Chaplain-gate

Romans 13:1-7
Apr 29, 2018
Union University Church 
Reverend Laurie DeMott

In the 70’s there was Watergate; in the 80s, Irangate; in the 90s, Nannygate, in the aughts, Leakgate, in 2015, Deflategate; and now before the decade is finished, we have Chaplain-gate — the controversy that has surrounded the resignation of Father Patrick Conroy as the chaplain to the House of Representatives.  Father Conroy, a Jesuit priest, has served as the House Chaplain for seven years providing pastoral care to the members of the House and opening sessions with prayer.  It may have been one of his prayers that got him into trouble when he prayed for fairness in tax relief.  No one is quite sure whether that is why, but for some reason, Paul Ryan felt Conroy had overstepped his bounds as House chaplain and asked for his resignation.  And when word got out, it knocked Melania Trump and her choice of hats off the front page because Washington was now a-buzz over Chaplain-gate.

The fact that Father Conroy’s resignation has caused enough finger-pointing to earn the moniker “Chaplain-gate” raises two questions for us today:  the first is, “Why do journalists feel that they have to add “gate” to every issue to make it sound more scandalous?” and the second is, “Why does the House of Representatives have a chaplain to begin with?”  I’m not going to try to answer the first question but I did some research on the second — which means I spent 5 minutes reading Wikipedia — and it turns out that both the Senate and the House of Representatives have had chaplains almost since the formation of congress but even in those earliest years, not everyone agreed it was appropriate.  James Madison, for example, was concerned that appointing a congressional pastor cut too closely to the establishment of a state religion, or at least the demonstration of religious favoritism by the state, and as it turns out, Madison had a right to be worried. Of the 52 men who have served as chaplain to the House of Representatives, all of them have been Christian (and as an aside, all of them have been white men.)  When Billy Graham died, the media referred to him as America’s Pastor, but, as someone in our Book group pointed out, America is not a church so how can we call any person, no matter how well respected they might be, “America’s Pastor?”

Now, I’m not a constitutional scholar, even with the help of Wikipedia, and so I am not going to get into the legal arguments about whether or not Congress has the right to hire a chaplain, but questions about the relationship between church and state, between the authority of God and the authority of the government in the life of the believer, go back much farther than the founding of America.  Jesus himself was asked, “Should we pay taxes? What kind of allegiance do we owe to Caesar and how does it affect our allegiance to God?”  And Paul tackles those questions in chapter 13 of his letter to the Romans.

Last week, I said that though the outward world has changed significantly since the years of the first Christian church, the faith questions and problems those first Christians had are the same ones we deal with today.  The New Testament letters are full of references to issues that confound us as well and so for the next few weeks, I am going to be preaching a series I am calling, “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same.”  I’m going to look at some of the issues confronted by the early church to see how their thinking on those problems might inform our approach today, and I’m going to begin my series with that thorny dilemma of our allegiance to God versus our allegiance to the state.  Honestly, I had chosen my topic before the news broke about Father Conroy’s enforced resignation but the timing couldn’t have been better — at least for me if not for Father Conroy — because everything about the situation plays right into the issues I wanted to address today, and so at the end of my sermon we will come back to Chaplain-gate, but I want to start with that passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that has generated its own amount of controversy over the past 2000 years.

Paul writes, “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….For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good.” 

These words might be quite appealing if you are the King of England trying to quell a rebellion of serfs, but they are not so appealing if you are one of those serfs whose land has been taken by that king and you are sitting in his dungeon.  And it’s frankly hard to mesh these words of Paul’s with what we know about his life.  How could Paul write of the inherent goodness of the ruling authority when he himself had been flogged, beaten, enchained, and imprisoned by the very Roman officials he urged the church to obey?  And Paul’s experience was shared by hundreds, thousands of early Christians who died on the cross, or were torn apart by lions in the arena, or starved in prison cells during waves of persecution perpetrated by intolerant Roman emperors.  How can Paul claim that we should subject ourselves to the ruling authorities when he himself knew the feel of the lash on his back?

I’m tempted to think that he wrote these words because he was afraid that the letter might fall into the hands of the wrong people and he was covering his butt, but butt covering wasn’t really Paul’s way so I think we have to dig a little deeper to solve this seeming contradiction between Paul’s words and his own experience.  And the first place we need to look is to the audience he was addressing.  The churches in Rome were churches struggling to live at peace with one another.  Not only were they still trying to figure out this new faith and its relationship to their mother faith of Judaism, but they were also worshipping in the midst of a lot of political turmoil.  Just a few years before Paul wrote his letter, the Roman emperor had expelled all Jewish Christians from the city.  Eventually, they were allowed them to return but some of those exiles were still angry and they were joining with Jewish insurrectionists planning a revolt against the imperial government.  As we know, politics can be very divisive and just as churches today are trying to find a way to maintain community even as Democrats and Republicans sling mud at one another and protests and counter-protests erupt in our streets, so too the churches of Rome struggled to live peacefully with one another in the midst of their political chaos.  Imagine what would happen in this congregation if the political divisions became so strong that some members of our church began considering armed rebellion.  Imagine if during the announcement time, someone stood up and said, “We are members of God’s Kingdom and no longer subject to any earthly rule, so this afternoon at 3, join us in tearing down the Village Hall!  And then we will march on to Albany to set fire to the governor’s mansion!”

I’m guessing this would cause a little tension in the church, so its not hard to imagine the tension in those Roman congregations.  When Paul argues that governments are instituted by God for human good, he is arguing against the rebels and anarchy.  He is telling the people that just because we live under the rule of Christ doesn’t mean that we should no longer take part in the human institutions that help create a functioning society.  To tear down all authority and live as individuals subject only to the rule of what feels good for each of us at the moment is like living in the world of a toddler where the only interests that matter are the interests of the self.  Someone once described the property laws of a toddler as: 

1. If I like it, it’s mine. 

2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine. 

3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.

4. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine. 

5. If I saw it first, it’s mine. 

6. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it automatically becomes mine. 

7. If it’s broken, it’s yours.

Rampant individualism results in a world of toddlers, but Paul says that the mature Christian life operates on the opposite principles, on a world view grounded not in “mine” but in “ours.”  In his letter to the Romans, Paul prefaces this difficult chapter 13 with the beautiful words of chapter 12 in which he urges the Roman churches to “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another….  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  To read chapter 13 in the light of Paul’s preface in 12 is to hear in chapter 13 his reminder that God instituted the government for our common welfare and we must respect its authority over us as individuals in order to promote the cohesiveness and good of the community.  

Of course, respecting the need for government and submitting to its authority doesn’t preclude critiquing it or challenging it through peaceful means.  Paul wasn’t a docile Roman citizen who never rocked the boat: he was arrested numerous times, punished for his public preaching, imprisoned, and eventually put under house arrest in Rome where he presumably was executed.  He stood up for what he believed to be right but at the same time accepted the government’s right to punish him for breaking the laws of the Empire, and by doing so, used his life, and ultimately his death, as the greatest critique of those laws.  Martin Luther King, Jr. understood Paul thoroughly when he undertook his own campaign of civil disobedience to break the back of segregation.  King said this (which is a perfect summary of Paul’s argument in Romans 13), “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

The Christian is called to respect our need for laws and governing authorities as the means by which the common good is elevated over the self-centered needs of the individual.  The Christian is to understand that we are not individually the center of our universe but must sometimes sacrifice our own desires in order to promote the welfare of others, and that that happens in our social lives through governance.  We pay taxes in order to provide schooling for children who are not our own; we support clean air regulations in order to prevent asthma in the residents of cities far from where we live; and when someone is elected who we didn’t vote for, we don’t rise up in armed rebellion but respect the rule of law.  The role of the Christian is to recognize the importance of the welfare of the community over the self-interests of the individual and government is the way we have for instituting that.

But at the same time, we as Christians have the responsibility to critique that government and challenge unjust laws when the government fails in its duty to protect the common good.  We will stand in line with the prophets unafraid to point out the hypocrisy, corruption, and failures of our government and ruling authorities, and so try to move them ever closer to God’s vision of a society governed for the common good.

And so I come back finally to chaplain gate.  I’m with James Madison on his view that to hire a chaplain to provide pastoral duties to the Congress is a dangerous practice, but my concern is less for the constitution and more for the freedom of Christians to live up to their calling.  While the Christian must respect the rule of law and work against a rampant individualism that denies any common authority over us, at the same time the Christian cannot become so closely aligned with the state that we give up our ability to be its conscience.  If it is true that Paul Ryan asked for Conroy’s resignation because Conroy’s prayer calling for fairness in the tax code was deemed too political, what Ryan was in effect saying was that a chaplain may pray for the state but never challenge the state.  A chaplain may offer warm prayers of support for the ruling powers but never express support for those neglected by those powers.  A chaplain may act as a mouthpiece for the state’s position but never utter a prophetic word of conscience to urge the state toward a higher calling.  If a chaplain is stripped of his or – theoretically – her powers to critique the state, then they are no longer a true disciple but simply a ceremonial figurehead.  As mature disciples of Christ, Paul says, we must walk a difficult path between anarchy and the rule of self-interest on the one hand, and on the other, a government that has merged so completely with the church that there is no one left to hold it accountable.

We are called as Christians to be both the subjects of our governing bodies and also their conscience.  We are called both to challenge unjust laws and also to readily submit to the consequences of our challenge.  We are called to respect our ruling authorities while being unafraid to be honest about their failings and call them to greater concern for the common good.  
It was not an easy balance for the Christians of Rome and it is not an easy path for us today, but then, is there really anything about being a Christian that’s easy?