Friday, August 12, 2005

The Paradox of Submission to the Governing Authorities

G.K. Chesterton once said that paradox is the best mark of true Christianity, that orthodox Christianity makes the lion lie down with the lamb, without in any way diminishing the lamb’s docility or the lion’s ferocity. Heresies by contrast, sacrifice the lion to the lamb or the lamb to the lion, or else make the two lie down together by giving the lamb some claws and filing down the lion’s teeth. While Chesterton meant by orthodoxy Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism is well known as the home of paradox in Christian theology, with the most legal law and the most gratuitous grace. (Apologies again for another LONG post.)

Another area of paradox is the Lutheran theory of the state. (And lest it be said that I am simply following a man’s views, I discovered this theory of the state through reading the Bible back when I was Reformed. The discovery that Luther taught the same is confirmation, if any were needed, that Lutheranism is what it is because it teaches Biblical truth.)

As is well known, Romans 13, with the less often cited but just as relevant 1 Peter 2, has been the principal seat of Lutheran doctrine of the state. The civil magistrate, as such, is appointed by God as His minister. He is appointed not by the church (as the Pope pretended with his doctrine of "two swords") but directly by God working through the fixed institutions of each nation; by being born so in a monarchy such as England, or by being elected in a republic such as Venice, or by a combination as in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. This is why our Confessions address the emperor at Augsburg so respectfully, while they address the Pope with such contempt at Smalcald: the emperor may be wrong in persecuting Evangelical doctrine, but he is, when all is said and done, a true minister of God, rightly appointed by the empire’s electors. The Pope, pretending to be head of a church whose only head is Christ, is by contrast an usurper, whose role has no warrant at all in the constitution of his proper people, that is the Church.

As Luther insisted, this teaching is not new to Christianity. It is the general teaching not only of the Old Testament, but also of the nations of the world, all of whom recognize the hand of "nature’s God" (whether it be a personalized Heaven as in China or Mongolia, or the supreme king of the gods as in Hindu or Homeric polytheism). Christ is not a new Moses and the law he teaches directly and through His apostles is one we all know even if we don’t like it, the general moral law of mankind, purified of the corruptions of polytheism.

So all people all over the world should obey their governments as ministers of God. (I will leave aside the inevitable question of "what about Hitler?" for the moment). But note: this very statement by its nature renders the whole "regime question" (as Leo Strauss put it) obsolete. This question, the fundamental one for classical Greco-Roman, Rennaissance, and Enlightenment political thought up until today, is that of which regime is best? Rule by one man? Rule by hereditary families? Rule by the wealthy? Rule by the poor and proletarian? Rule by the people at large? And if that, directly, in small assemblies? Or by delegation to a parliament? Or a mix of these? If we take Romans 13 seriously, this is really like asking the "parent question": which parent is it best to be born to? A rich one? A middle class one? One with strict ideas of childrearing? Or a tolerant and indulgent one? We don’t normally ask the "parent question" because we know we don’t chose our parents, rather God choses them for us. And Lutherans do not ask the "regime question" as a matter of practical urgency (theoretical understanding is another thing; I am not saying that Lutherans can’t be political scientists). Rather, the Lutheran knows that God choses our regime for us, and that just as our duty and blessing is to be the best children we can of the parents He has given us, just so our duty and blessing is to be the best subjects we can of the authorities God has given us. A child of Saxon peasants in the eighteenth century is going to give a different sort of obedience than that of a suburban Lutheran couple in Wisconsin, but in both cases the blessing of God for obedience is the same. If we are born in Tsarist Russia and the Tsar has no interest in our opinions about how he runs his country, then it is not our place to have opinions about which official would do best for the foreign ministry. If on the other hand we are born in Canada and the regime is one that asks for our informed opinion then it is our duty to become so informed and voice our opinions. God’s blessing on this is the same in both cases.

Here we come to the first paradox. Since the regime question was first broached, governments have been proudly basing their legitimacy on their particular solutions. "Be loyal to us, because we’re a democracy!" "No, be loyal to us, because we unify the nation and eliminate partisan squabbles in submission to the Leader!" "No, be loyal to us because we redistribute income to the poor!" "No, be loyal to us because we allow free trade and opportunity!" We are all familiar with the American version of this: America’s government is worth defending because it is democratic, free, liberal, conservative, compassionate to the less fortunate, open to opportunity, Christian, secular, whatever. And some of these things may even be true. Citizens of other countries hear their governments proclaiming their unique merits. But to all of them the Lutheran has to quietly demur, and say: "I am indeed loyal to you, but not because of all the things you so pride yourself on. I am loyal and submit to you because, whether you know it or not, or acknowledge it or not, you have been created by God as my particular regime." The Lutheran thus can and should be the best and most loyal citizen with his body in all normal circumstances, but must deny to any ideological regime the one thing it craves: assurance that its ideology is the true solution of the "regime question."

And the second paradox is like it. Against this idea of God being the author of regimes, the realist points to the rule that every new regime is founded (by definition, really) on an act of aggression against the previous one, either by invasion and conquest from without or by insurrection from within. And the Bible fully confirms this. The history of Israel is quite an ordinary and normal history in this respect: begun with a rebellion against Pharoah, brought to power by a savage invasion of Canaan, overthrown in its primitive aristocratic constitution by royalist plots, divided by an insurrection of ten tribes, rent by repeated dynastic coups d’etat, and finally snuffed out by two imperialist conquests. Nor can we deny that the government to which Paul and Peter asked the early Christians to submit was established by invasion (the Roman conquests), and insurrection (the Roman civil wars and the ensuing toppling of the republic by the new Caesars). The early Jewish Christians separated themselves from the Jewish people precisely because they were unwilling to participate in rebellions against the imperialist dictatorship of Rome.

So we must admit: as a general rule, the governments to which God declares we must submit have been founded by the very acts of violence against which He has counselled his saints. In 1776, the Tories pointed out that the colonists were acting in rebellion against the constituted government. Fair point. But the government against which they were rebelling had itself been founded and shaped by insurrections and invasions: the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English Civil War of 1640-1660, the Wars of the Roses, the Norman invasion, the Danish invasion, and the Anglo-Saxon invasions. If one wishes to retain the plain counsel of God and yet also the plain record of facts attested in the Bible and elsewhere, we have to conclude that the Lutheran is loyal to the regime under which he is born, even though he knows it was founded in the beginning by acts of which he cannnot whole-heartedly approve. Or to put it differently, the violence and injustice through which a regime was established do not delegitimize the regime once stably founded, nor render it unworthy of loyalty thereafter. By 1787, the American revolutionary regime was clearly stably founded; those who continued to deny it legitimcay after that only found themselves fighting against God. This was the failing of the Tories in England after 1688; resisting the Whigs’ decision of the "regime question" for constitutional and Parliamentary rule, they erected their own solution of the "regime question" in the form of a indefeasible hereditary right of the Stuart dynasty. In so doing they closed their eyes to God’s working in history.

Although rebellion and invasion are generally speaking against God’s revealed will, the recital of the Israel’s history makes it clear that revolution and invasion are indeed how God expresses his judgments on nations. In most cases, of invasion and revolution mentioned, we see the explicit participation of prophets in inaugurating the new regime. In every case, we see the inauguration of the new regime explicitly presented as God's will, sometimes because of the goodness of a king or his love for a dynasty (i.e. the Davidic), but often as punishment of another. In any case dead-end resistance to what God shows by His providence He is doing is not good (e.g. 1 Kings 12:24). Many times the human protagonists are acting out sinful desires (such as Jehu's in his slaughters in Samaria; cf. 1 Kings 19:17, 2 Kings 8:7-13, and chapters 9-10 with the prophetic evaluation in Hos. 1:4), but even so, the revolution is part of God's providence, and the resulting regime should be obeyed and suffered under if necessary. Without prophets, there is no explicit announcement of God’s will to overthrow regimes and dynasties, but we still do know that God reigns and it is His providential working of raising up and overthrowing families and kingdoms. Isn't this almost the whole burden of the literary prophets, that God raises up and destroys kingdoms? Explicit statements of this as an abstract principle include Hannah's prayer (1 Sam. 2, esp. vv. 4, 6, 7, 8, 10), which is the basis for the Magnificat, Daniel's message to Nebuchadnezzar (2:21, 4:17, 25, 32), and Paul's sermon to the Athenians (Acts 17:26-27). As Daniel implies in 2:21, the wise and discerning can see the signs of God's providence at work (whether to bless the good or punish the evil, or both) in these rises and falls of regimes and states (as the wise Gamaliel did in Acts 5:38-39). Thus while our duties are crystal clear in the case of an established and stable regime - - to honor and obey it in all things not contrary to God’s revealed will - - in times of revolution and invasion our loyalty to the established regime must also be tempered by an awareness of the sins of the old regime that have brought these disasters on.

And this is the solution of the "what about Hitler?" problem. What about him indeed? When a parent abuses a child in a horrible way, we expect not that the child will kill his parents, but that other adults in the neighborhood will intervene and take the child out of harm’s way. And so it happened in this case. God raised up an instruments of wrath against Hitler and the nation that supported him. The Red Army soldiers ripping the guts out of the Wehrmacht’s Panzers, the airmen who flew the B-17s and Lancasters and torched Germany’s cities, the Polish and Serbian partisans who ambushed German soldiers: they were all fighting with God’s blessing on their right arms as they killed and it was due to them that Hitlerism is a just a bad memory. I do not at all condemn Bonhoeffer for participating in his plot to kill Hitler; the regime then fighting a world war it had single-handedly provoked could hardly be called stable and established. This solution may not be the most satisfactory, but everyone can acknowledge that no theory will make the 12-year run of the Nazi regime an easy providence of God to understand.

Originally posted at Here We Stand

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