Atheist libertarians love to quote Romans 13: 1-7 at me. I have been delaying addressing it for a long time, not because I have nothing to say, but because it’s such an important passage and requires a long answer. However, after at least 6 months of doing this, it’s clear that I’m never going to have time to “do it justice.” So I’ll fire off some of my thoughts on this post, probably argue with a bunch of you, and then presumably do follow up post(s) in the future.
OK so here’s the text:
1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever 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 you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents 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 as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Okay so here are my quick thoughts:
(1) On the surface, this is an admittedly odd passage. I understand why people are so bothered by it, because he makes very sweeping statements. So when I try to “explain it away”–as it will seem I’m doing to a lot of skeptics–let me at least admit to you, that I understand why this is so troubling.
(2) The thing is, we don’t even have to ask, “How could a decent libertarian support such statements?” No, the harder question is, “How could Paul himself believe such statements, if taken at face value?” Paul, remember, wrote four of his epistles (though not Romans) from prison. And moreover, it wasn’t like he slipped up and let his drinking get the better of him. No, he was in prison serving the Lord. So clearly Paul knew that it was possible for an earthly ruler to use his power to do evil.
(3) This isn’t really something foreign to the Bible. King Herod tried to have the baby Jesus killed, and an angel commanded Joseph to take Mary and his young Son to Egypt. Do we think it’s possible that Paul believed Joseph was doing the wrong thing by evading the ruler God had installed to implement His divine justice? Of course not.
(4) So now we have to ask ourselves: Does Paul really mean what a straightforward interpretation of Romans 13 suggests? If he does, then he apparently doesn’t understand his own life or any of the Bible. There are three main possibilities that I see:
(P#1) Paul is insane/illogical or the Bible is a bunch of nonsense stories and we shouldn’t be surprised at its blatant internal contradictions.
(P#2) Paul is speaking very broadly, in the sense that everything happening on Earth is a manifestation of God’s will. God is omnipotent, so everything that happens, occurs because God wants it to. For example: Why didn’t Pharaoh listen to Moses and let the Israelites go? The Bible doesn’t say, “Because Pharaoh had free will and was a bad guy, and God said, ‘Aww shucks now I guess I have to unleash some plagues.'” No, the Bible actually says “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”
(P#3) Paul is conscious of the Romans trying to persecute Christians, and so he’s trying to be very subtle. When he says, for example, “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor,” he’s being as coy as Jesus when He was asked if the Jews should pay the tax to Caesar. Jesus famously asked them to pull out a coin and say whose face was on it. They said Caesar, and Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” So on the one hand, that sounds like He’s saying, “Pay your taxes,” but actually that’s not what He said. If you don’t think Caesar has any right to the coins you earned in commerce (say) then Jesus isn’t actually commanding you to pay. Paul might be doing something similar.
(5) If a typical American Christian tries to use Romans 13 against my libertarian/pacifist views, it’s shooting fish in a barrel. (I mean, it’s using nonviolent means to persuade the fish to stop swimming around the barrel.) I can ask him (of course it would be a guy arguing with me) if he supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, he would answer of course he did, and then I would ask why we had the audacity to send troops to remove the political ruler God had installed to punish Iraqi rapists and murderers. Oops.
2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“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.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Now are the atheist libertarians really so sure that if more and more people did that from Chapter 12, but then also (because of Chapter 13) paid their taxes and didn’t try to violently overthrow the government, that the power of government would grow? Hardly. If the majority of people molded their hearts to conform to his outline in Romans 12, the politicians wouldn’t get anywhere, promising to lock up bad guys or blow up threats to national security. And in fact, in that respect the two chapters are very compatible: Even if you think the government is practicing evil, don’t you stoop to the same level in trying to overcome it.
(7) Last point for tonight: Sometimes I think today’s Christian anarcho-capitalists (yes there are some of us) try to go for the gold and make it look like the people writing in the New Testament were describing a Rothbardian paradise, with very efficient capital markets and 95 different Private Defense Associations in the phone book. Of course they weren’t thinking like that. So in this post, I’m not saying Paul would have endorsed For a New Liberty if you showed it to him. I’m guessing he would have said something like, “Well of course it would be a better world if nobody used weapons to implement political institutions or to fund armies. But why stop there? It would be a better world if nobody hated his neighbor, and this fellow Rothbard talks nothing about removing the hate from our hearts.”
Look, Paul couldn’t possibly have been thinking about political institutions, law enforcement, the most efficient way to distribute food to the hungry, etc. in the way that a Rothbard or other modern Austro-libertarian does, because Paul didn’t have the benefit of all the advances in economics and political analysis that have been made since he wrote his epistles. By the same token, a “regular” American evangelical Christian nowadays believes strongly in democracy/republican government in the vision of the Founding Fathers, even though that notion might have shocked Paul. (At first I was going to say, “Today’s evangelicals think women should be able to vote, though this would have seemed inconceivable to Paul”…except I wonder how many of today’s evangelicals think women should be able to vote?)
I realize this will sound like a huge cop-out to the atheist libertarians who wanted to really “get me” with Romans 13, but so be it: The way I am picturing how a just society would deal with criminals, I think Paul would say, “That’s the government in your world.” And if Paul and I were locked up together for 6 months, maybe I could even get him to see why my vision was more compatible with the way Paul assumed government “had to” operate.
So in conclusion, I admit the beginning of Romans 13 is problematic. But it’s problematic not simply for the extreme libertarian, it’s problematic for anybody who thinks Hitler was a bad ruler. And once you figure out how (if you think it can be done) Paul’s words can deal with that particular ruler, then you can use the same technique on every other political ruler, if you so happen to believe that all political rulers commit injustice by their very position.