Violent Political Action: A Christian Approach? Pt. 1 Biblical Foundations
We face turbulent times. Should the Christian community engage in revolution? Should the church participate in civil war as a political entity? If so, under what conditions? An essay in 3 parts.
The “West” is nearing its end. I am in agreement with Spengler that cultures are born, they live for a period of time, and they die. Why is it important to begin in this manner? Our society, our culture, our way of life, is coming to end. It will likely not pass away quietly. It will be a time of turmoil and trouble. It will probably be a time of violence. Something new will emerge, if after a time. What place, what role will the Christian community play in both the end of western civilization and in the birth of what comes next? Should violence be part of that response? The Christian faith has played a major part in several of the great civilizations and will likely find a new expression in any successor culture to the West. What might come next after the West is a question for another day.
In this piece, I am keenly interested in working through the role that Christians and the Christian community could potentially play in end of the west, specifically the question of whether and under what conditions the Christian community should engage in direct violent action. Everywhere you look these days, tensions seem to be rising. There is increasing talk of persecution, of soft-totalitarianism, or more, directed specifically at the church. How should we respond? Passively? Actively? What would that look like? Is it ok for Christians to take up arms as a community? If so, in what manner?
One of the first places to which most Christians would turn to for answers to these questions is the Bible. There is a lot of Biblical material that we could pour over. To keep the discussion focused, I am going to forego examining the Old Testament passages here in order to focus specifically on two oft cited New Testament texts. If readers are interested, I might be talked into giving a more fulsome account of the Biblical material in the Old Testament in separate article.
The two passages I will delve into in this essay are often seen as laying out the core of the Christian approach to direct violent political action. Let’s be clear here. I am not talking about a Christian justification for war at the state level. Rather, what we are talking about is violence by Christians against the state, or violence by Christians against another part of the body politic within the state, as Christians. Revolution. Civil war. Should the Christian community, as a politically conscious entity, engage in direct violent action against the state or other segments of society? Is armed rebellion justifiable from a specifically Christian perspective? Likewise for civil war.
Let’s dive into the texts. The first passage we will examine is 1 Peter 2:13-17:
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants (the word here in Greek can mean either servant or slave. It is probably best to understand it as “slaves”) of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.”
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit is you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
There is a lot happening in this text. Let’s note first of all the conception of the relationship of the Christian community to that of the state and the body politic in general that seems to undergird what is being said here. This passage seems to conceive of the church as a distinct, separate community living within the broader society. In that sense, to put this in today’s context, Christians were never intended to see themselves as Americans or Canadians. Christians were meant to form something like a nation within a nation. The country you live in is largely incidental to the Christian community. They lived within the Roman empire, but once they became Christians, Christ was their king, not the Roman emperor. They belonged to the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of men.
For the American church, this is one of the things that undercuts and hinders their ability to find an identity, a “political” identity that is distinctly Christian. Most American Christians are as much or more American than they are Christian. They see the fate of the church as somehow tied up with the fate of the nation. The idea of a “Manifest Destiny,” that is, the belief that America somehow has a mission from God that is both American and Christian at the same time is a part of the church identity in the United States. It is fair to say that the church in the United States has a divided loyalty. This hinders the American church in this regard.
What this means in practice is that many Christians in the United States are as much committed to “classical liberalism” – the idea of universal natural rights as enshrined in the Bill of Rights as well free market economics — as they are to the witness of the gospel. This dual commitment compromises the church. There are many Christians in the USA who are as committed to the Founding Fathers and the Bill of Rights as their non-Christian neighbors.
In addition, especially through the period of the cold war, many Christians saw a commitment to market capitalism as part of the fight against the evils of communism. The downside to this is, as observed by Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto del Noce, is that instead of fighting Marxist materialism with the greater spiritual values of the “Christian” west, Americans decided to fight communism in the realm of materialism in the form of consumer economics. The fight was to show the communists that we in the West could provide far better for the material needs of the people. In doing so, though, we placed great cultural weight on materialism. The side effect of this is that we didn’t just embrace the acquisition of material goods, we also embraced the “spiritual” side of materialism. We started to live life as if there is no God. We might be still going to church and adhering to a conservative theology, but our lifestyle and priorities testify that our Christian faith is only tangentially related to our lives. At heart we are materialists. In this sense, spiritual Marxism won. We won the cold war against Russia but lost the spiritual battle with Marxism.
Why is this important to say? If the church community does not have a clear understanding of its own identity separate from the nation in which it lives, it will have a hard time discerning its relationship to the state and to the nation. It also makes it almost impossible to develop a coherent and specifically Christian response to the current political situation. Without those clear lines of demarcation, without a clear identity as a Christian community with its own distinct culture, without its own form of existence that is separate from the national identity, Christians will be unable to develop a specifically Christian politics. Is the classical liberal idea of “rights and freedoms” compatible with the Christian faith? Is free market economics compatible with the Christian faith? I would argue they are not. Neither are any of the other non-Christian alternatives like communism or socialism for that matter. This is a vitally important point. We cannot answer the question of violent political action without answering the question of the existential nature of the Christian community and its relation to the broader culture.
There is a secondary question which is also important to answer. What happens when the king, the governor, or the magistrate becomes a Christian? We need to answer this question because the magistrate has a God ordained role. One of the foundational teachings of Christianity is that we are born sinful and that we live in world stained by sin and evil. What this means in practice is that often our choices are not clean decisions between something that is good and something that is evil. Sometimes we must choose between a lesser evil and a greater evil.
Violence is an evil. In a good world, there would be no violence. But we do not live in that world. We live in a world tainted by sin and evil. In this evil world, God has mandated some people with the responsibility to use violence in order to punish wrong doers. That is their God ordained role. Being tasked with this, though, the magistrate is also responsible to God for how this power is used. They will stand before the judgement seat of God to answer for the evil they have done. In addition to the punishment of wrongdoers, the king is also tasked with the protection of his people from attack and invasion. These are God given roles. And, as we have just said, the king is answerable for how they carry out that role. If a Christian finds themselves in this role, they will be tasked with the use of violence to restrain and punish evil and immorality within society. They will also be burdened with protecting the population. They will also answer to God for their actions.
That brings us back to the Christian’s response to the state, to the king, to the magistrate. Because God has placed the responsibility for violent defense of order and righteousness in society in the hands of the king, the Christian is able to put faith in God’s judgement for the king’s use of violence. Even if the king is a tyrant, he has been ordained to that role by God. We as Christians, though, are to be good and to live good lives, such that no one can accuse us of evil. We should not be earning just punishments from the king. And if we are punished unjustly while doing good and living good lives, we should bear that punishment and embrace it as reifying Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in our own lives. Thus, the default position for the faithful Christian should be that of martyrdom, a willingness to embrace suffering as a testimony to what Christ has done for all humanity. We sacrifice ourselves because he first sacrificed himself for us. The proper Christian response is not to “fight” for what is right; but, rather, to “suffer” for what is right.
But the passage above is careful to note that we are to live as “free” men. What that means, though, is that we are not free to do whatever we please. We are not morally autonomous individuals. Rather, we find freedom by being slaves to God, slaves to Christ. That is why, for example, whether one is politically a slave or politically has the status of a free man is largely irrelevant to the Christian. One is not free by one’s political status, but rather whether one belongs to the Kingdom of God or not. The non-believing slave owner is more of a slave than the believing slave whom he owns because the master is in bondage to the devil. The slave is free in Christ. He belongs to God. If a slave can gain their release from slavery, they should. Also, how can a believer own another human being if he himself is a slave to Christ?
This highlights, though, the fundamental political divide for the Christian. Does that person belong to Christ or not? If they belong to Christ and are his slave, then they are free and part of a free people. They belong to the Kingdom of God primarily as it instantiates itself in the community of believers. In this sense, the Christian’s first loyalty is not to country, but to Christ and his church. The community of believers is always meant to stand apart from the body politic as its own distinct community. In this sense, from the point of view of the state, especially a secular or non-Christian state, the Christian community should always be seen as a political power, potentially a political threat. When the Christian community makes up the majority of the population and Christianity is the predominant culture, the two entities, church and state are still meant to look out for their own unique interests and God given roles. They balance each other and check each other as distinct “powers.”
With this groundwork laid, let us turn to the other passage from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” as found in Matthew 5:38-43:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
In this passage, Jesus transforms the old laws of retribution meant to limit blood feuds by completely transforming the desire for revenge. Jesus elsewhere calls on forgiveness. Forgive as God has forgiven you. Do not trust in your own desire to exact judgement, rather trust in the judgement and salvation of God. It cuts off the paths of revenge and scapegoating in favor of forgiveness and the path of the cross, the path of suffering for what it right. The default response for the believer should always be that of martyrdom.
There is, though, a couple of points made by Carl Schmitt in regards to this text in his work “The Concept of the Political.” He notes two things. First, in order for you to love your enemy, you must know who that enemy is and also who your friends are. Who shares your existential form of existence and who represents a threat to that existence? Secondly, the passage says that you must love your enemy, but you are not called to surrender to him. This is an important distinction.
It is essential for Christians to know who is the “us.” And then by contrast, all who are not part of the “us” are part of the “them” and potentially an enemy. Part of knowing who we are Christians is having an existential identity separate from the surrounding culture. This becomes more difficult if most in the society consider themselves “Christian” or if the Christian community has allowed itself to assimilate into the broader culture. The first was the problem of “Christendom” and is not our problem today. We are in the second group. We have effectively become assimilated into western culture — perhaps because we did not take seriously the need to develop and maintain a distinct Christian political identity during the days of broad cultural Christianity in the west. We find ourselves in a situation where we have not maintained adequate safeguards to preserve the integrity of the boundaries between those who are inside and those who are outside of the Christian community. As a result, the church today has a weak existential identity. Because of this weak existential identity, the church has a weak political identity. We don’t have a specifically Christian identity that is existentially different from our non-Christian neighbours. This is something that needs to change going forward. Without a firm idea of the Christian community, without a strong “us” there is no way for the church to develop a proper political consciousness. Without this consciousness one cannot begin to fully answer the question of violent political action for the Christian. For it is only in a community with a distinct existential identity that such a question can be answered. For the individual, the answer is almost always the path of martyrdom, that of “suffering” for what is right.
Schmitt’s second thought was a revelation to me when I first read it, and I was surprised when I came across it in his writings, it was something that had not occurred to me before. We are called to love our enemies, not surrender to them. Here is the thing, it is hard to maintain that posture when the existential identity of the church, and of the Christians who make up the church, are so assimilated into the ethos of the broader culture. Had the church maintained its separateness and not allowed itself to be domesticated into “Christendom” or be assimilated into secular western society, it would have had a far easier time maintaining the boundary between “us” and “them.”
Knowing that boundary makes it much easier to understand when one needs to take a stand, when a sacrifice may be demanded of the believer and the believing community. Jesus birthed the faith community promising that if we followed Christ we would be persecuted. People would hate us. We were supposed to stand by our confession and were expected to suffer for our faith. In fact, it is the act of standing up and putting one’s life (reputation, financial well-being, social standing, physical integrity) on the line that makes our faith productive.
The path of the martyr is intended to be a real thing for the Christian community. Instead, we are dissipated. We are domesticated. We are tame. We have surrendered much to our enemies, so much so that trying to get a firm grasp on the “us” and the “them,” the “friend” and the “enemy” is hard these days. Do we have a conscious awareness of our existence that forms the basis of being a true community? I am skeptical. We often try to project love by surrendering who we are. We try to be “relevant” by becoming the same as the broader culture. We must know who we are and know who our enemies are. We must love them without compromising ourselves and then pay the price for that love, the martyr’s price.
Before we close out this piece, we need to discuss another class of situations. What of those instances where a Christian is put in the position where they are able to protect another person, a more vulnerable person through their own direct action? One common example of this was that of sheltering and hiding Jews during World War 2. Even though lying is itself in isolation an evil, when taken in the context of a sinful world, a world tainted by evil, lying to the authorities is the lesser evil if it protects the life of the persecuted.
A corollary of this is doing violence to protect the life of another from attack. We have to remember that violence is always an evil. In a world of sin and evil, violent action may be the be the lesser evil, but an evil it remains.
We do need to introduce a line of thinking prominent in the Protestant tradition: because of the work of Christ in taking unto himself all the promises and roles and fulfilling them in himself, each believer who is “in Christ” also is able to, expected to, embody the roles of “prophet,” “priest,” and “king.” I don’t wish to go through a complete biblical grounding or explanation of the teaching (if one wishes I might be willing to take that on in another piece), but we need to understand that the role of “king” is that of protection and justice among other things. When we as believers place ourselves in harms way to defend another from violence through the use of violence, we are embracing the role of the magistrate or the king that we talked about above. In an orderly and well administered society, we should be able to rely on the magistrates to protect us such that we are not put in this position. But we know that in world stained with evil, this not always possible. In such instances, it may fall to us to live out that kingly office of all believers and commit a violent act to protect others from harm, injustice or oppression. Taking on and instantiating this role does not absolve one from the consequences or stain of one’s actions. One may face judgement in grace, but one will still face judgement.
I recognize that there is a lot more to say and plan to say some of it. I know that this piece barely scratches the surface. But I believe that this discussion will be vital in the coming years. Best to have it now in times of relative peace. It is far easier to justify certain unjustifiable actions when under duress. It is best to face as many questions as possible now so that when the time comes we can stand before God with the answers we tell ourselves.
Next: Part 2, The teaching of the Catholic Catechism. We will conclude with Part 3, The teaching of John Calvin.