A [Just] War for Romans 13: Towards a Nonviolent Reading

“The text has disappeared under the interpretation.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Romans 13:1-7 has a long and rich history as the classic biblical prooftext for the justification of lethal violence.  The “classical interpretation” goes something like this: the state has divine authority to inflict violence and go to war in order to punish evil and work for peace.  Such an interpretation is axiomatic to most Christians, who find it hard to even imagine that the passage might mean anything significantly different.  But what if Romans 13:1-7 does not justify Christian participation in violence?  While such an idea is difficult for many to even entertain, I’ve found the interpretive work of recent anti-imperial scholars and Christian pacifists [such as N.T. Wright and John Howard Yoder] to be just the catalyst needed to push my reading into a more faithful direction.[1]

One of the most significant decisions for one’s interpretation lies in how they understand the Greek participle tetagmenai translated as “instituted” [NRSV, ESV], “ordained” [KJV], or “established” [NIV].  This participle form of tasso is the same root verb used for the command to be “subject” (upotassestho) earlier in verse 1 and might be better understood as “arranging in an orderly manner.”  In fact, “ordered” is the gloss that Yoder argues for while Wright renders the participle “have been put in place.”[2]  The difference in decisions is subtle, yet important.  It is a question of direct divine involvement and moral approval.  Yoder compares God’s work here to that of a librarian: “The librarian does not make the books, does not write them, does not necessarily approve of them, but simply puts them in order.”[3]

Here is another way to approach the same issue: is the proper Old Testament background to these “governing authorities” the theocratic nation of Israel or the foreign empires of Assyria and Babylon?  The difference in one’s decision is again very important.  Many believe that since God directly commanded some of the wars of Israel that he also morally approved of them.  However, the relationship between God and the actions of Assyria and Babylon is a little more nuanced throughout the Bible.  Wright locates the conceptual background of this passage in Old Testament texts such as Isaiah 10, Isaiah 44, and Jeremiah 29.[4]  These texts speak of the providential sovereignty of YHWH over the foreign rulers of Assyria, Persia, and Babylon. Yoder thus argues that just as YHWH used the human evil of Assyria and Babylon for his good divine purposes, so Romans 13 is “an affirmation of providence overriding human rebellion, not ratifying it.”[5]  While God, in his providence, fit the Assyrian and Babylonian empires into his plan of redemption, he in no way morally legitimized the actions of these governing authorities.  Likewise, if read in this way the text does not grant moral authority to the governing powers but simply reassures believers of God’s divine, if not mysterious, sovereignty.

This understanding fits in nicely with the historical context of the passage.  It is important to remember that at this point in history the Christian community was on the outside looking in when it came to participating in government.  Rome was no modern liberal democracy and the early Christians did not feel the affinity for their government that is so common to current Westerners.

In turn, these decisions help clarify the apparent contradiction between Romans 12:9-21 and Romans 13:1-7.  As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, you simply must not read Romans 13 without first reading Romans 12.  Indeed, a close reading should take note of the fact that there is an interesting “verbal interplay around the concepts of vengeance and wrath” in the immediate literary context of Romans 13.[6]  For instance, Romans 12:19 instructs Christians to never exercise vengeance but to leave it to God.  Paul then describes the governing authorities of v. 1 as the ones who execute this role, a role that he has clearly excluded Christians from.  Yoder believes that “this makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians.”[7]  Paul doesn’t directly address the issue of Christian participation in government, but it should be fair to say that he most likely wouldn’t exempt believing government officials from the universal commands of Romans 12.

When read in this way, Romans 13 does not contradict the non-violent statements made by Paul in Romans 12 or by Jesus in the Gospels.  Paying close attention to 13:6-7 helps us in this regard.  Many scholars believe that Romans 13:6-7 refers to the temptation to revolt against oppressive taxes that existed in Rome in the first century (which might make for an interesting understanding of America’s founding).  This would make Romans 13 say basically the same thing that Paul had already told them in Romans 12, but now applied to the specific context of the Roman government: Christians should not repay evil with evil, but should overcome evil with good.[8]  As Yoder says, “Romans 12-13 and Matthew 5-7 are not in contradiction or tension.  They both instruct Christians to be nonresistant in all their relationships, including the social.  They both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in the interplay of egoisms which this world calls “vengeance” or “justice.”[9]  Or again, “The call [of Romans 13:1-7] is to a nonresistant attitude toward a tyrannical government.  This is the immediate and concrete meaning of the text, how strange then to make it the classic proof for the duty of Christians to kill.”[10]

It is time for the text to reappear over the interpretation.  In a violent world, it is time for Jesus’ people to undertake a [just] war for biblical texts, like Romans 13:1-7, that have been commandeered to support political theories fundamentally at odds with the message and hope of Christ.

What do you think?
Are you convinced that it is possible to read Romans 13 in a nonviolent way? 


[1] This post is a shortened version of a paper I read at the 2013 Regional SBL/AAR conference in Dallas, TX.  The paper was a comparison and evaluation of Augustine’s reading of Romans 13:1-7 with the reading of N.T. Wright and John Howard Yoder.
[2] Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 201-202; Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation.
[3] Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, 329.
[4] Wright, New Interpreters Bible Commentary on Romans, 718.
[5] Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 198.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Wright, NIB Commentary on Romans, 720: “The methods of the Messiah himself [Romans 12:14-21] must be used in living out his kingdom within the present world.”
[9] Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 210.
[10] Ibid., 202-203.

7 thoughts on “A [Just] War for Romans 13: Towards a Nonviolent Reading

  1. Excellent, excellent piece.

    Too often, people read a section out of Romans without referring to the section immediately preceeding or following (Rom 1 & Rom 2, for example). Paul’s rhetorical style of seeming to give support to the prejudices of Roman Christians followed by an immediate refutation (or vice versa) is important to remember when reading Paul.

    Loved it.

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  2. Hello Mike,
    It is obvious that you have done your research for this piece, its almost amusing though how desperate you are to escape the violence in the bible. For some odd reason you find it necessary to put God as far away from violence as possible, which is not rational and is not accurate by biblical standards. God is a violent a jealous god. He instituted the government to wield the sword, and gave them the power to put people to death. God approves of governments, or else they wouldnt exist.
    Shalom,
    Stan

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  3. Absolutely – Romans 13 is the most pacifist text in the NT! You’re absolutely right that the outsider perspective is crucial. The basic predisposition of Paul’s audience is to distrust — and even think about rebellion against the state. So telling them to submit to the government is radical. I is like telling Christians in China to submit, or Christians in N. Korea to submit. . And it seems most Christians read this passage as saying only your government is ordained by God. But it says all government: so on what basis can we join an army opposing another God-ordained government (however brutal)? Isn’t this the direct opposite of what the text commands?

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