Far too many American evangelicals, reflecting the general ethos of our nation, have a war-shaped imagination. That is to say, those who worship the Prince of Peace seem to have a hard time imagining realistic solutions to most of today’s global problems that don’t require military action. Unfortunately, Christianity has often served as an accomplice in the formation of this imaginative deficit – serving the role of chaplain and announcing God’s blessing over our use of national violence.
Craig Hovey, in his remarkable book To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church, challenges this assumption. He states:
“God does not need the might of the world in order to act in the world. Still, God chooses to make good use of evil, just as the actions of Pharaoh were made to function in the creation of a holy nation for God. God did not need Pharaoh, just as God did not need Rome. Likewise, God did not even need the cross but enlisted it for divine and good purposes. This is the meaning of Paul’s much misunderstood claim that governments wield the sword as God’s servants (Rom. 13:4). They serve God against their will. This is so because the whole universe belongs to God, even the parts of it that are in rebellion, claiming autonomy from God and sole authority over their dominions. Paul’s assertion must not be construed as congratulating the nations’ goodness and commending their power simply and straightforwardly as a necessary condition of God’s way in the world. God’s way requires no swords, no crosses, no guns, though these are enslaved and enlisted for divine purposes as an expression of God’s sovereignty over human rebellion and pride.”
Hovey’s interpretation of Romans 13:4 highlights the vexing problem of the relationship between God and national violence. The passage states that God has “instituted” (NRSV, ESV) the powers that rule and that they are his “servants.” Too often, readers have uncritically accepted these statements as indications of a positive relationship between God and the powers’ use of violence. However, as I have argued elsewhere (see links below), these statements have an Old Testament background which presents a much more nuanced relationship.
In short, God’s “use” of the powers’ violence does not mean that he grants moral legitimacy to such action. God’s rule is actualized by dying on a cross, not by putting others on them. The Church, those who belong to the Peaceable Kingdom, must never forget the call to the Jesus’ way of cruciform wisdom and power. This is perhaps one of the reasons that regular participation of the Eucharist is so important: at the table our imaginations are converted from their occupation with Egypt’s chariots and instead captivated by the cross on which Jesus’ Kingdom was inaugurated.
The 5 Most Common Myths About Romans 13:1-7
A [Just] War for Romans 13: Toward a Nonviolent Reading