“Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing…” –Romans 13:3-4
The car swerved right toward me as if to bounce up over the curb and dash me to the sidewalk. It was a police cruiser full of uniformed cops, moving quickly with its flashers sending splashes of red and blue light all around. It skidded to a stop just before it would have hit the curb. The bumper was three feet away from my knees.
I still wonder how I remained so calm. Of course, I knew I had done nothing wrong. I was just taking a stroll up to the corner store for a late-night snack. It was fall in Anchorage. The crisp chill in the air announced the impending arrival of Jack Frost. I stopped walking and just waited for the police to see to their business.
The cop riding shotgun jumped out and walked quickly up to me. “Do you have some ID?” he asked me. I think my calmness had put him somewhat at ease.
“Sure,” I said, reaching into my back pocket. The cop didn’t so much as unclasp his sidearm. I handed him my driver’s license.
The cop read the information on the license and looked up at me.
“Where do you live?”
“Right there.” I pointed at the building directly behind me. I had just stepped out of my driveway.
The cop looked at the front of the building, no doubt checking to see if the address on the house matched the one on my license. It did.
Then it was over. The cop handed back my license and said, “Thank you.” His tone was one he might have used as he was handed a hot dog at the fair. There was a modicum of respect and gratitude in his voice; gratitude because he had been spared the usual wrestling with uncooperative people and respect because I had been perfectly calm, knowing quite well that whatever circumstances had led these cops to barrel at me like they did had absolutely nothing to do with me. There hadn’t been any drama because none had been called for.
As I thought about the event later, I reflected that, as I so often discover, there are bits of truth in Scripture that remain partly cloaked until just the right situations bring them out in living color. In my case, one such Scripture was Romans 13: 3—“Rulers hold no terror for those who do right but for those who do wrong.”
When I was young, I was traumatized by fraudulent authority figures so often and so egregiously that I turned against authority. I’m not talking about garden variety rebellion here, but the kind of recalcitrant contempt and mistrust that could compel a person to disobey even if he was told something sensible such as, “Don’t shake the nitroglycerine.” My rebellion was unjustified, to be sure, but in my mind authority possessed power it neither merited nor used honorably. I imagined that all authority was assigned arbitrarily, even randomly; hence, I owed it no deference. Moreover, I felt that my obedience was a moot point anyway; the possessor of the sword, being without honor or truth, would carve me up whether I obeyed him or not.
It took me many years to sort out the profound distortions from my youth. First, I had to learn that obedience did, indeed, lessen the likelihood of coming under the sword. Second, I needed the time and opportunity to discover that there wasn’t always malice or indifference behind the misuse of authority, and that many authority figures were honorable and kind.
One such enlightening occasion came about many years ago. One evening, as I was driving my van home from work, the engine stalled right in the middle of the road. There was a police officer directly behind me. When I stalled, he stopped, came up to my window and told me to steer while he pushed me out of the road. He was obviously a nice person who happened to wear a badge, and when he had gotten me off the road he just went on his way. He displayed no eagerness to uncover some punishable transgression on my part. He didn’t even ask to see my identification, which was handy for me since, at this point in my life, I didn’t always keep up with pesky details like vehicle registration and such. But this officer had merely stopped to help and gone on his way.
I had to go through the painstaking process of forgiving the errant authority figures from my past (foremost, my parents). As I did this, I became aware that their mistakes, so traumatic to me at the time, were just that—mistakes—made during their own times of weakness, confusion and difficulty. By the time this process began yielding results, I had enough years under my belt to see how easy it is to err in ways that cause others pain. I realized that my parents had always loved me and had meant me no harm.
Authority isn’t perfect. At times, the whole system looks like a collection of stuffed shirts and kangaroo courts. But I firmly believe that much more harm is done by those who rebel against established authority than is done by the authorities themselves. And no matter my own understanding of it all, God has indeed instituted every authority on earth. So if I take matters into my own hands, I’m not only hurting innocent bystanders, I’m bringing calamity upon myself. The policeman is backed up by his fellow officers, who are in turn backed up by sargeants, lieutenants, captains and the chief, who himself is backed up by the mayor, the governor, Congress, and finally the President. As the ranks become greater, the increasingly important people have increasingly larger forces at their disposal, each with a greater assortment of avenues and devices to bring against rogues. Then, at last, we come to God, who is over all. If you doubt that, try to think of examples of those who have flouted authority and gotten away scot-free. You may think of one or two, but they are bound to be the exception. Virtually everyone who violates laws will eventually run into the brick wall of authority.
This encounter with authority occurs at the global level as well. Look at the rise and fall of nations and empires. We see a repeating pattern of corruption and renewal, a rotation of power and wealth. As successions of global juggernauts become corrupt and abuse their power, God continually takes the mantle of privilege from them and gives it to those next in line, which He states clearly He does and will do. Authority is inexorable, rising through its ascending layers on the uplifted swords of soldiers and armies until the buck stops with God, who told us plainly not to challenge all these insistent people to begin with.
I’m so glad I have a friendly relationship with them now.