Exploring Pacifism, Pt. 4

In the previous parts of this series, I have laid out some of my views on power, force and violence. In exploring the issue of pacifism from a theological & ethical standpoint, namely that of Christian theology & ethics, the time has come to engage those portions of scripture that persons "use" to advance not only the idea of submission to modern government agendas of power, force, violence and war but also the promotion of it, especially when it comes to the Apostle Paul. Such readings treat Paul as if he were writing a systematic theology on state-run or government-led politics and militarism. This is seen, perhaps, nowhere more clearly than with Romans 13.1-7. As Ernst Bammel has pointed, however, "As an account of the Pauline view of the State this passage must be given its place in the side aisle rather than the nave."

To begin, we shall cite this section below and follow it up with some exegetical and interpretive thoughts:

Romans 13:1 Everyone 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. 13.2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 13.3 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. 13.4 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. 13.5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 13.6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. 13.7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

As one apt interpreter has remarked about these verses, "These words have caused more unhappiness and misery in the Christian East and West than any other 7 verses in the New Testament by the license they have given to tyrants." I would venture to guess that this assertion is indeed correct. Given that this is so, we should realize when we step up to the plate to "take on" these verses, we have before us an important task. So, while I do not believe that my comments here will extinguish the debate surrounding these verses, I do hope that some thoughts offered can show that there are healthy alternative readings which exist, other than the typical, non-contextual, modern-political readings of these verses.

I wish to make 3 points here:

1) We recall that in the original languages, the texts of the New Testament were not divided by chapter and verse numbers. Instead, they were written Scriptum Continuum, which is just a fancy Latin way of saying that all the letters ran together. There were no punctuation marks, no dividers, no sentence or paragraph breaks, etc. I say all this to say that the modern day translations of the Bible separate Romans 12 from Romans 13. However, this is VERY problematic! In my view, those words which precede what we define as Rom 13.1-7, help set the context for Paul's words. Thus, Rom 12.9-21 must be considered. When we read these verses, we find that they are littered with language about "love" and turning the other cheek.

Clearly, war is evil. Some would call it a necessary evil (this is a popular idea among Christians) but I would disagree with the "necessary" part of that claim. In 12.9 Paul says, "Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil and cling to what is good." Can we really imagine Paul saying this and at the same time promoting war and violence? He says in the same breath: "Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves."

Following this he says, "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer." Does he say, "When you are afflicted retaliate?" No, he says to be patient! He says right after this, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse." Again, does he say "Kill the enemy" or "Bomb the foes"? No! He says to bless them and not even to "curse" them! Certainly if "cursing" them is out of the question so is killing them!

Then, Paul calls persons to live in harmony with one another and to shun a mindset of superiority so as to associate with the lowly. Continuing on, he says, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil." Is this not clear enough already? Paul is against violence and the violation of others by cursing them or inflicting any type of evil upon them. In fact, he urges that as far as it is possible within their own power, to "live at peace with everyone." He is not saying, "Go destroy them" or "get rid of them" if they cannot be at peace with you. Instead, he is saying, do your part to make peace. He is not naive to the fact that some people will not allow reconciliation to happen. He continues, driving home the point once again: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath." Clearly, for Paul, any sort of harm done to another is uncalled for and unjustified. The judgment, he contends, is up to God and God alone. How quickly and often Christians forget the truth that vengeance really is the Lord's!

And as if that isn't enough, Paul cites Proverbs and says, "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." Of course, the burning coals metaphor is not literal; it is a metaphor! He is saying that if you are nice to your enemies despite their unjust acts towards you, not only will wrath be on their head but eventually, they will get so preturbed by it that they may actually begin to act differently towards you. And he follows this with: "Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good." Is it not clear enough that Paul is non-violent? Keep in mind, this is all prior to 13.1-7! Thus, we CANNOT simply read 13.1-7 univocally or on its own! These verses must be taken into account.

If the command is not to do evil but to overcome evil, and if, as so many are willing to admit, war is an evil, then how in the world can we go on acting as if promoting war is okay or even Christian? And so, Paul has made his case! And then he moves into his language about governing authorities. This is where I make point #2.

2) Among interpreters of Romans and in particular, Rom 13, there have been some very creative readings suggested. Post-colonial readings and anti-imperial readings have gained much ground and attention in recent decades. However, it may well be the case that while there are some merit to those interpretations, they are not so spot-on. In my view, the social contexts suggests, as made evident in the work of T. Engberg-Pedersen, that Paul is inverting Stoic political ideology.

Basically, Paul's comments in 13.1-7 reverse the claims made by the Stoic philosopher Seneca in his De Clementia (On Clemency 1.1-4). As Engberg-Pedersen notes, "The point [of Rom 13.1-7] is this...there was an idea in Rome in the 50s CE of the ruler or earthly rulers acting on behalf of the gods or God in support of behaviour that is good. This idea writers could take for granted and presuppose in what else they had to say. Indeed, they could appeal to it as something that would not be questioned—and could then move on from there to make whatever other points they were bent on making. Seen in this light there is absolutely nothing strange about the transition from Rom. 12.21 to Rom. 13.1ff. Believers should ‘conquer the bad by means of the good: in so doing, they should be subjected to the powers of this world since these, on their side, represent God and in themselves support behaviour that is good (13.1ff)."

In Seneca's work, he is referring to how an idealized idea of government, in particular, Nero. And Seneca hopes that Nero will practice judicious clemency and honesty and goodness, thereby proving his divine appointment. Do this and nobody in society will question your political role, it will simply be assumed that these qualities were given by the divine! Paul, however, is saying in Rom 13 that it is quite the opposite: If one embodies such qualities, the people will reason from bottom-to-top, not top-to-bottom, that divine appointment has been proven. If the contrary is proven, then one is not ordained by God. To sum up: Paul's claim to submit to God-ordained authorities presupposes first of all that the authorities were put in place by God. He does not suggest submitting to non-ordained authorities! Remember, there may be authorities in place, but they REALLY have no power if they're not ordained by God. And what is power? It is not what the Romans thought of power, the mighty fist or the sword, which helps "lord it over" people. No, it was submitting to and serving one another! (See the previous posts in this series, which discuss "power" in Christian theology.)

To rebel against the authorities that God has ordained is to rebel against none other than God himself. This all brings up the matter of discerning who is God-ordained? Hitler? Bin Laden? Hussein? Bush? Obama? Chavez?

Well, the key to recognizing those who are God-ordained is by looking back at what Paul has already said: They will be overcoming evil with God and not using violence and for or repaying evil with evil. Perhaps Americans and those in other parts of the world should really consider who they vote for in light of such things!

3) One last item of context may help shed light on this pericope. In Rome, Paul was basically dealing with a power struggle between various groups, namely, Jewish Christians and Roman (Gentile) Christians. The Jewish Christians had been exiled from Rome and when they came back, they realized that their leadership positions and essentially the entire church, had been co-opted (filled in) by the Gentile believers. Thus, there was a great struggle! Not wanting the Jewish folks to be exiled again, not wanting the church to divide, not wanting to draw attention to them because it could mean death, not wanting them to go into the streets and start chanting against the empire, Paul simply tells them to do what they have to do to keep the peace. If that means paying a tax, just do it. (Note: "Under Nero a difficult situation had become significantly worse. Tacitus tells us that so severe was the unrest over taxation that Nero was almost forced to capitulate over the issue. Instead of capitulating, however, he increased the burden of taxation, and non-payment became a criminal offence. In these circumstances Paul urges his readers to conform, to pay the taxes, and thereby not draw attention to themselves in a way that would provoke a Roman backlash.")

In fact, it has been suggested that if we read Rom 13 along the lines of 1 Cor, something interesting is realized, namely, that Paul is radically qualifying his statements. In 13.11-14, we see the "as if not" construction that appears in 1 Cor 7.29-31. The idea is, "do this but do it as if you were not really doing it." In other words, when you pay your tax, just do it as if you were not really doing it. This is expressed in the Greek by the "ως μη" construction (esp. Rom 13.13). As Taube has put it, "Pay your taxes (fulfil your duties in that field) as something that can in fact be fulfilled. And then forget about it since the duty has, by now, been fulfilled. In other words, do it ‘as if not’ doing it."

Having laid all of this out, even in a rather brief blog post, I think it is more than clear that there is an alternative way, and even a better way to read this section of Romans than is often suggested by the typical modern-day evangelical. Even more, I think it is abundantly clear that Paul is all about peacemaking and peacekeeping. Many have accused Paul of being inconsistent here but I do not think that is the case. All the same, I do not think he was issuing a systematic theology of the State and government and blind submission to ungodly (or godly) rulers.

Instead, the call was to never use violence, never to retaliate, never to repay vengeance and never to oppress others but to love and serve them. Where the enemy would not allow reconciliation to happen, the call then was still not to harm them or attack them but again to serve them. In the context of Romans, where the church was not only full of internal struggle but where that struggle was being kept under watch by an abusive government, Paul warned his followers to make peace and to do whatever they had to do so as not to draw unneeded attention to themselves, especially in the political arena. This is what eventually leads him to say, as a last resort you can even do all this as though you were not really doing it! Or, to put it differently, you can do all this knowing the real reasons you are doing it as opposed to the reasons the corrupt government thinks you are doing it.

In the end, there is no justification in this section of Romans for war or violence that I believe can be found! However, I do believe there is justification here for Christians to have a mentality and faith that overcomes the psychological bent and law of retaliation!

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