If you haven’t seen the picture of Manu Tuilagi giving ‘bunny ears’ to David Cameron you’re not spending enough time online. Was it a puerile gesture? Certainly. But it was pretty hilarious too, in my humble opinion.
For all their frivolity, Tuilagi’s bunny ears set me thinking about political authority. Should Christians submit themselves wholly to political authorities? St Paul seems to suggest that we should: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due’ (Rom 13:1-7). No bunny ears from St Paul, then.
It’s true that the earliest Christians were keen to emphasise the fact that they could be good citizens, despite what their pagan neighbours said about them. So respect and honour for legitimate authorities was important. And yet… these disciples refused to burn incense in worship of the emperor. Such honour was required by imperial authority, yet Christians refused. In fact, the earliest Christian creed seems to have been ‘Jesus is Lord’ (cf. Phil 2:11), a reworking of the formula for imperial worship, ‘Caesar is Lord’. There were limits, then, to the respect Christians would pay the state.
Much later, after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, this question remained alive. In the pagan Roman Empire, religion and state were hardly distinguishable: success in conquest was thanks to appropriate piety, and the gods themselves were the founders and keepers of Rome. Christianity didn’t fit comfortably into this relationship with the state though, above all because Christ’s teachings are profoundly eschatological: that is, they point us towards the end times when all human authority will dissolve before the kingship of God (cf. Rev 4:10).
In this context, and against the background of a disintegrating Roman Empire, St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Roman Africa, wrote his great work in political theology, The City of God. It’s a huge work, but his basic insight is that temporal authorities are neither essentially good nor bad, but are always temporary, provisional. There’s nothing wrong with political stability, but we should never expect a Utopia on earth – our real, lasting home is not in ‘the city of man’ but in the heavenly Jerusalem, ‘the city of God’. This heavenly city ‘calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in manners, laws, and institutions’.
From St Augustine’s perspective, then, our political institutions are valuable so far as they go, but they are always provisional and relative to divine authority, from which springs lasting peace and justice. Manu Tuilagi might be on to something, then. Christians should respect political leaders, certainly, but they should always be ready to imagine a cheeky cherub ‘doing a Tuilagi’.