Sunday, February 03, 2008

Pacifism and Romans 13

I'm a pacifist. I think all Christians should be peaceful people = non-violent. I think being a disciple of Jesus means that we should not resort to violence to protect our material interests -- which means that Christians should not serve in the military or on police forces where they are obligated to take other human lives. Period.

There is more to the position than that, but that's pretty much as far as I get with some folks before they toss Romans 13 into the conversation as a rebuttal. After all, the claim goes, governments are all appointed by God to keep the peace. Therefore, our armed forces are just doing God's work, which means Christians obviously can and perhaps even SHOULD participate.

Here is the relevant part of Romans 13 (from the New Revised Standard Version, found on

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing.

7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Now, we can ask ourselves what this text actually does say, and then also what it does NOT say. First of all, historical context. The writer is Paul the Apostle, a Jewish Rabbi who has come to believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Both Paul and his readers (who are Christians in Rome) live in and under the authority of the Roman Empire. Nero was likely the emperor at the time -- not a big fan of Christians, to say the least. The Christians in Rome seem to be a group made up of Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Jesus.

Paul's theology of government seems to me based in the Jewish scriptures, particularly in the stories of the later history of the Jewish kingdoms (north and south) found in Kings and Chronicles and in the prophetic works that correspond to those events. To summarize, God is in charge of all of these kingdoms and/or governments. He moves them around like pieces on a chess board to accomplish his own purposes, of which humans are not necessarily aware.

Though there had been a short period of time, during the reign of King David, in which Israel had truly been a theocracy, this was not the norm. In fact, even during David's son's reign (Solomon), it seems clear that God was not being relied on for the security of the kingdom. Ask yourself this: how many wives and/or concubines did Solomon have? Answer: 1 Kings 11:3 -- "Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines." Wow! This guy had at least (!) 1k women at his disposal! "At least," because the text says "among his wives"! We don't know how many more there were, but the 1k women were "among" the total number! I'm impressed!

Now, as yourself this question: how many children did Solomon have?

Go ahead, ask. Search it out in Kings and Chronicles. I'm waiting. Ok, times' up. Answer: 1 (ONE, as in A WHOLE NUMBER THAT IS LESS THAN TWO AND MORE THAN ZERO). Yes, only one.

How in the world did that happen? Well, it seems to me there are a couple of possibilities. One, there was something physically wrong with the man. After all, that one son, Rehoboam, was advised to prove to the people that his little finger was thicker than his father's loins! But as Freud is purported to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar -- and a metaphor is just a metaphor.

A second possibility is that Solomon had more children that weren't mentioned in the text -- perhaps because Solomon had them killed. At least one of the "foreign gods" Solomon worshiped with his wives ("Molech": see 1 Kings 11 and 2 Kings 23:10) demanded child sacrifice. It could be that Solomon had had other children that he sacrificed. On the other hand, if that were the case, why wouldn't the text mention this in the process of listing Solomon's sins at the end of his life? It doesn't appear that the text is trying to put a positive spin on Solomon and sweep his sins out of sight under the rug (Chronicles is guilty of this, but not Kings).

The third possibility is this: Solomon was not a hedonist, and these marriages were all political alliances. The security of the nation under Solomon was not in the protection of God, but in the marriage-alliances Solomon had made with all the nations around them. Because of Solomon's marriage-alliances, he had also worshiped the gods of all of his wives, and he actually built shrines for them all. (Trivia question: how many temples did Solomon build? Answer: more than one, and perhaps as many as 1000 -- for each of the gods of each of his wives and concubines.) Because he worshiped all those other gods, the kingdom was split after his death and divided between his own son, Rehoboam, and a rival, Jeroboam. This was God's action.

Further, later in the story God actually turns against the Israelite kingdoms and brings the armies of foreign nations against them to defeat them. Pieces on the chessboard.

The point is that for Paul the Apostle, though there had been that brief moment in Israelite history in which God had ruled through David, that was long past and irrelevant to his own situation under the Romans. It hadn't worked out well anyway! And that Maccabean period? Well, again, it had ended badly, and besides that, Jesus had said things like "My kingdom is not of this world."

So, in Romans 13, Paul is affirming the truth that God is ultimately in charge, and that he uses world governments to keep relative peace in the world. Romans 13 is NOT a call for Christians to get involved! In fact, Christian involvement in the Roman government could not even be on Paul's radar screen (had he had one)! For Paul and the early Christians, God has put Rome in charge, and this is NOT an indication that God is on the side of the Roman gods, nor that the Roman government is in any sense "Christian." It is merely an indication that God is using the Romans as he has always used human governments, and Christians have nothing to fear so long as they avoid committing crimes.

On the other hand, we Christians do generally recognize that there is a time when we would be forced to invoke Peter's statement that
"We must obey God rather than any human authority." But here's how I sometimes hear this one used: Christians MUST be willing to kill on behalf of our government if the government says kill.

So, if someone had been drafted and sent to Viet Nam back in the 60s or 70s, that person would have been obligated to kill, and it would have been godly to do so.

But, by the same logic, Nazi soldiers in WWII were just "obeying God" because they were "obeying orders." Those in charge of the extermination camps tried to use the "Nuremberg Defense": "we were just obeying orders." It didn't work -- they were held to have been morally responsible. By that logic Iraqi soldiers are on God's side now, and American soldiers are fighting against God because we deposed a ruler who had been set up by God. Etc., etc. Oh -- and that "American Revolution"? Uh oh. Now we're in trouble. We opposed a government set up by God. Shoot. I hate it when that happens.

You see, in Paul's situation under the Roman Empire, his words are certainly true: in essence, Christians are to stay out of the way of what God is doing with the Empire and it's power. That's it. But our situation is different, and perhaps more complicated, since we do have some element of voice in our government. Paul and the early church didn't.

Final note: Paul says "give honor to whom honor is due." I wonder if that's a blanket statement for us always to honor those in power, or if it means we have to discern who is, actually, due "honor." Of course, this statement echoes Jesus' statement about giving "to Caesar that which is Caesar's." A quick note about that story: it's one of the really great jokes of the New Testament. Jesus is talking to a bunch of Jewish scholars who are trying to entrap him, and they get trapped in their own false logic. Any Jew worthy of that title should have known that God is creator and that it all really belongs to him. Jesus threw a feint -- a "false punch" -- by pointing to the face on the coin. They went for it, and Jesus walks away without a scratch. THAT'S FUNNY!

To summarize: I don't think anyone can legitimately use Romans 13 to justify Christian participation in any kind of killing. It simply says "God will do what God will do with governments, so stay out of their way." We must always remember that we live by a different standard than the world, and that sometimes "We must obey God rather than any human authority."


Justin Fletcher said...

So, this is why my paper isn't graded, for this whole pacifism thing. Well, my mom told me that societies don't last without being violent. I guess she never read Jesus. And since you like the NRSV check out John 18:36, slightly different reading, but makes a fairly big difference.

Pogue said...

That line of "Christian" thinking assumes that God is interested in our society's continuation. Perhaps our continuation is simply useful to God at this time. I hear a lot of rhetoric about preserving "our values and way of life," but none of it from the Lord. The gospel does not rely on economic or military might nor even on freedom. It was initially brought to a people who had none of these and it's still changing lives 2000 years later.

Justin, I don't know you but, "my mom told me...," that's just funny!

Sammie said...

I completely agree with this. I was wondering, though, do you believe in just war at all? Did we have the responsibility to oppose the nazis?

chip said...

Sammie -- while in theory there could be a "just war," in reality they don't occur. One of the classic elements of just war theory is that the war must be undertaken for truly altruistic purposes. That is, there can be no -- absolutely NO -- self interest or national interest. Now, just TRY selling such a war to congress or to the American people! In fact, all of the arguments I've seen for American participation in any conflict have explicitly included the element of national interests. We go to war because of our interests, never out of altruism. So, while one might imagine a situation that would meet all the just war criteria, in practice it never happens.

On the Nazis: I have to remind people frequently that there are more ways to intervene, oppose or generally "be involved" than violence. If we were continually as a nation acting justly, many situations would not result in violence. If we had treated the German people justly after WWI, for instance, perhaps Hitler never would have risen to power. If we hadn't divided up the Middle East in ways we thought would benefit Western nations, perhaps things would be better there. Ad infinitum. I'm not an expert on foreign policy or on military or political history, but conflicts never arise out of a vacuum. There is always a history that makes the conflict seem just or inevitable to one side because the other side acted unjustly.

Now, the real issue embedded in your question about the Nazis is this: who do you mean by "we"? The underlying assumption there is that "we" means "Americans," and that since we Christians are part of "America," and since our Christian freedom depends on our freedoms as Americans, we therefore have a stake in international conflicts and American national interests. As per Justin's and Pogue's posts: we American Christians think that we have to be violent or else we'll lose the "right" to worship. I know you didn't mean it that way, but I think it's a common mistake. As a Christian, I have to state that my primary community isn't the nation or state: it's the body of Christ. The body of Christ depends not on my or our ability for its preservation, but on God alone. What stake do Christians have in the nation? Well, though I like my life-style, do I think its continuation is worth killing Iraqis? Afghans? Worth the sacrificing of American lives? No, no, and no. Heb 10:34 - "For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting." "National interests" are always tied up with "preserving our way of life," which is, essentially, economic: we like our goodies and will do whatever it takes to keep them, even if it means killing Iraqi babies (obviously not as bad as aborting AMERICAN babies!) or adults or whoever would threaten our way of life.

So, I want to say that taking away my goodies or my "right to worship" will absolutely NOT stop me from worshiping. Period.

BTW: a really great book that elaborates on some of these issues is by John Howard Yoder, What Would You Do?" It's back in print again, and pretty inexpensive. Highly recommended.

Big Josh said...

Chip, I agree with much of what you said. My thoughts about war, the death penalty, etc have changed a lot since the U.S. has been at war in Iraq.

Although I don't believe in engaging in violence as one on the offense so to speak, I am torn when it comes to defensive actions. For instance, how far would you go to protect your family if, let's say, an armed burglar broke in late at night while everyone was sleeping, but you were awake? I think most of us would either (1) Find a weopon an take'em out in some physical way ourselves, (2) Run for it, (3) Call the police(whom, from your perspective, we, as Christians, really don't want to be part of) or (4) a combonation of the 1 thru 3.

I guess I am not too sold on the notion that Christians should not serve on police forces and such, when any one of us would use their services in a heartbeat in an emergency. I mean, what would it be like if their were no police or what would our country be like if their were no armed forces? If I completely took on your perspective, it seems I'd have to appreciate the work of Satan so I can continue utilizing these services.

Lastly, I don't totally buy into complete seperation from gov't authorities, because I think a lot of Christians get into them to help protect people. And although they know they might have to use violence at some point in their job, they would only do so as a last resort. Their objective is to help people, with no discrimination (again, some people are like this). It just doesn't seem right to me, then, to say, "hey thanks for your help. If you weren't available, things might have gotten pretty ugly for me. But, now that I've gotten what I need from you....please let me alone because you don't represent Christianity well. (Whispering) but rest assured, if I find myself in a situation like this again, I'll call on you."

I don't know if that makes sense, but I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts. Good thought provoking entry. Keep'em coming.

chip said...

Josh -- those are great questions. I know I told you I'd try to respond to them this weekend, but it's not going to happen. I have homework. However, all or at least most of them are addressed in the book I mentioned by John Howard Yoder. I need to read that book again, too -- maybe a few of us can read it together over the next few weeks. It's only about 100 pages, so no big deal. Waddya say?

Ty said...

First, the "Nazi" question becomes a different question in each time for which and for each person for whom it is considered. It is unfair to declare a single answer without acknowledging and addressing the changed situations each of these represents.

Certainly, if the responsible party is a WWI leader of allies, he should handle the post WWI affairs differently; if he is part of the German public he or she should hide targets of the government etc. All actions depend on the point at which the individual's sphere of responsibility intersects the spiral of violence. What I am uncomfortable declaring is that there is no point of intersection where violence is the only conscionable course of action.

Now, on to the topic: I hesitated to comment at first because I feel like I am on the brink of hubris commenting on something when I cannot completely define my own beliefs. I suppose that I should also say that I've seen theologians of great ability on both sides of this issue find hole after hole in any argument brought by the opposition.

I have run the entire range of opinions over the years: I felt responsible (compelled) to use violence, within the bounds of a strict code of honor (for protection of others and for defense in extreme circumstances), in early middle school, where I often violently opposed people who were physically dominating the helpless.

I went to using only the force necessary to restrain violent individuals in my later middle school years.

In high school, I took personal responsibility for breaking the cycle of violence and braving the burden of the consequences to myself, but when those consequences appeared as if they might fall on others, I felt it worth risking the part of myself destroyed by my own violence to defend them with minimal force.

In college, I wavered between different versions of pacifistic thought, from support only of personal pacifism (but governmental violence) to complete withdrawal from any governmental participation (beyond what Caesar required) and I faced the blows of a much larger man with my hands at my sides (those blows never came, by the way, because a bigger man stepped protectively behind me).

Currently, though I want to lean toward Lipscomb (or Yoder), I have come only to a few general principles that I can back with confidence:

1. Jesus calls for pacifism, turning the other cheek, but does not tell us exactly how to respond when others are victimized. He does not raise a hand against his killers; he has a sword taken to his arrest, but disapproves of its use; he takes a whip and drives those who are selling (and blocking the gentiles from their place) in the temple out --I've heard people say that his violence was directed only at the animals, evidence for which I find poor; even were it so, the scene is certainly one of violence).

2. A person can decide what their position will be on this issue, but I cannot decide for others. I spent more than half my life working on this problem, and I have spent the last dozen years devoting most of my time to learning about God and myself, first in classes and later through my own research; so, how can I expect the average person to have a perfect answer?

3. I may not believe that it is right for me to defend others when the nature of the emergency will allow no answer but acting in violence or watching others suffer when I could stop it, I may even believe that it hurts a person to do violence, even to protect others, I may even believe that one puts one's soul in jeopardy by such actions . . .

. . . but I also believe that risking one's very soul to protect another is a noble thing; furthermore, it fits the description of what Jesus did given in Philippians 2:30.

So, whether or not I can act in violence to protect others (and I'm not absolutely sure) I can respect the risk that others are taking in that respect.