Christianity 201

January 26, 2012

Issues: Righteous Violence

Part of living a life of Christ-following at the 201 or 301 level involves not only processing Bible text at a deeper level, but processing Bible application at a deeper level.  What do we do with social or political issues as they arise in light of Biblical teacing.  At the blog Dare to Live, we’re invited to consider Struggling with the Concept of Righteous Violence.  The article ends with a question, and I encourage you to click the link and respond at the author’s blog.

I recently finished reading and discussing Paul’s letter to the Romans with a fellow blogger. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Romans 13, but in verses 1-5 (subheading is “Submission to the Authorities”) there are some difficult words for someone like myself who feels passionately that non-violence is the best way to approach everything… even for those in authority. (Before I go any further, this post is not intended to offend or criticize those who are serving or have served in the military. I have deep respect for people who support their convictions with actions and are willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the people and principles they love.)

Romans 13: 1-5

1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For 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 he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

On the surface, this seems political and quite unfair. There have been so many oppressive leaders. Surely we shouldn’t follow and submit to the authority of those we know are doing evil things. But my study leader shared a helpful perspective with me. She feels that this passage defends the office of authority, not specific rulers. I agree. God gave us a system of hierarchy, perhaps to address earthly chaos.

But I still have a hard time with this text when I read it sandwiched between Paul’s non-violent, “love your enemy” recommendations. And Paul was hardly submissive to the authorities. For that matter, neither was Jesus. So who are these “rulers” God has appointed to wield swords of righteousness? Do they know who they are? Do they have some kind of divine permission to read this passage from a position of power or should we all be reading it assuming that we are servants rather than authorities?

Jesus exhibited anger, yes, but didn’t advocate violence. Are we not all supposed to model our lives’ after Christ’s? Maybe this is an odd question, but do we actually take this advice too far sometimes? After all, Jesus had the ultimate authority. He tells us, “I and the Father are one.” John 10:30. If we can’t claim the same authority and knowledge, perhaps we shouldn’t always act as Jesus did – from a position of power. Although, if we should follow Jesus as closely as possible, then even the powerful must note that Jesus had incredible power, and yet chose to give himself to humanity as a servant.

In King’s Cross, Timothy Keller intimates the opinion that a God of love must also be a God of wrath. I agree completely. When you love, you become angry at that which harms or destroys the object of your love. But where do we draw the line? If your anger is righteous, are violent actions ever justified? Every fiber of my being shouts, “NO!” But even in the New Testament, God chose to end lives. Jesus did not. How do we reconcile these different facets of God’s character?

I guess I’ve always felt that God, in his power and intimate knowledge of all things, can take people out of the world if he sees fit, but as we do not have the benefit of… well… being God, we can hardly feel justified doing the same. So what do you make of Romans 13? Do you think it seems contradictory to other biblical themes?