The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Peace or Revolution?

How do you have a revolution when you are trying to appease the throne?

by Russell Rathbun

Epistle Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7

For Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010: Year C - Ordinary 25

P.O.S. is one of my favorite musician/songwriters. He’s an indie hip-hop artist from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul whose real name is Stefon Alexander, and he writes some of the most brilliant cultural, political critical lyrics since Joe Strummer or Bob Dylan. I’m serious. He has this song that starts out with, First of all . . . (and then there is a pause) . . . [Screw] Bush.

First of All…

I know it’s juvenile, but it always gives me a rush of adrenaline every time I hear it. What can I say? It was deep in the morass of the second Bush administration when it came out, and it seemed like the whole world was completely going off the rails. It was like this speaking truth to power, prophetic acknowledgment that the King had abandoned the people.

Of course, I am not seventeen, and it’s always more complicated than that, but every time I hear the phrase, “first of all,” I can’t help smiling and finishing the P.O.S. line in my head. So, when I read the epistle for this week, which starts out, “First of all…” I fill in the blank.

But that is not what St. Paul goes on to say. He says, First of all . . . then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. If you are hoping for prophetic, punk rock, gospel of Jesus Christ revolution, it’s kind of a disappointment.


What happened to, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword”? Supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanks giving for the Kings and all who are in high positions, so we can lead a quiet, peaceable life in godliness and dignity”? Really?

Quiet, peaceable, dignity—that doesn’t really sound like the way our Savior went out. What peace and dignity was there in the cross? It was torture and humiliation. How did Paul travel so far in so little time—he needs to go back to Minneapolis. It seems like Paul is trying to convince the powers that he is on their side. He says he was appointed a herald (a court-appointed crier) and an apostle.

Then he writes, “I am telling the truth, I am not lying.” Like, he knows this is hard to swallow, “I am a teacher of the Gentiles,” he says, “I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument.” He wants the Empire to know that he and his Christians have no argument with them.

The Hardest Question

How do you have a revolution when you are trying to appease the throne?

Russell RathbunRussell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Dan M. says:

    For me, the questions posed by this epistle are not as hard as others I’ve seen. I see where you are coming from, and I’ve know a lot of folks from their. It’s interesting that you mention Dylan, because he one of his contemporaries, Lennon, tend to offer some insight into this epistle.

    First of all, I’d like to point out that one of the wonders of scripture to me is its paradoxical nature. A physicist by training, I am fairly familiar with how the paradoxes of modern physics have lead to deeper, better theories. With physics, it’s fairly easy to tell the better theory: it’s a better model of the data, so I can be very confident in stating that quantum electrodynamics is a better theory of physics than classical electrodynamics.

    Given that, I am not troubled by the literal contradiction between the author of Timothy and Matthew’s writings. For, in the sayings and actions of Jesus himself as reported by the gospels, you see such a surface contradiction: he brings a sword, and tells his disciples to put away their swords and not defend him; he says turn the other cheek and goes after the moneychangers with a whip. When I see such writings, I am reminded of Calvin’s rejoinder that “God speaks to us as nurse lisps to a child.” How can scripture not be paradoxical if it points to Truth beyond human words? The question “how can a single particle go through two slits and interfere with itself” is a very easily solved paradox in comparison.

    But, we like to put God in a box. And here’s where I get back to Dylan. Folks liked to put him in a box: the voice of his generation…a protest song writer. He hated the box; it was someone else’s box and not his.

    Indeed, his times show the fallacies of human boxes. In Scorsese’s film on Dylan, one of the old folkies talked about how politically naive Dylan was for he didn’t realize that the US government was fascist, communism was for the people etc. I grew up in the ‘60s and remember Mao being held up as a heroic figure. The stories of millions of deaths under him were lies told by the US government.

    The reality was, really, quite more complex than that. The US both blacklisted people, one of my older friends lost his job to McCarthyism in the ‘50s as a congressional aid because he fought in the Abraham Lincoln brigade in the Spanish civil war. But, communism governments committed genocide in the tens of millions against their own people…something the lefties I knew from the time couldn’t fit in their box.

    So, back to the two sayings…we know, previous to this time, Jews had special rights in the Roman Empire because they belonged to an old religion…and old was respected. They did not have to worship idols or the emperor. Christians, as a Jewish sect, had some of those same rights…for a while.

    You can see Paul, in his own writings and well as his followers in Timothy, trying to bring the indwelling of the kingdom by working within the Roman empire, not by a revolution. Since the Kingdom of God is not an earthly kingdom, they could, accept earthly rulers as having earthly authority from God: “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, give onto God what is God’s. He had scripture to rely on, with Cyrus clearly referred to as Messiah.

    And, finally, we have to remember that Rome was invited into Israel. The civil war there killed far more than the Romans….at least until the final revolt. So, a hope for a Persian style situation was not against the spirit of Jesus.

    We know now that this was not to be. Christians were reviled by Jews and tortured for sport by the Roman government. But, how is a pastor trying to protect his flock against Jesus?

    With all due respect, I think we fall into traps when we get excited about the wrongdoings of others. We start making boxes that Jesus won’t fit into. If we keep in our box, we start putting up walls to separate ourselves from our sisters and brothers.

    So, my thought is to accept the paradoxes and to preach out of it. Me, I’m lucky, all I have to deal with is the paradox of the wave-particle duality. Good Luck.

  2. First of all, Dan, I like the way you read. I like the depth and the current and historical cultural insight. It is always easier to get excited about the revolution than to realize Jesus wasn’t really involved in the political conflicts of the kingdom of the world, but was about the kingdom of God, where maybe the Roman leadership didn’t look that different from the religious leadership of Jerusalem–or the US. The Kingdom of God doesn’t confront power with power, but with grace. A particle and a wave? Both Really? At the same time?

  3. Dan M. says:

    Thanks for your kind words. To quickly answer your question: no, its not really a wave and a particle both at the same time. What it really is was well explained in the book Quantum Mechanics by Paul Diric, written about 80 years ago. It took 2 semesters of grad school to go through this fairly short book.

    But, in common sense every day terms (and in the view of classical physics before 1927 or so) that’s what it looked like. The paradox pointed to a deeper understanding that transcended wave and particle. That deeper understanding is what Dirac wrote about.

    I actually use it as an example in the bible study I teach at the church where my wife is pastor, when discussing the mysteries of our faith, like the incarnation, the Trinity, and our salvation by grace. Quantum mechanics is relatively easy; human beings can understand it. After 30 years as an experimental physicist; I can understand it at a gut level.

    But, I cannot really understand the incarnation, the Trinity, and grace. It is beyond me. So, I treasure the paradoxes of faith, because I know, from my work, how paradoxes point to something deeper.

    It’s a fairly typical means of understanding, one first works to understand the lesser, and then moves on to the greater. The resolution of the paradoxes of physics are for me, a metaphore of how the paradoxes of faith point to the transcendent Truth. My understanding will always be less than a grain of sand on the shore; but I am called to seek greater understanding always. I think I am so called becasue in the seeking understanding of the one who has been, is now, and will be my salvation, I am deepening my relationship with God.

    If you are really interested in the physics, email me (it’s not published but I’m sure you can see it as moderator) and I’ll email you some stuff I wrote on it.

  4. Rodya says:

    This is an interesting way to obey 1 Peter 2.17.

How do you read?