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?
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.