Romans 13: Love, Vengeance, and Anarchy

The following is part of the Anarchy in May series which examines Christian anarchism and quotes prominent Christian anarchist thinkers. For a more detailed introduction and a table of contents, please see Anarchy in May: Brief Introduction and Contents.
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There are times when we all ought to lament the versification of Scripture. An innovation of the Middle Ages, biblical versification allows and even encourages readers to artificially divide what were originally single units of texts. At the level of single verses, Scripture often splits single sentences (and therefore single thoughts) right down the middle. More pernicious, perhaps, are the chapter divisions that allow us to consider fuller units of text as if they existed independently of those that came before. When you add to this the translators subheadings which appear in almost every English edition of the Bible, the reader is left with an almost overwhelming compulsion to read scripture in segments which may or may not reflect any genuine divisions on the part of the original author (and which may even ignore divisions that the authors did intend).

While there are numerous nuances which are glazed over by the versification of Scripture (and numerous pragmatic benefits to weigh against my admittedly one-sided criticisms), one text in which the chapter divisions have dramatically narrowed interpretations is Romans 13. This text has been marshaled for centuries, and especially since the rise of the Anabaptists, to legitimate civil authority and encourage lawful participation of Christians therein. Unfortunately, when it is offered as proof of the moral permissibility of civil participation, the message is normally begun at Romans 13:1, as if Paul has suddenly left off on his themes being a living sacrifice, existing in peace with everyone, and manifesting an ethos of love introduced beginning in 12:1–and indicated not by the new chapter but by the transitional term “therefore” and the shift to the hortatory tone–in order to talk about the unrelated theme of ruling authorities. In erasing the verse and chapter divisions, new themes and parallels begin to emerge which help to give a fuller picture of the meaning of Romans 13 and admit interpretations which are consonant with Christian anarchism (and alleviate what would otherwise be an irresolvable tension between Romans 12 and 13):

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written,

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.

It should strike you as ironic, as it struck me only very recently, how closely the quintessential text used to legitimate civil authority and its bearing of the sword is to perhaps the greatest Pauline exhortation to pacifism that invalidates participation in government. The interplay extends beyond the text quoted above and there are numerous points of contact that could be examined. There are two essential features of the above text, however, which I contend are the cornerstone for a right interpretation of Romans 13, one that affirms Paul’s command to submit to government without concluding simply (and uncritically) that Christians should therefore kill American Indians, Tories, Confederates, Nazis, communists, and Muslims in the name of God and Washington (if Christians still bother to make that distinction).

The first theme which unites the two passages is love, particularly a love which strives to live at peace with everyone. This is undoubtedly the focus of the beginning of Paul’s discussion as he encourages Christians to live in a community of love. Initially this community seems to be primarily the Christian community, as Paul speaks of brotherly affection, but Paul quickly extends this exhortation to love to all men, whose common moral judgment Christians are to conform to and who Christians are to live at peace with. Paul extends the bounds of love even further to include even those who are outright evil, who persecute and curse Christians. Echoing the prescriptions of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul advises a radical love for one’s enemies, a love that is not merely non-aggression but positive affection. It involves blessing those who hate us the most and providing for them even as they try to deprive Christians of their lives and property. The ultimate aim is clearly that of a self-sacrificial love, but Paul stresses peace in the community as an intermediate goal. Ultimately evil will be overcome by good–God’s righteous judgement–but in the meantime Christians are to confront evil with their own divinely mandated goodness in an effort to be peacemakers in a world that refuses peace

One may question my inclusion of that final sentence in the above quote, because verse eight is typically shifted into the next paragraph (another modern feature of the text absent in the originals) away from the section on civil government, but it seems to fit very neatly in with the issue of what one owes and to whom it is owed: “Render to all what is due them…Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.” (The words are the same in Greek, “due” and “owe.”) It also comes full circle back to the dominant theme of the outset of the quoted passage, a theme which Paul clearly never intended to leave. It is clear, when reading this text as a unit, that Paul never abandons his themes of love, goodness, and living at peace. Paul’s first command is to be subject to the government, which he immediately repeats as a negative prohibition not to agitate against the government. Suddenly, this command becomes not a legitimation of civil authority as ultimately good but a repetition of the exhortation for Christians to live at peace so far as it is depends on them. Paul continues to explain that as long as Christians continue to live good lives, the government will leave them in peace. The picture Paul is painting then becomes clear: do not be the agent of agitation against governments, live such good lives that the government will not be agitators against you, and the peace which has been enjoined on you will prevail. Ultimately, this peaceful coexistence is an expression of the love which Paul reminds is the true and final duty of all Christians. You may owe the government taxes and the king honor, but your first and foremost owe everyone love, the kind of love that bless, feeds, and offer succor to our enemies–even inimical nation states.

It does seem clear, however, that in some sense Paul does recognize the right, even the divine duty, of civil government to bear the sword and punish evil as servants of God, which would seem to undermine the position of Christian anarchism. Here the second observation comes into play. I am not contesting that coercive force is the necessary function of civil government. In fact, the whole of Christian anarchism is predicated on the belief that all civil authorities exist only and inevitably by the use of such violence. Let’s even say, for the sake of argument, that the use of such force is the result of divine approbation rather than exigency (which I don’t believe it is, but that point is not necessary to my argument). When Paul’s message is taken as a unit, it is clear that God’s elect purpose for civil government and government’s ordained means for achieving that purpose are incompatible with God’s elect plan for the Christian community.

Consider the linguistic parallel. “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God…for [the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Within the span of a few short sentences–placed on opposite sides of a theological chasm by a big, bold number thirteen separating them–Paul says to Christians, do not take revenge but leave room for God’s wrath, which, by the way, He is executing through the police power of the state. It is hard to be more clear that Paul sets up the moral duties of the church and the state in contradistinction to one another. The church is the place in which participants are governed by a law of love which forgives sins, blesses foes, promotes peace, and gives aid and comfort to the enemy (to borrow military language). Meanwhile, the state is the organ by which God chooses to punish sins, suppress foes, declare war, and destroy the enemy–though not always in ways which are just.

This, meanwhile, has always been the Christian anarchists understanding of civil government: that it is a sinful institution using a sinful means to punish sinful people in an effort to order a sinful world. When Paul declares that God uses civil government to punish evil through violent suppression, he is by no means legitimizing that behavior (the behavior that will be turned on him and his Christian community in a short time), much less commending it to Christians whom he has just instructed to never punish evil through violent suppression but to confront it with blessings, peace, and charity. Quite the contrary, he is building on a tradition of looking at civil authority entirely distinct from our own laudatory praise of the enlightened modern means of governance. For him, to say that Rome is the servant of God is not like Rick Santorum saying America was a Christian nation; he draws instead on the rich Old Testament tradition of God using evil authorities to work providential ends through violent means and then punishing them for their sinfulness. Consider Isaiah 10:

Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hands is My indignation,
I send it against a godless nation
And commission it against the people of My fury
To capture booty and to seize plunder,
And to trample them down like mud in the streets.
Yet it does not so intend,
Nor does it plan so in its heart,
But rather it is its purpose to destroy
And to cut off many nations.
For it says, “Are not my princes all kings?
“Is not Calno like Carchemish,
Or Hamath like Arpad,
Or Samaria like Damascus?
“As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
Whose graven images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
Shall I not do to Jerusalem and her images
Just as I have done to Samaria and her idols?”

So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.”

Like Babylon countless nations before it and like countless nations after it–including Rome, of which Paul is speaking, and America, of which I am typically speaking–Assyria does in fact act in service of God and is therefore God’s servant. This does not mean that Assyria acts consciously in an effort to conform to the will of God; it was not a Jewish nation or even a righteous nation. It is merely a nation who unwittingly and unrighteously was employed by God for His righteous ends. This does not exculpate Assyria nor would it have exculpated the Jews if they had allied themselves to Assyria in her dastardly but ordained purpose. It merely recognizes, as Paul does, that no one can even pretend authority unless God permits it to happen and that God uses (though by no means necessarily approves of) the sinful means by which sinful man has attempted to order a sinful world in order to accomplish His righteous purposes. (One need only look at the cross as the ultimate testimony to the divine modus operandi.)

The conclusion then is a reevaluation of the meaning of Romans 13 when the context is brought to bear on its meaning. No longer can Christian blithely cite this verse and declare that government is good, its use of the sword is good, and Christian participation in either or both is therefore equally good. Instead, we see the flow of Paul’s argument that stresses the Christian commitment to love and peace not only in the community of believers and with enemies who may arise but with society as a whole. Christians can hope for the ultimate accomplishment of divine justice through wrath poured out on evil, and in the meantime take heart that God is working through the mechanism of the state to curb the influence of evil in ways which are not available to Christians who are called to be holier than the world of violence and exigency they inhabit.

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2 thoughts on “Romans 13: Love, Vengeance, and Anarchy

  1. […] vs. Quietism: Where Anarchism Falls Bender on the Anabaptist Vision Chelčický on Romans 13 Romans 13: Love, Vengeance, and Anarchy Eller on the Just Society (Pt. 1) Eller on the Just Society (Pt. 2) Eller on the Just Society (Pt. […]

  2. […] and civil government should be obvious merely from a liberal exercise of human reason, but Paul does Christians the service of highlighting the dichotomy in Romans when he tells Christians that they must express love and […]

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