Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Horns of a Dilemma

The current situation throughout the Middle East(particularly Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain) has reminded me of of a topic that I usually only think about each July. Biblical justification for revolt or revolution or the lack thereof. I think being an American makes this a particularly difficult topic to look at objectively since our country is the direct result of revolution and, for the most part, the results have been good. I propose to look first at what the Bible says about our relationship to government, then at what our Founding Fathers said about the Bible and war/revolution, last at where that puts us today.

I'll start with the most applicable and direct quote on the topic of our relationship with the government in the Bible, Romans 13:1-3:

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,4 for he is God's servant for your good. (ESV)
To set the stage of the writing, Paul wrote this around a.d. 57, probably from around Corinth. The Roman Emperor from a.d. 54 to a.d. 68 was Nero, who is known for his persecution of the Jews and Christians late in his reign and the execution of Peter and Paul around a.d. 67. Given this setting, go back and read verses 1 and 2 again. There are no “weasel words” in those verses (ie. Might, should, some, most), no equivocation at all as a matter of fact. Instead we see words like: every, have been, whoever, will. Paul tells us very clearly that we are to subject ourselves to the government that is over us regardless of whether we like it, and that resistance to the government is a sin.

Peter, writing around the same time has a very similar message. In 1 Peter, chapter 2 he has the following things to say about submission to authority:

13 Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme...”, “17 ... Fear God. Honor the emperor.”, and “18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.
I don't see much room for interpretation of the words here. The plain meaning of what is written seems to unambiguous. So how does one interpret these passages to support resistance to the government or even the overthrow of the government?

We do have some examples of Biblical heroes who defied the government or overthrew a government. Daniel (in Daniel 6:8) prayed to God in defiance of a law passed by the ruler King Darius. Also in the Book of Daniel (chapter 1-3) we have Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to worship the king in open defiance of his law. I don't think that these examples can be used to justify resistance or revolt except under similar circumstances. These examples distinguish themselves since these acts of resistance are only about the worship of God or the Law of God. They simply refused to obey the one offending law, they did not call for revolution, the breaking of any other law, or question the legitimacy of the ruler.

The stories that should be most applicable here would be stories that talk about overthrowing the government. We have two such stories. The story of Gideon (found in Judges 6-8) tells of the overthrow of the Midianite's who had ruled over Israel for many years. We also have the Story of Samson (found in Judges 13-16) where he overthrows the rule of the Philistines. At least in the case of Gideon it is clear that God specifically ordered him to take the actions necessary to overthrow the government. In Samson's story it is less clear.

Many of our Founding Fathers and most of the colonists were Christians and the justification of rebellion was a topic of concern for them. The reasoning of the colonists can be found here in more detail, but here is a synopsis: 1.) That Romans 13 referred to the institution of government and not a specific ruler. Basically that as long as you weren't trying to get rid of all government so you could live in anarchy you were justified. 2.) That King George was illegitimate as a ruler because he was a tyrant and not a “servant of God.” 3.) They saw the war as a defensive war, not offensive, and a such justified. 4.) If the government was unrighteous and passes unrighteous laws, then it would not be righteous to follow those laws, “for the Lords sake.” 5.) Hebrews 11 mentions several Biblical heroes who were involved in overthrowing tyrannical governments. The quote, variously attributed, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” was made popular at this time.

These rationalizations just don't convince me of Biblical justification. The first argument is clearly a secular humanist argument that looks like it was written by a lawyer, not a reasonable reading of the passage. The next one fails because Nero was not a “swell guy” either, the later Emperor's of Rome were to be worshiped much like King Darius. Third, if you push a government into a corner where there only options are to fight or surrender, can you really claim innocence if violence ensues? Fourth, same as number three, the Roman Empire was never righteous to the best of my knowledge, yet both Peter and Paul tell us to respect that authority. The last argument has some validity, just not sure it's enough to carry the whole case.

So, where does that leave us? I think it's fair to say the the Founding Fathers, despite of rhetoric to the contrary, were far more influenced by John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and other Enlightenment philosophers than by Biblical direction.

That being said, I am a patriotic American who thinks that the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are incredible documents. I also feel that people should have the right to chose their own form of government, that they should be free from tyranny and oppression. I applaud the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries of the Middle East for their courage and determination to seek representative governments. I'm just not sure how to fit the two competing ideas into some harmonious concept. The sites I have read on this topic try to emphasis the religious and embellish the Christian credentials of the Founding Fathers. To me, it just comes off like putting lipstick on a pig.

I would love to hear from people on this topic.

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