Monday, February 09, 2009

Should Christians Ever Revolt against a Tyranous Government?

Should Christians ever resort to the violent overthrow of governments? Apart from the pragmatic issue of how well it works, Romans 13 seems to forbid rebellion. Many Christian thinkers have thought this passage only protected governments acting legitimately. But I have to admit the text makes no such distinction.

I think that the answer to the use of rebellion may be tied up in a variety of other questions. First is the question of whether or not objective moral rules change over time. I am quite sure that they don’t. Genuine moral rules flow from the nature of God Himself, and God never changes. Sometimes individuals or societies come to know more about God, but God Himself does not change, and His rules don’t change. If God does not change, then the events that are approved of morally in the Old Testament can give us some guidance. We have to be careful because there are some events in the Old Testament that were immoral that the text does not comment on clearly. With respect to revolts, we do find a couple of examples in the Old Testament. First, we find a revolt against foreign tyranny or hegemony in the book of Judges. In Judges 3:12 Ehud kills the king of Moab. One does have to be careful with the book of Judges though. So many foolish actions amid a few brave ones. Another revolt takes place in Judah itself. In II Kings 11, there is a rebellion against the usurping queen Athaliah by the priests, the military, and the true heir to the throne, Joash. This revolt seems to meet with nothing but approval from the text. While Athaliah was a usurper, she did represent the status quo.

These examples lead to a second problem. What makes a government a government from God’s point of view anyway?

The third problem in trying to resolve the issue of rebellions is whether or not there is a hierarchy to moral rules. While there are many nuanced positions available, popular theologian Norman Geisler has pointed out that there are basically three positions among Christians who hold a strong view of Scripture. First, the classic Pietist position that moral principles never come into conflict and there is no real hierarchy of moral principles. Second, the Lutheran position that there is a hierarchy of morals, but when they come into conflict we do the lesser evil. The lesser evil is still a sin, but often a necessary one which God can forgive. Third is the Calvinist position that there is a hierarchy of moral principles and that you are not sinning when you follow the greatest good. You can readily see how this might apply with the problem of rebellion. If it is a moral truth that we are to obey the government, what happens when it comes into conflict with a higher moral principle like preserving innocent human life or preventing the murder of innocent human life? It becomes even more complicated in states where the government and the people are intertwined so that the people become accomplices in whatever the state undertakes or fails to undertake. Pietists would tend to say that you could never rebel against the government because no moral principle can override any other. Lutherans would say that if the government is up to serious evil like murdering innocents, you may rebel against the government in an emergency, but doing so would be a sin for which repentance and forgiveness would be necessary. The classic Calvinist position would be that if the government is going around killing innocent people, it is actually your duty to rebel against it and replace it with a better government, but that you need to be awfully cautious about taking this step and what the actual results are going to turn out to be. Under the Calvinist position, you are not sinning by rebelling against the government because preserving innocent human life and maintaining appropriate and legitimate government override the general moral principle of obedience to the state. By the way, while the Pietists, Calvin, and Luther are the names associated with these views, all these views have been around as long as there have been human beings. Their application has merely been less systematic or group linked.

A fourth major issue is the question of whether or not application of moral principles should be based on playing it safe or on accepting moral adventure in which we may do the wrong thing for good reasons. Pietist groups generally stick with playing it safe. Calvinists, like Presbyterians and Congregationalists in the early United States, and the Puritan Anglicans have tended to practice moral adventure. Certainly there is always a danger of arrogance or mistake involved in any choice to use violence. Nevertheless, I think it is arguable from the parable of the talents and other passages in Scripture that God probably does call us to moral adventure rather than to moral safety. But the use of violence is so serious it should only occur in very unusual circumstances – such as when no alternative of the ballot box or the news paper is available.

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