The New Testament and Violence: Pt 2 (Paul & State Violence)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Last time, I began discussing violence in the New Testament. In particular, I am initially focusing on human violence done in the name of God (I’ll get to the question of God’s violence later, I promise). It’s critical to begin here if we want to read the Bible morally. A person saying that a hurricane or cancer was caused by God is one thing, but a person killing others for God is quite another. So we need to begin by focusing on what we do in the name of God, justice, and the good—especially when those “good” actions cause profound hurt to others.

The focus of violence in the Bible is often placed on the Old Testament, which is certainly understandable since this is where we find things like divine commands to commit genocide. Even those who defend the violence there commonly make the claim that these were commands specifically for the Israelites at the time and that for Christians today this would be completely out of the question. The New Testament clearly teaches us not to retaliate violently, but to “leave room for God’s wrath” so the problem of people killing in the name of God is really just an academic question, a thing of the past, perhaps part of another “dispensation” and Christians today don’t kill in God’s name. So we're good, right?
Problem solved.

Not so fast. If that were the end of the story and all Christians really did universally stop killing, then we really could all pat each other on the back and say a hearty “well done” for bringing about world peace. But the reality is that the same Christians who defend genocide in the OT are often the exact same people who loudly and actively advocate for state violence in the form of drone strikes, torture, and the death penalty today, and insist that this violence has God’s mandate in scripture.

That means we are right back where we started with the faithful killing, and claiming that this is God’s will. That’s why we have evangelicals advocating for the use of torture in Guantanamo, and doing so appealing to the Bible. In fact, if you watch the news it’s hard not to notice that every time state violence comes into question, conservative Christians will rise up like clockwork and endorse it, citing Bible verses as they do. 

So the problem of humans killing in God’s name is not just something from the past that is out of the question for Christians today, it is something that many conservative Christians vocally and actively endorse today, and do so appealing to scripture.

With sobering reality in mind this time around I’d like to focus on one of the major NT proof-texts used to justify human violence in God’s name, and in particular state violence: Romans 13. Paul writes there,

“The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. … For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Ro 13:1-4)

This text has been taken as an endorsement of state violence as instituted by God. Consequently, while Christians cannot retaliate in personal affairs, a Christian who is part of the government can kill in God’s name. Drone strikes, torture, death penalty—Christians can do all of that in the name of God. That’s how the logic goes, based on this reading of Paul. But is that really what Paul intended?

Let’s consider the context in which Paul wrote Romans: This was under the reign of Nero who was one of the most brutal of Roman Emperors. Nero is famous for using Christians as human torches at a party. So the context is one of Paul writing to a persecuted minority, living under a totalitarian regime with a sadistic madman at the helm. When the book of Revelation speaks of the “antichrist” it is referring to Nero.

Paul is not writing to citizens in an elected democracy with freedom of religion, telling them to obey the laws of their “Christian” nation. He is writing to a voiceless and persecuted minority. To get more specific, the immediate context of Paul’s statements in Romans 13 is a developing tax revolt that was taking place at the time. Notice that Paul concludes all of this by saying “This is therefore why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants... Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue...” (Ro 13:6-7). Note, too Paul’s repeated use of the term “rebellion” which implies a violent revolt. That revolt was happening in Rome at the time in response to Nero’s oppressive tax policy where independent tax collectors were robbing people blind, and the Roman church was considering joining in on the revolt. The immediate context of Paul’s remarks here then are to say “Do not respond with violent revolt. You’re gonna get yourself killed. Pay your tax to Caesar.”

Couple that with what Paul says one chapter earlier in Romans 12 where he lays out the way of enemy love,

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Ro 12:14-21)

If we read Romans 13 as a general endorsement for state violence, then Paul apparently says one thing in Romans 12 and then the opposite in Romans 13. If we instead read them together, keeping in mind the historical context in which it was written, we see that the two chapters logically go together.

Remember: Paul is not writing to a Christian majority in power running the empire, and saying that citizens should not practice retaliation but the government and its agents should; he is writing to a persecuted minority under tyrannical rule, urging them to practice the way of non-retaliation in Rom 13 and dissuading them from participating in a violent revolt in Rom 14. With this in mind, consider what Peter writes in another letter to a persecuted community,

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. … Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters” (1 Peter 2:13-18)  

First note how similar this sounds to Romans 13. Then notice that he says in the same breath “honor the emperor. Slaves submit to your masters.” At the time slavery was a reality, as was the reality of living under the tyranny of an emperor like the “antichrist” Nero. We have today abolished slavery, and consider it immoral. We also have a different form of government, where we rebelled against the tyranny of a king (and, if you recall, a revolt about taxes was involved there, too!). It is also worth noting that both Peter and Paul were executed by the state, not to mention our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. So if we want to read this in context, it would be far more accurate to imagine ourselves as a letter written to Jews in Germany in the 1930s, or to expatriated African slaves in America in the 1800s, rather than as a letter to a Christian nation.

Here’s the bottom line: The same logic that says in the New Testament, “slaves obey your masters” also says “obey the state”. We can either take this as a timeless eternal command and therefore continue state violence as God’s way, and also maintain the institution of slavery as God’s way, or we can read it contextually. This means reading both statements to slaves and to minorities under empire as being told to keep their heads down and survive, to not join into the violence, but to be a witness for peace in the midst of injustice. This was a s far as they were able to take the way of Jesus under Nero in the first century. Today we have the possibility of doing much more. Rather than continuing today to perpetuate the way of Rome and empire, we should look to how we can to improve our laws and society, seeking to bring them more in line with the way of Jesus.

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At 7:54 PM, Anonymous Mark Sherring said...

Hi Derek,

thanks again for another thought-provoking article. I've been following your blog for a while, and your interview(s) with 'Beyond the Box' cover a lot of good ground as well. Also, I would like to say 'well done' with your book, it adds a much-needed response to Atonement & related questions.

With this difficult issue of violence & the state, while there are several good works from christian perspectives (e.g. Yoder), it is still something that many of us struggle with. Contextualising Rom.13 goes a good way in answering the usual fundamentalist justifications, I can agree so far. My problem then goes to the question of how to answer particular situations 'on the ground'; I am thinking here (for example) of the present crisis in N-Iraq and the persecution/ execution/ displacement of ethnic people - there are many similar situations of course. On the one hand, if we (in the west) do nothing to help then we are complicit in the rise of evil (per Edmund Burke), but if we use violence are we then practicing 'just war' ? This theo-philosophical issue does not quit, but honest believers find it hard to avoid. Your answer in the 'Box' interview was a good approach I think (harm minimisation, graded responses), but now my question goes to this: What are (or should be) the limits of engagement with use of violence in addressing xtreme aggressiveness in cases like N-Iraq (for instance) ? Can we explore this a bit ? I would appreciate your thoughts. Thanks, Mark (Blue Mountains, Australia)

At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

“My problem then goes to the question of how to answer particular situations 'on the ground'”

Right. The approach I am taking here is to argue that what Paul and Peter said to the persecuted minority churches back then is not necessarily what they would say to a super power in the 21st century. So we need to work out how to apply the way of Jesus in our time and context.

“I am thinking here (for example) of the present crisis in N-Iraq and the persecution/ execution/ displacement of ethnic people - there are many similar situations of course.”

So this is one particular situation. Others would call for a different approach. I think that’s crucial to understand. It’s not ‘one size fits all’ here. Turning the other cheek can be a powerful way to change an oppressive dynamic in one situation and irresponsible, ineffective and dangerous in another. So we need to understand how to apply these things in different situations just as a doctor knows how to prescribe different prescriptions to her patients.

“On the one hand, if we (in the west) do nothing to help then we are complicit in the rise of evil (per Edmund Burke)...”

Right. My bottom line is that enemy love should be an active way to stop oppression and hurt, and not simply a refusal to do violence. In English the term ‘nonviolence’ implies ‘not violence’ as an inaction, like ‘not drinking’ so I prefer to speak of the practice of enemy love which implies action. The question again is what action exactly would be needed in this particular situation to keep people safe and end their insane rampage?

As a starting point, I wrote a post on ISIS recently you can check out:

I do not want to rule out military force in the short term. That may be the only way to stop them. However, I do want to note a few things:

1) We need to think long term here. Our war(s) in Iraq acted to destabilize the region which set the stage for ISIS to rise up. So in that sense we tilled the soil out of which ISIS grew. That was reckless. So I go over how to fix this in the future in the above linked article. That destabilization which makes terrorism grow is one of many negative consequences of violence as a solution to evil and oppression, like a medicine with terrible side effects.

2) Note that money and oil are involved. There have equally terrible atrocities in the world recently where we did nothing, basically because they happened in places like Africa which has no oil. The reason the US cares about this and not other equally appealing atrocities is that $$$ is involved. That’s not why you or I care of course, so they appeal to the humanitarian concerns to gain public support. So I’m pretty cynical when I hear speeches about how the US is all about fighting for humanitarian concerns. Seems to me this is a secondary motivation at best. We should not be naieve about this. We may think ethically “we must do something!” but the fact is there have been equally horrendous things going on recently elsewhere in the world where the US has simply done nothing (which also where not really in the news unless you were looking for them). The fact is, it is not you and I who “must do something” since we don’t have any bombs, it’s the US Army which we are not in change of. The US army is mainly driven by concerns for cash, not humanitarian concerns. Humanitarian concerns might coincide with economic concerns, but we should not kid ourselves and get too swept up by war propaganda that appeals to our good concerns for justice and compassion.


At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


3) With the shocking beheadings of Americans, it seems clear to me that ISIS is trying to provoke a war with America. Considering that they are clearly out gunned by us, what could be their reason for doing this? My guess is that they want to appear as ‘martyrs persecuted by the Great Satan’ in order to draw even more fighters to them. Here I think Obama’s move to establish a broad coalition is wise, but really what would be even better is if Arab/Muslim countries went to war with them instead of us so it would be clear that this is not an ‘Islam vs. America’ thing but an ‘insane terrorists vs. civilized society’ thing. In other words, it’s a crime and it it would be best if Arab/Muslim people would police themselves.

If they are able to quell the situation with no or little violence that would be ideal. I don’t know if it is realistic in this case. Perhaps we might think of it like amputating limbs in the civil war: At the time it was the best they could do. However medicine moved forward and today we would have other options to save the leg. Today there may be no option but military action, but we also need to keep moving towards better ways of dealing with conflict that avoid bloodshed.

Those are my thoughts, what are yours?

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Whit said...

How much of Christian pacifism deals with ethnic genocides and geo-political destabilization, and how much deals with how I treat my annoying in-laws and the inconsiderate guy I run across on the street?

Do you see Christians in 90 AD as being called to fight the principalities and powers (non-violently, of course) or just live their lives as best they can?


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