— In recent weeks I’ve been debating with people I usually agree with: conservative Christians. Many of them feel I’ve gone too far in the direction of philosophical anarchism, in defiance of both Scripture and Catholic teaching.
One reader, a self-identified Catholic socialist, went so far as to call my views “heresy.” He cited particularly the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI. His e-mail message was so intelligent, provocative, and yet charitable that I answered him at some length, and we have had a long, friendly exchange ever since. We’re still arguing, and neither of us is backing down.
I’ve also been in touch with an old Protestant friend, now a minister, whom I haven’t seen since high school. He too thinks Christian doctrine requires submission to government, and he argues his case with a power and sophistication I find especially impressive, considering the level of our old Scripture-banging arguments in our school days.
The key text for Christians is chapter 13 of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which begins: “You must all obey the governing authorities. Since all government comes from God, the civil authorities were appointed by God, and so anyone who resists authority is rebelling against God’s decision, and such an act is bound to be punished. Good behavior is not afraid of magistrates; only criminals have anything to fear…. The state is there to serve God for your benefit.” This is from the Jerusalem Bible; the more familiar King James Version says that “the powers that be are ordained of God.”
Many Christians quote this passage to support the view that we owe allegiance and obedience to the government. But this interpretation, though obvious at first sight, soon raises difficulties for Christians. After all, the Christian martyrs — including Paul himself — lived under pagan tyrants and chose to die rather than submit to worship the emperor. Paul is thought to have died during Nero’s persecution.
Later Christian political thought was extremely varied and complex. But St. Augustine took a dark view of earthly government, which, with slavery and war, he deemed a consequence of original sin. St. Thomas Aquinas held that even unfallen man would need government (as even good drivers need traffic laws), but he agreed with Augustine that a positive law that clashed with divine or natural law was unjust and void — a principle that might invalidate most statutes on the books.
Over two millennia, pagan states were replaced by Christian states, which gave way to secularist states. During all this time Christians have been forced to grapple with many questions: What is a state? How do we recognize its authority? What are its limits? Can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate states? Is rebellion ever justified? Must the state defer to the Church? Must the Church obey the state? All these difficult questions have been further complicated by the experience of barbarian conquests, feudalism, monarchism, religious divisions, dynastic quarrels, republican constitutionalism, capitalism, nationalism, industrialism, mass democracy, dictatorship, Marxism, totalitarianism, the welfare state, and of course war, particularly total war.
Today almost nobody holds the position of Romans 13 in its full rigor, if that means a duty of unqualified submission to whatever regime happens to exist. Nearly all Christians distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate regimes; if rebellion is always a sin, how can we have a duty to obey the successful rebel when he assumes power? Must we obey the tsar one day, and the Lenin who topples him the next? Does Paul mean to say: “Thou shalt obey anyone who holds coercive power over thee”?
Or consider the United States. Here, “We the People” are in theory the sovereign authority, and our ruling officers are mere servants. The powers “delegated” to those servants are defined and limited by the Constitution. Must we obey them, even when they usurp powers never entrusted to them? When they claim such powers, it would seem that “they” are in rebellion against “us”, and we have no duty to obey. “Masters, obey your servants”?
When there are so many kinds of states, some of them mutually incompatible, the only defining trait they share is the claim of a legal monopoly of coercion. Paul doesn’t assert that brute power constitutes a right to command and compel. He must mean something else. But what?
He says the civil authorities serve God, and Christians can obey the law and be good citizens by simply keeping the Commandments. Were these words meant to ward off suspicions that Christians were subversive and to encourage them to respect human law, at least insofar as it conformed to God’s law?
If so, Paul’s words may carry an ironic meaning that would escape the Roman authorities. By positing a just government — very unlike the rule of Nero — he may have been subtly implying that Christians are “not” morally bound to cooperate with tyranny.
If that’s what he meant, maybe I’m not such a heretic after all!
This article was published originally in the March 2002 edition of
Joe Sobran was a brilliant writer. See bio and archives of some of his columns.
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