This series has ventured into the territory of Romans 13, and there is a good reason for this. If America’s founding fathers were correct, this democratic republic will not continue to exist as such without the virtue created by religious faith. And perhaps Christian faith in particular, in spite of any “theistic rationalist’s” hopes to the contrary (see footnote of part II, briefly discussing Gregg Frazer’s important insights about the founding fathers’ beliefs).*
Challenges to the view of Romans 13 I hinted at yesterday certainly can and do arise. Another person commenting on the blog I quoted from yesterday said: “what makes you the lawful ruler?… historically, the way many ‘legitimate’ rulers came to power was by murdering people who opposed them and forcing their will on others. In other words, legitimacy is established by the sword.”
Indeed – it would seem that here, at least, “might makes right” in some sense. As much as we may hate to say it, how was Rome and its Emperors established if not by might?
Still, is this all that can be said? Or is there any room for tinkering, for ambiguity – without falling into rationalization over rebellion versus those God has appointed? For example, if a United States President were to undermine the rule of law and the orderly institutionalized rebellion we call democratic elections, would the military be justified in removing the usurper? What if a case could be made that it was a truly legitimate emergency situation? (ever wonder how the Papacy could take hold and become established like it did? – read this). Who should ultimately decide this though? Ideally, the vice-President – but what if the third in command did not trust the Vice President to follow the Constitution either – and he had the support of both the head of the military and the majority of the population? What about that third in command’s own motives? To ponder the chaos of a faltering democratic republic is a bit mortifying.
Again, on that same post, another commented regarding a concrete historical situation being discussed there:
“Nazi Germany invading France and establishing the puppet Vichy government, does not constitute a legitimate government of the conquered French [I add: whose ruler surrendered, and whose leaders had been exiled]. The Greater war in question continued, and the greater war needed to be finished, and the world recognize the Vichy government as legitimate for it to become legitimate… but this never truly happened…. So those Christians continuing to resist the Nazi’s and the Vichy, where well within their rights to do so. Their legitimate government was alive and well, alb[ei]t in exile.”
Is this the case? I am highly sympathetic to this view, and yet there are certainly questions to be worked out here. First, who is the “world” that would need to recognize the puppet government that it might be legitimate? The argument certainly assumes that some of the world – those whose views matter – would need to do this. It seems that in particular, the leaders of the allied nations assisting the resistance would need to recognize the legitimacy of the Vichy government, and this they were not willing to do.
All this said, as we somewhat circumvent the idea of “might makes right” here, we can certainly be tempted to reduce all situations to neat, correct principles. These principles would ideally be such that more evil governments would either not be able to identify with them at all, or they would not necessarily be able to apply them in a valid fashion in order to justify their actions. That said, perhaps there might still be situations where it would be hard or impossible to determine and justify our judgments.* It seems to me that there could be very difficult questions of how just war theory, for example, should be administered on the ground in concrete circumstances, which always has to do with who is – and should be – making the decisions. And this again, the Bible tells us, must inevitably be tied up with the order – which means hierarchy – that God provides in the world, as He evidently uses even evil for good!
Luther held to the Scriptures which say that God is the final Lord of all human lords (1 Tim. 6:15) and the final avenger of all injustice (Rom. 12:19). And that we are not to be rebels (Romans 13). Taking the Bible this seriously helps to explain why Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to frame his rebellion the way he did. When he made his decision in the 1940s to not only resist the Nazis but to assist in an attempt to assassinate Hitler against the wishes of the legitimate governments opposing him**, he says he did not do so because it was the right thing – the righteous thing – to do. Instead, he essentially said that it was a wrong thing to do, but a less wrong thing to do. Bonhoeffer would say that his action was something he needed forgiveness, not praise, for. It was a “lesser of the two evils”, and it is “better to do evil than be evil” (see here). Like the British official during the war who told his staff he must unjustly fire them all in order to eliminate the one spy among them, it was perhaps the least bad thing that could be done in a fallen world that only the sinless God-man could rise above. In short, even according to Bonhoeffer, it is impossible for a Christian to ever see rebellion as being a righteous act.
So if what Bonhoeffer did was not righteous, was it really the “lesser of the two evils”? And what should we think of the American Revolution? I’ll cover that before wrapping things up in Christ our Lord.
*Here is something to think about: In the democracy of India, I heard years ago that it is not socially acceptable to publicly tell someone you think they are wrong when it comes to religious convictions. This was held up as a model in the PBS program I am referring to. What does this do for freedom of religion, free speech (debate?), assembly, etc. – not to mention the notion of the importance of truth in public discourse?
**Let us take the example of the Vichy puppet government, established by the Nazis, discussed above. We might say the principle is this: if a nation’s leader has surrendered but it still has allies among other nations that are willing to continue the fight the “conqueror” cannot yet be said to have legitimate rights to rule. In this case, the Vichy government would not be legitimate due to allied resistance (the leader of the nation(s) offering help would be the de-facto legitimate ruler), but the Russian government that took over Poland would be, due to the lack of allied help. Does this not seem arbitrary though?
More questions: How large and powerful does the resistance need to be in order to “count”? What will really constitute their surrender (since the surrender of the French leader did not count)? Would ongoing guerilla strikes against the occupying forces be enough so that they would still not be legitimate – even if they were only supported by their friends with arms? Or would their friends need to put boots on the ground?
And in the case of Poland (or E. Germany, Hungary, etc.), what if America, for instance, had picked up the fight vs. the Russians five years later at a more opportune time? Would that put the Russian government there back in the category of “illegitimate occupiers”? What about the case of the crusades, occurring some 400 years after the original conquest of the Holy Land? Thinking about this, one realizes the inextricable logic of retaliation.
And how many governments that currently exist were established “legitimately”? And America’s “Manifest Destiny”? It sometimes seems to me that most any war can be rationalized by a charismatic figure able to argue – with few if any consequences for doing so – perhaps even utilizing the strictures of just war theory to make his case.
*** Some say that Bonhoeffer and his conspirators simply should have listened to the Allies wishes here – they wanted Hitler, who was making bad military decisions, to remain in power until the end of the war. Of course, even if the tide of the war had turned, it may have also been doubtful to Bonhoeffer et. al whether or not they could trust the Allies, who had, for example, let Czechloslovakia fall. Not only this, but the Germans ramped up their death camp violence in these last days.
Pic of Pilate from rj-mccauley.blogspot.com ; portrait of James by John de Critz, c. 1606 from Wikipedia ; France under German occupation map from Wikipedia