I hope not. And here, I think the apostle Paul’s experience and conduct is instructive.

As we’ve seen, when Paul made his final trip to Jerusalem, the crowd that packed the temple for Pentecost turned into an ugly mob that tried to bludgeon him to death. The Roman tribune pulled him out, probably saving his life. After an abortive attempt to conduct his own interrogation, the tribune ordered the Sanhedrin to meet and examine Paul themselves. It was an irregular meeting of the council, but the high priest, a corrupt man named Ananias, presided as usual.

No sooner had Paul spoken than Ananias ordered that the apostle be cuffed across the mouth. Paul responded sharply with a curse: God would strike Ananias for his hypocrisy! Paul did not know, apparently, that the man who ordered him struck was in fact the high priest; if he had, he might have held his tongue.

Here, we must remember that it had been roughly 20 years since the overzealous Saul of Tarsus received a letter from an earlier high priest giving him authority to go to Damascus and extradite believers to Jerusalem. A lot had changed since then, both in Paul’s own life and in Jerusalem itself. His visits to the city had been infrequent since beginning his mission to the Gentiles, and it had been some time since he had last been there.

I also imagine that because it was an irregular meeting called by a Roman official, the council members may not have been wearing any signs of office. They all knew each other, but Paul did not know Ananias by sight, nor did he realize that he was insulting the high priest. When he was told his mistake, Paul immediately backed down and apologized, claiming ignorance.

Paul, of course, was right about Ananias; the man was a hypocrite, giving the office of high priest a bad name, even among his own people. He is reputed to have even stolen tithes from the temple, money that was meant for the priests below him. And note that Luke doesn’t tell us that Paul tried to take the insult back. In fact, some scholars detect a note of sarcasm in Paul’s words; “I didn’t not realize, brothers, that he was high priest” (Acts 23:5, NRSV) is interpreted as meaning, “A piece of work like that is high priest? Go figure.”

The point is that even if Paul found little to respect in the man, he respected the office. Remember what Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1).

He does not say, of course, that every human in a position of authority is godly. His meaning is that Christians, as they move through human society, should in principle support the place of authority itself, rather than anarchy. This is no mere abstract principle for Paul: the “governing authorities” in his world would include Nero, the emperor who would later be responsible for Paul’s execution.

To put it bluntly: whoever occupies the Oval Office come Inauguration Day, the office of president itself deserves our respect. It is possible, indeed, it must be possible, to disagree wholeheartedly with a sitting president’s policies and still pray for the person in the chair.

And no, I don’t mean a prayer for the ground to open up or for burning sulfur to fall from the sky. I mean praying in love and compassion for God’s will to be done through the person in office, whether it’s the person you voted for or not.

If we want to do something about the growing rancor that affects American politics today, that might be a good place to start.