In Acts 23:1-11, we see Paul in dispute with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. The Roman officer who has intervened because Paul was in danger of being lynched by the crowds is still no further forward in discerning the root of the dispute between him and the Jews, and so he brings Paul before the Sanhedrin to try to understand something of the issues which have so aroused the ire of the Jews. At the start of this section, we see a dispute between Paul and the high priest Ananias in which tempers seem to run high (Acts 23:1-5); we see also something of the difficulties between respect for God-given structures and what happens if officers do not, by their actions, uphold God’s ways. Paul calls him a ‘whitewashed wall’ (see also Matt 23:27-28, Ezek 13:10-12), and although when rebuked for speaking against the high priest he does apologise, upholding the office, it is clear that his words carry something of a prophetic denouncement which is at the heart of political theology.
Political theology is a term which has been used in discussion of the ways in which theological concepts or ways of thinking relate to politics. The term political theology is often used to denote religious thought about political principled questions. Tom Wright says of Paul that he ‘manages to hold together two things which people often find difficult. On the one hand, he certainly will respect the office. Without that, chaos is come again. That is the long and the short of his famous passage in Romans 13:1-7. God wants the world to be governed, because he wants people to live in peace and justice, and if you don’t have structures of justice, then the bullies, the extortioners and the rest will always win. The problem of course, is when those structures become structures of injustice, but the present passage meets the question head on. The fact that you must respect the structures does not rule out, but rather actually includes, the duty to remind the people currently operating the structures what it is that they ought to be doing, and for that matter not doing.’ (Tom Wright, ‘Acts For Everyone Pt2’, (P 168)
This is always a topical question. In our current situation, politicians are legislating on matters to protect people during a pandemic, but there are always situations when we may feel they have overstepped the mark and are intervening in matters beyond their remit, limiting our freedoms in ways that are not helpful and may in actual fact be more harmful than the situation itself. Opposition to government measures has been excoriated; anyone who questions whether lockdowns are the most effective way of dealing with the present situation, for example, has been on the receiving end of fierce abuse. Paul shows us in this passage that we cannot live an a-political life; theology and politics will inevitably come into conflict with each other, and we need to be prepared to speak out against injustice and wrong, allowing our beliefs to inform our politics rather than simply allowing politics to dictate what we believe and how we act.