Greg Boyd over at ReKnew wrote a post describing what he would say to President Obama if he were asked to advise about the situation in Syria. His post is appropriately humble. He knows it is a hypothetical exercise. He doesn’t weigh his own opinion heavier than it deserves. He acknowledges valid differences of opinion graciously. The questions he says he would ask Obama are all incisive and appropriate. Boyd is a pacifist and I believe he and I would agree on far more than we disagree in this situation.
What I want to focus on, however, is his assertion of something like the Lutheran Two Kingdoms doctrine. Boyd says that although Christians are commanded to live nonviolent lives because this is the way of the Kingdom of God, it does not follow that the governments of this world should embrace nonviolence. In Romans 12 & 13, according to Boyd, Paul’s argument is that disciples are to practice nonviolence but this in in contrast to governments through whom God wields the sword to restrain evil doers. We Christians are to leave vengeance to God through governments.
Here’s what I think the strong points of Boyd’s view are:
- He admits there is a conflict between loyalty to Christ and certain sword-wielding government positions. He straight-up says there are certain jobs Christians can’t do. I agree.
- He’s right that it is nonsensical for pacifists to seek to “enforce” their views on the government though I think he plays a little fast and loose with words here. Persuasion is not coercion.
- Paul does in fact say that the government wields the sword “not in vain” and a major Biblical justification for nonviolence is that vengeance belongs to God.
But Boyd misses the mark with his overall argument for a few reasons:
He understates the conflict between God’s Kingdom and governments. Rome put Jesus on trial for sedition, but it was Rome that was ultimately found guilty of murdering the King of Kings when Christ was vindicated through Resurrection. The community which arose to follow Jesus didn’t understand itself as a club under the authority of Rome, but as a new society – an alternative to Rome. Proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” means “Caesar is not”.
The characteristic nonviolence of God’s Kingdom and the violence of human governments are not accidental. Human government is founded on violence. The sword is not a tool that God has given to government, but its very nature. When Paul says government doesn’t use the sword in vain he doesn’t mean that God grants the sword or approves of its use, but only that the government can and will use the sword to fatal effect. The government will kill you, Paul warns. The type of obedience Paul urges is pragmatic, designed to help the community survive persecution, but it falls far short of allegiance.
Afterall, Paul reminds us again and again that we are at war with the powers and principalities. Now I know that Boyd doesn’t do the Wink thing in reading the powers and principalities as the collective spirituality of human institutions, but even if you believe in supernatural demons I don’t think you can read Paul honestly without seeing that human governments are part of the powers and principalities. There is no way Paul in Romans 13 is praising government.
In fact Paul, following Jesus, didn’t think this was a symmetrical war at all. God’s Kingdom had already struck the decisive blow and the governments of the world were utterly doomed. In the context of imminent parouisia Paul urging obedience sounds a lot more like urging patience. We can afford to play a little rope-a-dope. Our opponent is already gassing. This fight is going to end in a knockout any second. The only reason to read Romans 13 as some kind of divine mandate for human governments is if you have an insufficiently realized eschatology.
When we begin to think God’s Kingdom is a long way off then we fill the interim with other instruments, a second Kingdom to do God’s work for the time being. Vengeance is God’s, yes, but God’s vengeance is against the nations not wielded by them. Moreover, we know what God’s vengeance looks like: it looks like Jesus forgiving the centurions from the cross. It looks like Jesus returning in peace to reconcile with his disciples. It looks like Jesus sending them out to bear his peace into all the world.
The governments are our enemies and if it’s nonsensical for Christian pacifists to try to persuade governments to act nonviolently it is because Paul never imagined Christians holding the reigns of power (that is a post-Constantinian problem). But if governments are our enemies then we know what Christ instructed us to do with them. How shall we love them except by convincing them that violence breaks the heart of God?