Epistles, Part 5: Citizenship in Heaven
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | July 5, 2018Hi friends, over the past couple weeks I’ve taken this series on Paul’s epistles on a detour so as to respond to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' comments on immigration enforcement practices. Nowadays, two minutes of speaking by a public figure is old news after only a week (let alone three!), but I’m going to finish responding to his comments today. I do so because the fundamental theological error Mr. Sessions makes in his comments betrays a worldview that is formally identical to that of the Roman Empire. Therefore, his comments are instructive for exploring Paul’s epistles, all of which were composed within that historical era.
I’ve already addressed Mr. Sessions’ use of Romans 13. However, what Mr. Sessions says after his ill-fated stab at scriptural exegesis is more troubling: “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing….” The fundamental mistake here is Mr. Sessions’ assumption that a law is good simply because it is the law. By his logic, separating immigrant children from their families is good so long as the enforcement of this law is “orderly,” “consistent” and “fair.” So long as the traumatizing of families is expedient, and so long as Mexican children are not separated from immigrant parents with more or less frequency than children from El Salvador, then the law is good because it is enforced with order, consistency and fairness.
Surely these are qualities we want laws to have; but they cannot make a law good. Mr. Sessions seems to believe that a law is good simply because it is the law. The American people’s overwhelming (and blessedly bipartisan) outcry against the practice of separating immigrant children from their families suggests that we intuitively know this to be false.
Why do we believe this? One answer—and it is a true one—is that at a basic, instinctive level, we know that children belong with their parents. Few things are more natural. In what remains of this post, I want to explore an additional, more explicitly theological answer from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). Modern democratic societies like ours, however secular in appearance, are indebted to this concept.
To begin, I want to draw the connection I made at the beginning between the worldview evinced by Mr. Sessions’ comments and that of the Roman Empire. I have already shown that Mr. Sessions seems to believe that a law is good simply because it is the law. This is formally identical to the worldview of the Roman Empire, which essentially believed that Rome was good because it was Roman. The Roman Empire saw itself as divinely commissioned, its success authenticated in its military dominance across the Mediterranean. The emperor was the focal point of this power, a kind of walking deity, though overt worship of the emperors was rare while they were alive. The emperor was at once father figure, protector, patron, the epitome of Rome The emperor’s edict was law; he was bound to no other authority. For the emperor, the only test of whether he should do something was whether he could, be it levying a new tax or invading a foreign land.
Legal magistrates represented the emperor’s power at the local level. These magistrates had bodyguards who carried a particular kind of axe that both symbolized and enforced their authority. (Fun trivia fact for your next cocktail party: one of these axes was called a fasces, which is where we get the word “fascism.”) Just as the emperor had armies, the local magistrates had bodyguards who both protected the magistrate and enforced the law, which again was simply the imperial will.
We can see, then, that at both the imperial and local levels, Rome saw its actions as self-authenticating. Whether it was the emperor’s ordering his armies to annex a new territory or the local magistrate’s sending his bodyguards to extort tax money from a neighborhood, Rome enforced its will through power. The use of that power was justified simply because it was Rome using it. When Rome got what it wanted, it saw its success as evidence that its cause was just. Because Rome had the most power, the Roman worldview was self-authenticating: what is good to do is whatever Rome does, and no one else is strong enough to argue otherwise.
Thus, we return to Mr. Sessions: “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves.” This is formally identical to the Roman view because Mr. Sessions’ position also authenticates itself. Rome is good because it is Roman; the law is good because it is lawful.
Enter Paul and his Christian contemporaries. From the very beginning, Christian witness proclaimed that the source of goodness is not the coercive power of an empire or legality; the source of what is good is God. When Paul refers to Jesus, rather than the emperor, as “Lord;” when Paul refers to the “good news of Christ” rather than the good news of Caesar Augustus; when Paul writes that “our citizenship is in heaven” rather than our citizenship is in Rome, Paul is proclaiming that for Christian people, the highest good is participation in the life of God in Jesus Christ, not conformity to the will of the emperor. This is what the Rome of Paul’s day could neither understand nor tolerate: Christians proclaimed that the earthly empire in which they lived was not the kingdom to which they most fundamentally belonged. Their citizenship and deepest loyalty were elsewhere.
We can see, then, how the gospel drove a wedge between what is good and what is Roman. This is not to say that the two were never the same—Paul relied on walking well-paved Roman roads, after all!—but it is to say that it’s not a given that goodness and Roman-ness are identical. Perhaps for the first time in history, a group of people began to understand themselves in such a way that their most fundamental identity did not depend on the survival of an earthly political body or geographical area. This was because for early Christians like Paul, the true King, the true banner around which heavenly citizens rally, is the crucified Lord. According to Paul, “the rulers of this age” like Caesar are “doomed to perish” because they do not recognize God’s wisdom in the crucified Jesus (1 Cor. 2:6). Instead, Rome ruled by claiming and defending a monopoly on legitimate coercive power. When they “crucified the Lord of glory,” Rome just assumed it was exercising its natural supremacy and justice by eliminating a potential threat (1 Cor. 2:8). This is how Rome survived: crucifying competitors.
But notice what this means: the moment Rome’s coercive powers of crucifixion and the like fail, then so too does the Roman notion of what is good. How can Rome coerce people whose king suffered crucifixion—the worst of Roman coercion—and then was raised from the dead in glory?! How does an earthly empire compete with that? The goodness offered by that kind of King rests on a foundation more solid than strength of arms or whims of an emperor. Thus, the Church may remain after an empire falls.
What has any of this to do with Mr. Sessions? As I have shown, Mr. Sessions’ assertion that the law is good because it is lawful evokes the self-authenticating specter of the Roman Empire. And yet the outcry of the American people—not just Christians—was overwhelming against the practice of separating children from families. This is because embedded in our understanding of democracy is the Christian idea that laws are not simply good because the state says they are lawful: the gospel has driven a wedge between goodness and state-sanctioned legality.
The United States of America is based on the conviction that the governments of the world can and should order themselves so as to safeguard the rights of their citizens, but that no State can claim to be the source of those rights. In other words, the State can organize its laws so as to allow people to pursue what is good, but the State is not the source of goodness. As American citizens, we are indebted to Paul and the early Christians who proclaimed that we have loyalties that run deeper than loyalty to our earthly country. Thus, in our own context, we can never say, as Mr. Sessions did, that a law is good simply because it is our country’s law. Instead, Americans instinctively understand that goodness comes from elsewhere: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” No law, or enforcement of a law, should transgress what has been endowed by our Creator.
Two closing thoughts: first, to clarify, I’m not suggesting that all citizens of modern democratic societies like the United States are somehow secretly Christian. I am suggesting that modern democratic societies are indebted to a Christian idea. Societies like ours would not have been possible had Paul and the first Christians not claimed “citizenship in heaven,” thereby driving a wedge between what is truly good and what the governing authorities legislate and enforce. The second, less comforting truth is that for Christian people who claim “citizenship in heaven,” the failure of any worldly society in which we live must always be a live moral option. Christian faithfulness simply doesn’t depend upon the maintenance of an earthly political reality, or even on our fully realizing the kingdom of God as an earthly nation. Because we belong to a kingdom not of this world, we are freed from the temptations of totalitarianism: what is good is not simply what is Roman or American; what is good is to participate in the life of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, American Christians can and must always proclaim that we would rather these United States fail than perpetrate evils like separating children from their parents, actions which seen theologically are no less than a re-crucifying of the Lord of glory—which was perfectly legal the first time.
Thankfully, it’s not a simple choice between the two. However, when public figures like Mr. Sessions speak in a way that conjures the thinking of an empire better left in the historical dust, American Christians do well to remember Paul’s witness: we are called first and foremost as patriots of Another Country.
 See Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, pg 17.
 This phrase belongs to former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. See chapters 2 and 3 of Faith in the Public Square, Bloomsbury: New York, 2012. The notion that sentiments like Philippians 3:20 are precisely the ideas that make modern democratic societies possible is also Williams’.
 Williams, pgs 28-29.