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.