Responding to Our Unjust "Powers-That-Be"! (A BridgeBox Devotional)

*Dozens and dozens of men, women, and children marched up and down the street holding signs and chanting slogans like "Uptown for everyone" and "Housing is a human right, not just for the rich and white!"

Our alderman, the elected official who presides over our part of town, had caused a ruckus again. He was in the process of preventing a Salvation Army truck from coming into our area to provide food and other vital services to those most vulnerable. Even though they, (our friends in the Salvation Army), had been serving our community for years, the alderman felt they weren't worthy and it was necessary to push them out. He was actually succeeding in doing just that, until many in the community rallied together, marched in front of his office and changed the outcome.

This, of course, presents an important question: what does it mean to live out the Biblical mandate to respect the people in charge, when you need to directly oppose them?

I work with and live amongst those experiencing homelessness. Many of my friends - and clients - have severe mental illnesses, criminal histories, crippling addictions and awful health problems. So every day, I see the devastating affects those in power have on the most vulnerable members of our society! I have seen - first hand - how the decisions of those in authority can literally kill and maim the weak and suffering. And, I have seen how profit often influences those in charge, leaving those at the bottom suffering even more greatly!

This is not a theoretical exercise for me. It’s life and death for the people I love and admire.

So, when our alderman waged war against my poverty-stricken friends, guilty only of lining up outside for some soup, I didn’t view it as politics. I saw it as another attack on those living on the margins.

Experience has shown that he seeks out - and continues to find - ways to crush and degrade those at the bottom, all the while justifying his deeds with political jargon and (in my view) outright lies. Within his short tenure, I've witnessed him use his authority to promote an agenda that favors the rich while causing the poor to suffer. A few quick examples: He pushed to take down basketball rims that provide economically-disadvantaged youth with some positive recreation. He used his power to find loop-holes to shut down a shelter for homeless seniors. He is on a constant quest to sell low-income housing to high-end condo developers. He worked to strip funding from an HIV- prevention organization. And, he constantly pushes to displace and scatter those living in tents, thus making the lives of those at the bottom even harder!

As I said, these are just a few quick examples.

By using his power and influence on others in power (law enforcement, developers, and wealthy neighbors), he has succeeded in a number of these plans. Not all of them, mind you, but a large enough portion to cause serious damage to the people I work with. And that leads to the addition of insult to injury.

You see, what truly tempts me to anger is that he does all this while grinning and telling the press that these moves and developments are great for the poor; that they’re definitely on their way to a brighter tomorrow!!

Give me a break!

So, all this makes me angry. And now I need God’s wisdom on what to do.

As you can see, his moves are repulsive to me. And this causes me to ask questions of how I should respond - how I *need* to respond - to this man who has authority, and yet causes people I love and care for to suffer.

We all live in a world where other human beings have power over us, affect people we care about and therefore challenge the way we should respond and live. While all leaders get things wrong, some are obviously a lot more corrupt than others and abuse the power that's been granted them.

But, I am also challenged to examine myself, as I also have authority over others, and these questions cause me to analyze how I conduct myself. I personally wrestle with this reality, because I know how swayed I can easily become and how unworthy I am for the positions I hold. I also know how corrupt we can all be, so I often wonder how any human being can or should have power over another human being. To me, it doesn't make sense. But, if we're honest with ourselves, we all, whether we like it or not, whether we strive for it or not, we all have varying degrees of authority over others, while being under the authority of others also. It’s a strange-but-true reality that needs to be taken seriously!

In light of all this and looking at the abuse of power in my neighborhood, I find myself asking these questions over and over: How do I respond as a follower and disciple of Jesus? How do I respond to all the authority figures in my life? What can I learn from Jesus when he was faced with unjust, power-hungry and money-seeking leaders who caused havoc and greater turmoil to the weak and suffering people he encountered in his day? How can I be more like Jesus in this area?

Jesus brought the Kingdom of God to earth, and while He brought His love for all, He subversively challenged the religious, political and financial leaders who constantly trampled and bullied those He came to save. The abuse of power angered Him. He hated to see those who were weak and poor exploited - He wanted His followers to lift them up! By bringing His Kingdom of Love and compassion to this broken world, by bringing a Kingdom where the "first is last and the last is first", by proclaiming that He came to "bring good news to the poor, set the captives free and recovery of sight to the blind", Jesus lived a life where He challenged those in charge in four ways, and His example should cause us to imitate Him in how we should respect and respond to the authority figures in our lives.

Firstly, Jesus never swayed from His mission and purpose. He knew who He was, what He needed to do, and He lived it out all His days! Jesus proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NIV)

By bringing God's Kingdom to earth and showering "marginalized and insignificant" people with His compassion and mercy, Jesus stirred up the authorities. He actually tried to steer clear of their attention, but by healing people on the Sabbath, eating with "questionable" folk and by giving His attention to those society rejects, Jesus subversively challenged their authority. He was simply loving His neighbors and living out those words from Isaiah He proclaimed as His purpose, and this caused outrage among those who had power.

Our primary challenge is to keep doing what Jesus calls us to do, despite what those in charge say. When Jesus was told He couldn't heal on the Sabbath, He still healed on the Sabbath. (They were not going to stop Him.) In my neighborhood, it's imperative to keep feeding, housing and visiting those who are experiencing homelessness. Despite our alderman's opposition and his plans to gentrify, it doesn't stop many of us from venturing out under the viaducts and into the shelters to bring tents, food, socks, and housing to those living there. Our efforts to love our neighbors as Jesus calls us too, will always stir things up, (at least in part), because such love often impedes the desires of the rich and powerful for money and control.

And, of course, the living out of love brings to light what they don't want to see: inequality, preventable suffering, and inexcusable neglect.

Love - bringing God's Kingdom into our neighborhoods and living out our God-given purpose - is what we're all called to do. When we do this, leaders and authorities may well rise against us. Yet, despite them, we need to keep on doing it anyway.

Secondly, there will be times when we need to confront the authorities. Jesus didn't just quietly coast around the countryside healing those suffering. He also spoke up to and against the authorities about their abuse of power and how they preyed on the weak. In the scriptures, we see Jesus do this both subtly through parables, and also openly through direct confrontation.

Jesus overturned the tables and chased out the merchants when He saw they'd made His Father's Temple a "den of thieves”. In Matthew 23, He harshly rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees with some intense language, calling them hypocrites and "white washed tombs” (an incredible insult in the context of the culture). Further, he also told parables like the "Pharisee and Tax Collector", demonstrating how God honors the humility of the despised tax-collector, not the self-righteous authority figure.

Jesus let His followers know that those who enter His Kingdom don't come via violence, riches, or power-hungry motives. Instead, they must enter by becoming a child.

To be clear, this isn't an encouragement to walk into any political or religious leader's office and scream profanities at them. When Jesus verbally challenged these leaders, He was responding to their abuse of power, their arrogance, their violent tactics and how they were impeding God's movement. When these same leaders brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus, he saw the inequality and double standards. He was fully aware that the leaders were violent bullies, set on taking advantage of the weak. So, he quietly pointed out their hypocrisy and called for change. His rebukes - even at their harshest - were never merely insults. No, they were a call for change, a plea for repentance and a return to God and His way!

In my neighborhood, I regularly see violent inconsistencies and gross inequality from those in charge. And there are times when we simply must stand up and raise our voices for those without a voice. Our actions are significant, but our voices need to be heard, too. And that's why a few years ago - and we continue to when the time is needed - we surrounded the alderman’s office and let him know everyone in our neighborhood is important.

I believe Jesus calls us to represent him here on earth by responding to inequality just as he did to the bullies who wanted to stone the helpless woman caught in adultery.

Thirdly, there are times for silence to do the talking!

During Jesus' final hours, as they taunted and questioned Him, Jesus remained quiet. When the authorities arrested Jesus and treated Him like a “dangerous threat to society”, he chose compassion by healing one of the arresting officer's ears. He had ultimate power at his beck and call, of course. He could have unleashed violent wrath on his oppressors, He could have ranted and raved, but he didn’t. He chose humility, meekness, and weakness. And he did this to show us all that God is really the One in charge!

His silence and His gentleness were Jesus saying, "The only authority you have is allowed by the One who is over all." His silence reminded them of their ultimate lack of power, that God will do what He chooses and allows. Jesus’ silence before some of the most powerful men of His day was a powerful statement; it let them know that in His Kingdom, "The first shall be last, and the last first."

They wanted noise - a fundamental admission on the part of the unfortunate captive that these powerful people were in control - but Jesus chose silence. Jesus knew that he was fulfilling a mission and they were all in God's hands!

In the same way, leaders and authorities will often insist that we dance to their tune. They may attempt to cajole and manipulate us to satisfy their whims. Yet, in those moments, silence and continuing to live our lives God's way makes clear - to them and to us - that they have no ultimate power over us. Silence, when they're calling for noise, shows them that God is the One with power and that we pledge our allegiance to Him and Him only.

Live out the gospel, and it will be noticed. And when authorities figures notice, and it runs contrary to their agenda, they will try and assert their power over us. That is the time for silent, active protest. When they tell us to stop feeding hungry people, we keep on doing it. When they tell us to stop giving people tents to sleep in, we keep on doing it. When they tell us to stop housing homeless folk in frigid temperatures…there is no discussion, we keep on doing it because God's call on our lives has our allegiance, not their selfish threats.

Finally, when dealing with imperfect authorities, pray!

Jesus always prayed. He prayed for strength. He prayed to stay on His path. He prayed for the authority figures. He prayed for wisdom. He prayed that God would, "forgive them, for they know not what they do!"

These prayers weren't casual, meaningless ramblings. Jesus knew that dealing with earthly leaders is not easy. He sweated drops of blood in His prayer just before the authorities came to arrest Him. He knew how unjust they could be then, and He still knows today. And this gives us hope when we have to deal with imperfect, power-hungry leaders in our own lives!

Jesus knows how bad it can get. That, at times, some authorities abuse their power, manipulate, lie, use unnecessary violence, pledge allegiance to money, and look out for their own interests. He knows that the poor, the weak and those who don't fit "the mold" are often trodden on and abused by those in charge. He knows, because the authorities in His day did all this to Him and more, and He ended up as an innocent victim of capital punishment!

He knows, he understands, and he is with you always, even to the very end of the age.

As you seek to live out God's Kingdom in your neighborhood, pray for wisdom and strength. Ask the One who suffered and died under unjust authorities. Jesus understands; He had it worse than us, had every opportunity to unleash vengeance on His oppressors and turn from His mission, but He didn't. Jesus is with us, knowing our pain. He is with us, guiding and strengthening us to persevere along the path we're traveling. He is with us, giving us peace, despite the turmoil we may endure. Trust in Him, He is with us!

*The reason I wrote this piece: My friend Jed Brewer from The Bridge Chicago asked me to write a devotional for an online Church service he helps facilitate. He knows the battles many of us face living in Uptown because of our services, support and compassion to those who are poor and marginalized, he also knows the struggles and relentless harassment people experiencing homelessness face in Uptown, and that's why he asked me to write this devotional. 
This piece was written in response to this month's BridgeBox question: "how do I respect imperfect authorities?" These are my thoughts from a biblical perspective....
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