DUNN LORING, VA — 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
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
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!
A version of this article was printed in the March 2002 edition of
Sobran's: The Real News of the Month.
Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.
Joe Sobran is an author and a syndicated columnist. See complete bio
and latest writings.
Watch Sobran on YouTube.
To subscribe, renew, or support further columns by Joe Sobran, please send
a tax-deductible donation to the:
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation
P.O. Box 1383
or sponsor online.