A note on Romans 13 and Christian “warism”

Ted Grimsrud—November 30, 2015

One of the sessions I attended at the recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta was a conversation among those identified with the just war approach and those identified as pacifists on how to respond to terrorism. Three of the five speakers were what I would call “warists” and the other two were “pacifists.”

By “warism” I mean the assumption that war is morally acceptable, often necessary, and appropriately prepared for and utilized as the centerpiece of national security policy. Christian warists might use the language of “just war” to characterize their position, but they do not share the traditional just war presumption against the moral validity of particular wars.

In my rethinking the typology concerning attitudes toward war (revising the standard approach originally defined by Roland Bainton), I suggest two basic views—”negatively disposed” (including principled pacifism, pragmatic pacifism, and skeptical just war) and “positively disposed” (including favorable just war, blank check, and crusade). Because of their positive starting assumption concerning war, I would call the three views under “positively disposed” different versions of “warism.”

Our session in Atlanta confirmed an impression I have had on other occasions. Though those holding the  “favorable just war” view claim to represent the just war tradition, they actually are hostile to forms of just war thought that insist that the just war presumption is against war. They reject the idea that acceptance of a particular war as “just” requires that the benefit of the doubt against war be overcome with clear evidence based on just war criteria that that specific war would be just. One of the panelists, who expressed disdain toward pacifism, characterized what I call “skeptical just war” thought as a sell out to pacifism.

In contrast, a paradigmatic expression of the skeptical just war approach, the 1983 United States Catholic bishops pastoral letter on nuclear war, “The Challenge of Peace,” while insisting on the possibility of morally acceptable warfare (at least in theory), commended pacifism as a theologically valid position for Christians to take.

It is the dividing line that separates the two versions of the just war approach that determines whether people are in either the “negatively disposed” or the “positively disposed”  camps concerning warfare—the difference between “pacifists” (or near pacifists) and “warists.” The issue is whether the benefit of the doubt should be on the side of approving war or on the side of disapproving of war—and, secondarily, whether pacifism is seen as a valid Christian viewpoint or not.

Complexifying the warist reading of Romans 13

I have noticed over the years that almost every argument from Christians in favor of a version of “warism” has placed a central emphasis on Romans 13 (that is, Romans 13:1-7). This is true for conservative and liberal Protestants alike and also, perhaps a bit surprisingly given their affirmation of natural law, for warist Catholics as well.

Our panel in Atlanta was no different. I noticed something in the argument of the panelist who lingered on Romans 13 that I hadn’t noticed before, though.

He stated that Romans 12 teaches that Christians must not take vengeance into their own hands but allow God to be the avenger. Then Romans 13 teaches that the state is God’s agent for vengeance. He emphasized that the separation in our English translations between chapter 12 and chapter 13 is artificial; these two chapters include just one unit of thought. So we should see both chapters being part of one argument that Paul is making.

The panelist discussed this text in the context of making the case for Christian affirmation of war-making and the death-dealing work of police forces as opposed to pacifism’s rejection of such activity. He asserted that Romans 12–13 teaches that God uses the state (that God has ordained) to be God’s agent for avenging wrongdoing through death-dealing retribution (war, capital punishment, police violence).

In the Q-and-A that followed the panelists’ presentations, though, it was pointed out that this reading of Romans may not actually allow for Christians themselves to be part of this work of the state. A questioner noted that the sense that Paul might advocate the non-allowance of Christian participation in state violence is even more clear when we keep reading and do not interrupt Paul’s thought at 13:7 as the panelist had done.

Accepting for the sake of discussion the panelist’s reading of Romans 12–13, the questioner asked if Christians are explicitly told not to take vengeance, how could it be that they could then be agents for a state that is taking vengeance (i.e., acting as soldiers or police officers or executioners)? Paul gives no hint in 13:1-7 of taking back his insistence that Christians “overcome evil with good” and not take vengeance.

To reinforce this thought, if we keep reading after 13:7 (if it is true that there is no break in Paul’s thought between 12:21 and 13:1, it would certainly also be the case that there is no break between 13:7 and 13:8), we see in  13:8 that Paul insists that Jesus’s followers should owe no one any kind of debt except the debt to love. Then in 13:10 are told that the law is summed up as love your neighbors (this seemingly alludes to Jesus’s teaching—where he, in Luke’s gospel, equates the neighbor with the enemy [Samaritan]).

The warist use of Romans 13

It seems that in order to make Romans 13 fit their agenda, warists must import ideas into their interpretation of it that are not included in what Paul actually writes there. In fact, many of these ideas are in tension with the actual content of this section (especially when the section is read in the context of the rest of the Bible):

• The panelist, when challenged, said that the “law” in 13:10 refers to the OT law (not Jesus’s summary of the law) with an assumption that since the OT law teaches the validity of necessary violence, Paul must understand it likewise—negating Paul’s call to love all people as the fulfillment of the law.

• The warists’ idea usually seems to be that Romans 12 is about personal morality and Romans 13 about state morality (even though, as the panelist pointed out when it seemed to serve his purposes, there is no break between the two) and that only Romans 13 speaks to Christians’ responsibility as citizens. Part of the idea here too seems to be that since one can’t function as a citizen without using violence when called on to do so by the state, then of course the Paul of Romans 13 would affirm such violence (and mean Romans 12 only for the personal realm).

• The warists’ idea also seems to be that Romans 13, when it calls upon Jesus’s followers to obey the state (and the state, by definition, must use violence and, when necessary, go to war), obligates Jesus’s followers to serve in the military. Again, this ignores Paul call upon his readers to overcome evil with good, not with more violence. Here the warists are direct descendants of Augustine who taught that as citizens our obligation is always to obey the state and leave it to the state’s leaders to determine the justness of war (an early version of the “blank check,” the assumption that we simply accept what the state tells us to do).

• The warist reading of Romans 13 ignores that strong tilt in the Bible as a whole to be quite suspicious of centralized state power—be it with the ancient empires that oppressed Israel, the Israelite northern and southern kingdoms themselves as they became oppressive, and the Roman empire that brutally executed Jesus. To think that Paul, as a biblical person, would go so strongly against the grain and give kind of a blanket endorsement of state power seems quite counter-intuitive.

Even so, the warist reading of Romans 12–13, should the two chapters be read together as a single argument, does not actually provide a warrant for Christian participation in the state’s violence. Even if the state is intended to be God’s agent for vengeance (i.e., violent punishment and war), Paul explicitly teaches that Christians are not to be involved in this vengeance (12:19).

A different reading of Romans 12–13

That’s not to say that the warist reading of our text is actually accurate. While I do believe that Romans 12–13 does clearly forbid Christians from fighting in wars, I think the warist reading is also wrong in its understanding of Paul’s teaching about the state (what follows draws from a longer essay, “Romans 13 supports pacifism!”).

Paul does not teach that each state is “ordained” by God. He makes a much weaker statement. He writes that the state as such is “ordered” by God, implying a more indirect sense of God’s involvement than “ordained” conveys. His idea is that the state simply is, as part of the social world human being inhabit. It has a positive role in a minimalist sense as the entity that provides order in human communities. As such, it is one of the good, fallen, and redeemable “powers” that structure human life.

Some states do this ordering work better and some worse than others, but none is more than indirectly a tool of God’s direct involvement in human history. As far as Jesus’s followers are concerned, the state simply exists. It does not have any special role as God’s direct agent, and we must resist it when it is responsible for violence and injustice, even more when it demands our loyalty in ways that push us towards acts and attitudes that are violent and unjust. But we must resist in ways that do not undermine the ordering function of the state.

Also, Paul does not teach that we must rotely “obey” the state. We are to “subordinate” ourselves to the ordering function of the state and not disrupt things in ways that lead to chaos and disorder. However, we owe our ultimately loyalty and obedience to God—that is, as Paul writes in 13:8, our main “debt” is a debt of love to all people at all times. This debt is utterly incompatible with violence and injustice of any kind.

Given what Romans 12 and 13:8-10 say, not to mention the broader argument of Romans, Paul is best understood as reflecting in 13:1-7 on how followers of Jesus might be agents of peace in the face of the blasphemous Roman Empire. The keys points in the broader passage 12:1–13:10 are these: be transformed by the renewing of your mind, consider others above yourselves, exercise your gifts for the wellbeing of all, refuse to get caught up in the cycles of revenge and retribution, respect the ordering function of the state in the hopes of supporting as much social stability and peace as possible, focus on love as the determinant of your social ethics, and recognize that God’s plan for blessing all the families of the earth through Torah-shaped communities of faith is most forcefully summarized (without remainder) in the call to love the neighbor.

There is no room for war, capital punishment, or nationalism here.

35 thoughts on “A note on Romans 13 and Christian “warism”

  1. I think, or maybe intuit is the better word, that one of the reasons for the warist position is something Stanley Hauerwas points out, that is, War serves as a justification of a nation’s existence. It’s actually kind of Girardian as well. Warists can see no “greater love” than sacrifice made in war. So the warist will twist the Scriptures to meet that end.

  2. Hello Ted. Blessings. First, I appreciate the way you break down the various arguments regarding violence into “positively and negatively disposed.” It provides all involved in these discussions with a helpful categorical distinction that may not otherwise be present. It names what we may otherwise call “the practical upshot” of a given theoretical position or group of positions. Second, and very closely related to the first point, the language of negative disposition is enormously helpful in naming the sort of pacifism held by people like Bonhoeffer (and to a lesser degree, Barth). Third, I couldn’t help but think about how ironic it is for contemporary US citizens to be invoking Romans 13 to validate American wars when one implication of the passage disallows rebellion against governing authority, which, when taken seriously rules out the moral justification behind the creation of the United States of America and thus the moral validity of all wars and acts of violence authorized by our state since 1776.

    1. I’m grateful for your thoughts, Dan. One of the things I like about the “positively and negatively disposed” distinction is that it helps differentiate between two versions of the “just war”—and also points out that pacifist and the “skeptical just war” positions have more in common than the “skeptical just war” and “favorable just war” views. That point was actually confirmed by one of the “warists” on the panel who calls his own view “just war” but was quite negative toward those he said claimed to follow just war views but were “crypto pacifists.”

      Your comment about Romans 13 confirms my sense that most Christians who evoke it don’t actually pay much attention to what it says.

  3. Thanks, Ted, for your report and reflection from the AAR session on the old just war versus pacifism debate. I chose to skip the AAR this year due to a full fall schedule and also because I have found myself rather bored by the predictable AAR discourse on traditional and nontraditional themes alike.

    This year several of my past and current peace studies students — including some Nigerian pastors and professors displaced by Boko Haram
    — have asked about the old just war vs pacifism debate: “Do these endless theological debates ever satisfy the human longing for life security or get us closer to a life of peaceful co-existence and flourishing?”

    Further, my brilliant Brazilian peace studies student recently declared, “War versus pacifism? We now see few ‘wars’ but rather situations in which aggressions turn violent on the streets of Bagdad, Beirut, Paris and Chicago. The new face of violence calls for new and imaginative responses, no?”

    I wonder if the intramural language games of war versus peace aren’t more interesting to old academics who teach on the pacific College Avenues of Richmond and Harrisonburg than to those who face security threats for themselves and their families weekly, not from war, but from the new style of 21st century violence?

    1. Part of what I am trying to do, Scott, is complexify the “old just war vs. pacifism” debate.

      I agree that “the new face of violence calls for … imaginative responses.” But whether you call it “war” or not, the challenge of practicing love of enemy remains.

      And for Americans, the justifications for “war” are the bases for our global military presence—something also a factor in Brazil, right?

      1. Ted, I suppose I’m reacting, very generally and not specifically to your post, to the “modern American Mennonite moral construct” of loving the the enemy more than the security of the friend, family or neighbor. This construct, it seems to me, is more about validating the moral heroism of the pacifist than truly loving the friend, family, neighbor or enemy. It is the pacifist in love with his own virtue and righteousness.

        As I traveled globally during the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence this above critique is something I heard again and again from Christians truly seeking cultures of just peace.

        Yes, your construct critiques of ‘war’ and its global political manifestations are well taken. Too many of our politicians and fellow citizens live by a military metaphysics which trumps their religious faith claims.

  4. Ted, you address a difficult issue, one that I continue to wrestle with since I wrote a paper on the issue of nonresistance for an ethics class under C. K. Lehman. I find a couple of difficulties with your argument as stated here.

    1. I find the nomenclature “warist” a bit prejudicial to those of us who wrestle with the necessity of “the sword” (whether under the category of “force” or of “violence” is a fine ethical distinction) in, as Paul says, the restraint of evil and upholding the good. Peter makes the similar argument. Some of us—I at least—are resistant to much of the drive to war still find a compelling argument for the necessity of the use of the sword for control of evil in a sinful world

    2. In exegeting the Romans text, you fail to distinguish between the moral quality of “vengeance” and police use of force not for vengeance but for the control of evil. JHY (of much conflicted memory) grappled with this issue and posited that—his illustration current at the time—of the sniper in the tower on the UT campus and concluded that as a follower of Jesus if in position to do so he might shoot at Charles Whitman, aiming to maim and control but with the possibility of killing. I think this kind of action can be distinguished from vengeance.

    My problem has to do with your skirting the issue of justice in society in a fallen world. In the Noahic covenant as portrayed in Genesis, there seems to be a principle of retribution on the perpetrator of bloodshed. One may argue that Jesus nullifies that covenant and calls us to a different way. However, it seems to me that the supreme commands to love God and neighbor imply that love for the victims of violence requires the use of force to restrain the perpetrators of evil. This might be illustrated by the case of Boko Haram. Does the will of God who throughout the Bible shows mercy for the weak and calls for justice not require that there be some kind of just use of force to restrain the evildoers. It would seem that here the moral code of just war theory come into play.

    My conclusion in my paper was that a Christian could not participate in the force of government if it implied obeying orders without the possibility of discretion with regard to just use of force. Maybe you can help me sort out the issues.

    1. I appreciate your sharing of your “difficulties” John. I’ll share a few quick responses.

      (1) Perhaps you missed my definition of “warism”: “By ‘warism’ I mean the assumption that war is morally acceptable, often necessary, and appropriately prepared for and utilized as the centerpiece of national security policy. Christian warists might use the language of ‘just war’ to characterize their position, but they do not share the traditional just war presumption against the moral validity of particular wars.”

      The last phrase is the most important—the loss of “the traditional just war presumption against the moral validity of particular wars.” So I am referring to the essentially uncritical acceptance of war. I don’t have in mind those who “wrestle” with the use of the sword (operative word, “wrestle”—which I would assume to involve a presumption against the use of violence unless criteria are met). I can respect your sense of the “compelling argument” for the restraint of evil (though it seems so often that such “restraint” only adds to the spiral of evil) and would not call that “warism.” The big distinction I try to make is between being “positively and negatively disposed,” not between being totally against violence and accepting it as a genuine last resort.

      (2) The panelist I refer to in my post pointed out that the word translated in the NRSV, 13:4, “execute” (as in “execute wrath”) is the same as the word translated as “vengeance” in 12:19 (the KJV reads, “a revenger to execute wrath”). So he was suggesting that in fact what the police do, according to Romans 13, is a form of vengeance. Our more recent idea that the state is some passionless executor of formal “justice” does not seem to be present in Romans 13.

      That doesn’t negate the issues you raise so much as suggest that those are not Romans 13 issues—and Romans 13 was what I was talking about.

      A problem I have with your argument about “justice in a fallen world” is that it seems to assume way too much moral “neutrality” in how our state actually operates. Just as with the military, it appears to me (and I admit little knowledge of this) that police officers are trained to kill and to be willing to kill. Your idea of “discretion” doesn’t seem to fit that reality.

      Perhaps the “ordering” dynamic Paul refers to in Romans 13 could be inferred to have the sense that states will, at their best, play the role using “just force” to protect the weak. This could be seen as a form of “justice” (at least in the sense of “vengeance” in Romans 12–13). and it is possible to see this “justice” in an indirect way to be part of God’s “wrath” (which I also see as being a reference to God’s indirect involvement in human affairs). We can hope that this “justice” serves the wellbeing of the weak instead of the powerful (but how often does it work out that way?).

      From what Paul says here, though, it seems clear that in his mind followers of Jesus should not be executors of this “justice.” Perhaps we can imagine a police function that in our day would be consistent with the “debt of love” Paul calls upon us to owe everyone, including, presumably, the “wrongdoer.” That would seem like an issue for discernment. But it seems clear to me that Paul would be pretty skeptical—and that we today should be too.

      1. I like the way you sort out the issues, Ted. Your reference to your more limited intent in the use of “warist” to designate those who are “all out” for war may justify the term, but I don’t think there are very many Christian moralists who would subscribe to such unfettered advocacy. (Maybe I’m just naive or uninformed.) I still think we need more precise terms to designate the positions of those who grapple with the issues of justice and love for neighbor that require the use of military force. You recognize the cogency of those who are seeking an ethical understanding of just peace or just policing.

        I sense the force of your argument with regard to the use of “vengeance” in Romans 12:19 and 13:4. Even so, I think Paul leaves us with the issue of the use of the sword as an instrument restrain the evildoer. Is it vengeance? Does Paul understand that in the inherent structure of social reality that punishment is necessary? Is this the necessary theological (or sociological) conclusion? It would seem to me that we need to examine this for consistency with the love of neighbor command.

        I see the discussion has moved on with the contribution of others more able than I am to sort out the issues in terms of current thought. So be it.

      2. Thanks, John. I am trying out this term “warist,” which as far as I know was coined by my wife (though I think I may have encountered it elsewhere). The problem with the word is that it likely is not a term anyone would use for themselves. But I think the stance of most Christians, including most Christian ethicists, certainly including the three on the panel I attended, is a strong sense of acceptance of the moral validity of war. This acceptance is more important for them (in practice) than any limitations or sincere “grappling with the issues of justice and love for neighbor that require the use of military force.” There might (probably is) a better word, but I can’t think of it.

        I don’t actually think Paul is getting into the complexities you refer to in your second paragraph. I don’t think he is thinking about political philosophy so much as just accepting that the state exists and in its existence does have a restraining effect on chaos that Christians should respect.

        Your questions are certainly real for us though in our “democratic” context. These are all questions for us to face responsibly. I plan to take them up in the near future.

  5. This is a productive line of questioning. A number of Mennonites and Brethren, outside of the comfort zones of North America, especially in NE Nigeria in face of the violence of Boko Haram, have suggested there might indeed be paradigms beyond the old just war vs pacifism impasse. A new paradigm of Just Peace which contends that the old dogma of just war “has become obsolete” yet makes space for a multinational force for “just policing” to protect the innocent and halt the violent oppressors while political negotiations and humanitarian work continue has promise for Christian peacemakers. The Nigerian Brethren (EYN) pastor and professor, Musa Mumbala, has recently confessed, “Some of us can practice pacifism because others concerned with human security choose not to do so.” J. Lawrence Burkholder reminded us this is “an ethical dilemma” no honest pacifist can easily dismiss.

    1. Scott, that sounds exactly like the old paradigm of Just War theory to me, along with non-radical understanding of Jesus’ pacifism.
      I can’t comment on how others practice pacifism. For myself – I haven’t been called to “practice” much pacifism yet. I pray I’ll be ready to practice it if and when I’m called to die for my Lord. So easy to say isn’t it? But I really don’t think there is any other way to peace. “Without the shedding of blood (to demonstrate we have something/Someone better than life itself?) there is no forgiveness (release) from sin” for people caught up in such evils as Boko Haram – believer’s blood, killer’s release from sin. It was due to the thousands of early Christian martyrs who “loved not their lives even unto death” that the Church was able to get through and grow in influence in the first century or two….
      The problem now as always is, as I see it, that we would rather – NOT – depart and be with the Lord because – WE REALLY DON’T BELIEVE – that is far better. I think many of the faithful poor in the majority world might believe this word if they heard it though. And what a contrast and a testimony it would be not only to BH and ISIL but to the Western mindset also!

  6. For a theo-logical purist or for those who have not been called to practice pacifism in face of violence this might not seem ethically or theologically compelling, but for those who must make prophetic pragmatic moves of tragic necessity and faithful compromise for the security of the other, these moves of theological re-imagination and ethical/political nuance are important and must be respected. Neighbor love does not ask her to be raped and beaten or him to be burned alive to validate the North American pacifist’s cultural imperialism and romantic martyrs mirror.

    1. Scott, I’m not sure what your point is throughout this entire discussion, but it seems to me it is more or less threefold. A) You seem frustrated with academic theorizing. B) You are convinced that the paradigm of “just war” thinking is no longer relevant and that the paradigm of “just policing” is more so. C) You are frustrated with moral theory and/or moral theorists who are not sensitive to the complexities of our finite existence, most especially the pathos and tragedy of seemingly hopeless situations. // First, I’m not sure how logically compatible “A” is with “B” because frustration with academic theorizing on just war would seem also to apply to academic theorizing on just policing. Second, I’m not sure that thinking about “just war” is as irrelevant as you seem to think it is when there is still a significant case to be made for it’s utilization in preventing unnecessary acts of aggression on our part (the Iraq war, the Vietnam war to name just two prominent examples). Academic theorizing may not be appreciated by those “on the ground,” so to speak. But theory is essential for any disciplined inquiry into truth. Theory may not motivated, inspire, motivate, comfort, or provoke persons in the midst of real cycles of violence but that does not mean that theory is of no value. That said, there is a tendency to believe that moral theory will solve things, will make life easier, contribute directly to the resolution of intractable dilemmas, etc. That is clearly an overestimation of the ability human beings have to survey the whole of existence in all it’s depths and complexities. It’s a remnant of Enlightenment style naivete about rationality as such. Third, I share your sensitivity to the tragic necessity for moral compromise. This sensitivity is not apparent in Yoder or some of those influenced by him. But for me this lack of being able to name tragic moral failure is something rooted in Anabaptist perfectionism. There is a fear that if I admit the nature of human finitude, the intractability of failure, the propensity to sin, that I am giving up on my moral principles. In my estimation this is an overreaction to the arguments of those who cite “original sin” or the “bondage of the will” to validate and/or justify violence. I myself have come to believe that we are dealing here with a false either/or and that there are creative ways in which pacifists can appropriate a more “Lutheran” understanding of moral action to name moral failure without making of it a justification for evil. I am thinking, more concretely, of someone like Bonhoeffer. (If you have read my contribution to our book on Bonhoeffer carefully you might begin to see what I’m driving at.)

      1. Daniel, On naming just war as obsolete and offering just policing as a better paradigm I’m pointing to the broad international and ecumenical consensus (this included Lutheran leaders) confessed at Kingston in 2011 and outlined in the WCC document, AN ECUMENICAL CALL TO JUST PEACE.

        I love theory, but I love just policing theory more than just war theory. Yet I know it is almost always “the event” and not the theory that shapes and justifies the response, which then produces new theory.

        Yes, I see your point relative to Bonhoeffer. Three other great “Lutherans” would likely agree: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and the Apostle Paul.

  7. I’m been uncomfortable with the way “pacifism” positions us. Scott put his finger on part of it–pacifism puts me and my righteousness at the center of things. Add to that how “pacifism” cuts us off from potential allies who regard violence as failure, but refuse to categorically reject its use; how it leads us into discussions that abstract rather than contextualize; how any status with “ism” in its name blinds us to the dynamic “way” of Jesus.

    So I really like what Ted is doing here with his “positively and negatively disposed” distinction.

    And yes, Scott, let’s talk about Boko Haram. What should Christians in West Africa be doing to protect themselves? What practices will be most effective, most sustainable, most self-empowering, most alluring, most strategic? For that discussion, we will need to better understand BH and which states are supporting it (Saudi Arabia and the USA come to mind).

    “For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the present darkness” (Eph. 6:12).

    1. Yes, Berry, well said.

      In Nigeria, the peace church in the North East, the EYN or Church of the Brethren, fled or were exiled farther south to Jos and beyond and for the most part refused to fight. However, as the possible return to their abandoned homes, farms, schools and churches becomes more viable, new questions about security, the rule of law on behalf of a common good, and the shape of a prophetic public theology are being asked by those who in the past have embraced a rather old fashioned Two Kingdom Theology. Even those who champion the separation of church and state don’t long for a separation of spirituality from cultural life or the exile of virtue and character — and peace! — from public life and institutions.

      1. Scott, I’ll jump in to affirm you when you write about the reality of Boko Haram causing Mennonites and Brethren in Nigeria, outside of the comfort zones of North America, to rethink their paradigms and move toward the paradigm of a Just Peace which makes space for a multinational force for “just policing” to protect the innocent and halt the violent oppressors while political negotiations and humanitarian work continue. Several here have taken you to task for saying that. But as J. Lawrence Burkholder wrote in the book, The Limits of Perfection (that you helped edit), “What I find missing in Mennonite theology and experience is provision for unavoidable compromises.”

        Your mention of Burkholder prompted me to find my notes from his Gospel Herald (March 16, 1993) article which says that we need both “peacekeeping” and “peacemaking.” Military peacekeeping is forceful and temporary, whereas peacemaking is reconciling and more permanent. But, he said, peacekeeping is necessary — needed to bring about a condition within which peacemaking may take place. After all, nothing constructive can be done in a condition of anarchy. He compared peacekeeping and peacemaking to the roles of surgery and health education. Surgery and peacekeeping are “negative” — they eliminate something bad. And health education and peacemaking are “positive” — they build something good. But both the negative and the positive are essential.

        Harold Miller

  8. Could it be that Paul’s mind went, after writing “overcome evil with good,” in Romans 12 (as we have it) to a very hard case: the evil of the Roman empire, in Romans 13? How to overcome that oppressing evil with good.

  9. It’s my sense, John, that the empire of Romans 13 was not as evil to Paul as the empire was to the author of Revelation 13, but Ted is more expert in this area.

    1. The empire which had executed Paul’s hero Jesus 30 years earlier, and about to end Paul’s own life, was probably not thought benign in Paul’s mind. Everything which Paul writes in the early verses of Romans 13 makes far more sense if he is working at how to replace open rebellion, or some kind of violent response, with the message of the nonviolent Jesus as the right response to the feared and hated empire.
      Paul had, after all, come to believe the astounding answer which Jesus gave to that very old question, “Is it necessary to kill people to run the world?”

  10. Fascinating discussion and helpful comments. But I find any reliance on Romans 13: 1-7 troubling because (I don’t know any other way to put this) the statements made there simply cannot (in my humble opinion) be true.
    “Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority, then do what is right and you will be commended.” Common sense and countless actual historical examples show how untrue that is. Paul himself was executed by “one in authority” as was Jesus and countless martyrs since. There are so many examples of authorities holding terror for those who do right that there’s no point in listing them (I’m sure many will come to the mind of anyone who should read this).
    “The one in authority is God’s servant for your good…rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants (!!), agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoers.” This simply cannot be universally true. To declare that everyone in authority is a servant for good, and that there is no reason to fear them as long as one does good, simply cannot stand historical scrutiny. In fact, I would argue that it is rarely if ever the case. Can we even offer up one instance in history where the state authorities never unjustly punished/killed those who were good? Can we point to even one instance in history and say credibly “That state acted only as a servant of God, executing his wrath on wrongdoers and holding no fear for those who “do what is right.” Yet if this passage means what it seems to say, then every authority, from the earliest tribal despots and warlords, to Nero, to modern dictators, to ISIS itself, is an agent of God to punish wrongdoers, “for there is no authority except that which God established.”
    This passage is as troubling to me as anything in Scripture. I don’t know what Paul meant by it, but I cannot believe it should be taken as literal truth and I cannot therefore accept any attempt to justify violence or war by reference to this passage. Just my two cents worth.

    1. Bill, I recognize the validity of your observation of the disjuncture between the ideal the Paul set forth and the reality of governing authorities in the real world. I see Paul describing God’s intent, not the historical reality. I can see the same difference between Jesus’ description of the church as a city of light on the hilltop of society and the often more sordid reality of historical reality. I don’t think that nullifies what Paul says about God’s intent for governmental authority.

      1. Thanks, but I see nothing in that passage that would make it an idealized expression of “God’s intent.” To the contrary, it is a set of specific practical instructions for behavior and explicitly says “there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God…” This doesn’t seem to be referring to some idealized but non-existing authority, but rather existing, real world, on-the-ground authorities. Then Paul gives a specific set of instructions for how to behave vis-a-vis these authorities, all predicated upon the foundation that they have been established by God and are acting on God’s behalf. (1) to rebel against authority is to rebel against God and therefore bring judgment on oneself, (2) to be free from fear of authorities, do what’s right and you’ll be commended (for the one in authority is God’s servant for your good), (3) submit to the authorities because they are agents of God, to bring wrath on wrongdoers, (4) pay your taxes, because the authorities are God’s servants who give their full time to governing.

        If this were meant to be a description of some unrealized, eschatological state of affairs I can’t imagine that kind of language would be used, nor would in make sense in the context of the passages that precede and follow it. But if the passage isn’t meant to refer to actual authorities, but rather only to God’s (unrealized) intent, then all the more reason that it should not be relied upon to justify state violence.

  11. Ted, I always glance at the emails of your new blogs (though often many days late, as in this instance), and I was quickly drawn into spending a lot of time reading this one.

    Your typology of attitudes toward war is extremely valuable: two basic views—”negatively disposed” (including principled pacifism, pragmatic pacifism, and skeptical just war) and “positively disposed” (including favorable just war, blank check, and crusade).

    As you noted, this distinction points out that pacifist and the “skeptical just war” positions have more in common than the “skeptical just war” and “favorable just war” views.

    Then John’s comment helped focus this even more clearly. You wrote: The big distinction I try to make is between being “positively and negatively disposed,” not between being totally against violence and accepting it as a genuine last resort. … Perhaps the “ordering” dynamic Paul refers to in Romans 13 could be inferred to have the sense that states will, at their best, play the role using “just force” to protect the weak.

    Thanks again, Ted.

    Harold Miller

  12. I recently read “The Arrogance of Nations” by Neil Elliott. He provides a deeply contextual reading of Romans, along the lines of what John Stoner suggests in his comment above.

    Thus, Elliot pays attention to the Jewish riots in Alexandria 15 years before Paul wrote his letter to Rome, the civil disturbances that prompted Claudius to expel Jews from Rome and traditional Jews to separate themselves from Jesus-following Jews, the pervasive and pre-empting propaganda about imperial wisdom and justice, the flagrant debauchery of the Roman elite, Nero’s ascension to power via the murder of a son of god (Claudius), the tax revolts that welcomed Nero, Nero’s distinctive (yet hauntingly familiar) propaganda message that his rule was so obviously enlightened and beneficial that the empire no longer needed to employ the sword at all, etc.

    Elliot insists that in this context, Paul’s letter is “a voice under domination.” It contains elements of irony, sarcasm, exhortation, subversion and even appeasement, all written by an author who had never been to Rome but wanted the assemblies there to fund his trip to Spain.

    Sounds complicated to me; I’m glad Ted plans to do more work on this!

  13. Jesus said He is the Way, the Truth and the Life – so I agree with the poster who is suspicious of all “isms”. I’m deeply suspicious of anything called “religion” also, such as the American Academy of Religion.

    I reject the seemingly implicit assumption of many in this discussion that Jesus’ clear behavioural standard of loving one’s enemies is unrealistic and impractical in today’s world. In addition, I reject the Church’s individualisation/personalisation of serious sin as though our Lord’s prayer read “forgive ME MY sins as I forgive..” The nature of serious/’mortal’ sin is still, in my view, of a corporate nature of serious sin (familial, ethnic, national) – “our feet .. quick to shed blood” “destruction in our path” and “not knowing the path of peace” are things all human beings (except the those with Christlike faith) do corporately. And these days Nationalism in the number one religion in the world.

    I reject the seemingly implicit assumption of many in this discussion that non-believers need Christians to help moderate the degree of violence used in war and police action. In my view, it would be enough for the Church to be widely pacifist. Then the secular humanists would be ‘salted’ and ‘lighted’ by a radically Christlike Church. Even insane rulers like Nero and modern tyrants want a peaceful, productive population. All human beings agree with Paul that “the Law is good” because no-one wants violent anarchy in their neighbourhood. By trying to help the unbelieving world with their failed philosophies and violence-minimisation, Christian pacifists are, it seems to me, betraying the Lord of Peace who has already shown us the way to peace. Do you guys REALLY believe Jesus’ submission to unjust execution – and the Early Christian martyrs’ pacifism – are just a romantic idea whose time has passed????? What EVIDENCE do you have for that view?????

    Put more energy, I say, into helping the Church to become radically pacifist! If such a project could be achieved completely and all soldiers who claimed Christian faith in the US Military resigned – they might lose as much as 60% of employees!!!! What then for US hegemony and aggression??? Imagine Congressional candidates having to cater for a growing pacifist population, who absolutely refuse to endorse potentially lethal violence (or an economy predicated and powered by the love of money)!! What would this mean for the poverty – and for poverty-feed extremism – in Africa and elsewhere?????

    With growing difficulties world-wide in recruiting people (especially Christians) into the Military and Police, nations might start a very gradual demilitarizing, and restorative, push – especially as they see other nations acceding to unwavering peace-at-all-cost “threats” from their own Christlike citizens and the effectiveness of domestic restorative practices.

    I say “threat” because none but the Christlike can understand or like the eschatology of Jesus and His martyrs. Jesus and His martyrs are a threat to the foundational philosophy upon which human civil systems are built. Not that we try to force – or forcefully argue – the nonChristlike out of their dependance on Law, justice-as-moderated-revenge, punishment and violence. Not that we need to. We can acknowledge that the system of the nations is a reasonable way of organising human life. We can respect others’ dependence on Law as a reasonable way of limiting human violence. In fact, before/aside from the faith-of-Christ these ways were, and still are, the BEST ways possible. But only before faith-of-Christ comes, which is much better. Unlike Law, faith-of-Christ can do away with sin!! What I mean is that faith-of-Christ can even do away with murder!! So I really can’t see this talk of “Christian” support for war and policing being other than an essential denial of Jesus’ faith in a faithful Creator and Father.

    Sorry to be so blunt and abrasive – but it seems sadly necessary, given some of the commentary here. I still hope in American, Mennonite and theologian, leadership. But I’m not American, Mennonite or theologically-trained myself… – so perhaps I’m losing something ‘in translation’?

  14. Jub, thank you. That’s all I can say to start out.
    Christians really wouldn’t need Jesus much, or much of Jesus, to advocate violence mitigation, would they?
    Jesus did have a better idea, a different one, and that’s why his appeal to neglected and denied aspects of human nature is still so strong.
    And Paul, God bless him, with the help of Ananias according to Luke, did discover that love, and overcoming evil with good, is another way to run the world. He was so convinced of this that in Romans 13 he made a try at saying how the good way of Jesus could be used to overcome even the evil Roman empire. Could we, 2000 years later, forgive him if he did get every nuance right in that primal effort to bring the way, truth and life of Jesus to bear on the empire’s definition of the way, truth and life?

    1. Hi John. Thank you for a simple acknowledgement – (which I think is more than I’ve ever had from Ted in all the months – a couple of years even? – that I’ve been posting on his site!).

      In my view, Paul’s inspiration was very direct. He breathed in Jewish theology in his training, then the Lord appeared and spoke to him, then he is taught in Arabia by no man – i.e. he is not mislead by the biases and blind spots of any particular ‘denomination’, then he speaks to the Apostles who walked with the Lord for three years and afterward encountered the resurrected Christ! How many of us had such quality of inspiration? How many church leaders have committed themselves to follow the party line (whether it is true or not)? How many Christian academics submit to supposed wisdom of non-Christian academic parameters and assumptions simply because it is the done thing? I am very loathe to second guess such a theologian as Paul.

      In my reading of Romans 13, much clarity and consistency is achieved by distinguishing between being “subject” to the government oneself (and teaching others to do the same) and PARTICIPATING in the mission of the government when it turns to punishing those who act against its laws. Being subject to governmental law is one among several ways, listed between 12:1 and 15:4, that Paul gives as “ways to present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Ways to PYBAALS) .

      When and how ‘should’ a modern Christian work or not work for the government? Paul recognises that Ways to PYBAALS can all be applied at different depths according to one’s measure of faith (12:3) – so there is no clear cut answer to this question. Jesus opened the way for us to live no longer under Law but under Grace. How much each one can do this just depends on our measure of faith – where “faith”, as I understand it, is a term for the objective (God-only-known) degree of how much one’s decision-making across every aspect of one’s ordinary lives is influenced by Jesus-revealed truth, as opposed to “faith” as reflecting the presence of religious commitment or of how extreme an isolated peak of motivation/action one can whip oneself, or be whipped up, to experience/do). I think it is fair to add that each person, as their faith grows over time, will become more able to live by Grace and be ready to make more profound and costly sacrifices. Jesus Himself did not take on the might of the powers on earth until He was 30. And doing so – and submitting to murder – was surely the height of His faith and action; as it was for His followers who refused to deny the Prince of Peace though it cost them their lives.

      How do the resulting faith-dependent differences in understanding not result in disorder and divisions in the Church? Paul’s further says it is the mature of faith that should bear the infirmities of those capable of less faith (14:1) and less action (15:1). And don’t we see Jesus doing that with His twelve ‘of so little faith’ in the Gospels?

      For me Rom 13:1-7 works very well in it’s Scriptural context and in it’s modern application. I will also admit, however, that a framework of Biblical Universalism and anti-Atonement alongside Pacifism was probably necessary for me to breath in the coherent whole that I feel I’ve been given through the unusual circumstances of my life. I accept that it would be very difficult for theologians committed to Hell as Eternal Torment, and Calvary as propitiation of GOD’s wrath, to see pacifism and Scripture as I do.

  15. Hey Ted! I hope you get this comment.
    I am writing a Senior Thesis on peacefully resisting tyrannical governments.
    Off the top of my head, I see a dichotomy between your arguments for non-violence and Jesus flipping the tables of the money lenders in the temple. Is there actually a dichotomy there,if not could you explain it to me? Thanks!

    1. Interesting question, Timoth. Just a few quick comments.

      (1) My commitment to nonviolence (or, as I prefer, pacifism) has at its core a commitment to follow Jesus, to imitate him, to embody his way. So, I would say I am a pacifist because (1) Jesus calls us to love our neighbor (including our enemies); (2) Jesus rejected tyranny, domination, top-down coercive power, and the other dynamics that are all too characteristic of human social systems; (3) Jesus taught about and modeled an alternative approach to politics (the ways human beings order their social lives) that emphasized service, compassion, generosity, non-retaliation, and care for the marginalized and vulnerable.

      (2) I assume that the story the gospels tell about Jesus is internally consistent, at least in how it presents his core message. The Jesus of the gospels, that is, is coherent and consistent in his ethics, his portrayal of God, and his teaching about discipleship.

      (3) Thus, whatever might be going on in the story of Jesus and the money-lenders in the temple, it is not inconsistent with his core message of love and pacifism.

      (4) Our interpretive task, then, is to understand the temple incident in the context of Jesus’s message about peace. We should note that what Jesus did was to protest against injustice (as he perceived it) not to attempt to harm his opponents.

      (5) I think resisting injustice is fully compatible with Jesus-centered pacifism—in fact, it is what Jesus-centered pacifism calls us to.

      (6) The story of the temple incident, then, when we read it in the context of the gospel portrayal of Jesus and his way, actually becomes a call for the pacifists actively to resist injustice—but always nonviolently.

      Does this make sense to you?

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