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Patriotism and the Christian Faith


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#41 Greg P

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 08:51 AM

But the American reality says, "Nice concept, but not really." Just ask Arizona....The American reality says, "Keep out and stay out. We've got no opportunity here. And should you choose to come anyway, we reserve the right to harrass you because you look different and because you don't talk so good, like us."

Who wants to pledge allegiance to that? Not me.



Me neither.

But as someone who lives in one of those cities in America that opened its arms wide to the tide of immigrants and refugees between 1960 and 1980, I can tell you that the by-product of such a policy is not always so laudable. Of particular note is the way our city changed post-1980 Mariel Boatlift, when 125,000 refugees flooded Miami-- with some estimates citing as many as half of those being "undesirables" (prisoners, career criminals and the mentally ill).

There was such a visible change to the city and the way of life post-Mariel, that no one I know who lives here --not even fellow Cubans-- deny it. Higher than average unemployment (very few opportunities available for English-only applicants) one of the highest crime rates in the country, English as a minority language,etc... it's enough to stir up the inner Travis Bickle in the most charitable and liberal-minded.

"Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." - Exodus 22:21... "The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." - Leviticus 19:4

As a minority in Miami-Dade (17%), I am now technically the "stranger" here... as are all English-speaking anglos. Who will take us in?

#42 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 09:13 AM

Andy Whitman wrote:
: And it's further evidence of the wide gulf between a Christian response and an American response, and why it's always dangerous to conflate the two.

Um, I wasn't aware that there WAS such a thing as a "Christian response" to immigration policy, any more than there is a "Christian response" to letting people stay in your house (do they pay rent? do you let them stay for free? well, it all comes down to your personal discernment, doesn't it?).

: According to the myth, America is the land of opportunity, the land where the poor, penniless immigrant can stumble ashore and then grow up to be President.

Um, well, no. Your Constitution requires -- and has always required -- that your Presidents be BORN in America, yes? I think that's an outdated law, myself, but I have never heard anyone propose the "myth" as you describe it here.

: But the American reality says, "Nice concept, but not really." Just ask Arizona.

Actually, Arizona accepts the huddled masses, too ... if they enter the country LEGALLY. Again, to treat all immigrants as identical makes no sense, and is actually kind of stupid. Some people who stay in your house pay rent, and others stay for free. Some people come through the front door and ask permission first, and some people sneak in the back door and squat in your basement. Some people you adopt into your family, and some people are never more than friends and/or boarders. Etc., etc.

: The biblical message is equally clear . . .

If you cherry-pick certain verses, sure. But cherry-picking doesn't settle this issue any more than it settles the question of pacifism vs. military service.

: The American reality says, "Keep out and stay out. We've got no opportunity here. And should you choose to come anyway, we reserve the right to harrass you because you look different and because you don't talk so good, like us."

Is this really the American reality? Or is this just an alternative American myth?

#43 David Smedberg

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 09:50 AM

I suspect that if we turn this into a heated political debate then the thread will get closed, guys...

#44 Andy Whitman

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 10:32 AM

Andy Whitman wrote:
: And it's further evidence of the wide gulf between a Christian response and an American response, and why it's always dangerous to conflate the two.

Um, I wasn't aware that there WAS such a thing as a "Christian response" to immigration policy, any more than there is a "Christian response" to letting people stay in your house (do they pay rent? do you let them stay for free? well, it all comes down to your personal discernment, doesn't it?).

No, it doesn't come down to personal discernment.

Because there really is a Christian response to immigration policy. Seriously. It has to do with what the Bible teaches about immigrants. That sounds like it might at least be a good place to start, no? So let's start there. Let's assume that when the Bible clearly and consistently lays out the same message, again and again, that perhaps we should interpret the "Christian response" as what the Bible actually says.

And what the Bible says is this:

"And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt." -- Deuteronomy 10:19
"Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." - Exodus 22:21
"The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." - Leviticus 19:4
"Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you lived as an alien in his country." - Deuteronomy 23:7
"You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance," declares the Sovereign LORD." - Ezekiel 47:22-23

I didn't quote all the verses. There are many more. But they all essentially say what is stated above. This isn't "cherry picking." If you can find verses that state something else, that state that one should ignore the immigrant/alien, or oppress the immigrant/alien, or do anything other than welcome the immigrant/alien, then have at it. I'd like to see them.

This is the Christian response to immigration. The Bible and the Christian church can support no other. If you base your response to immigration on any other stance, that's fine. You're welcome to do that, as well. Base it on pragmatism. Base it on legality. Base it on too few jobs, and too many people, and alien undesirables flooding into the country. But just know that that's not the Christian response. Please don't attach the word "Christian" to it. It is unsupportable from the Biblical witness and Church history, which says that the alien and stranger is to be welcomed into our midst.

This topic concerns what it means for a Christian to be patriotic, to pledge allegiance to both God and country. I believe it is possible to do so. But some allegiances are more important than others, and some pledges take precedence over others. This is also a biblical concept, and it's laid out in Acts 5. This is an example of where those allegiances may come into conflict with one another. Guess which one ought to win?

Edited by Andy Whitman, 10 May 2011 - 10:50 AM.


#45 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 10:51 AM

Andy Whitman wrote:
: Because there really is a Christian response to immigration policy. Seriously. It has to do with what the Bible teaches about immigrants. That sounds like it might at least be a good place to start, no?

So far all you've done is cherry-pick Old Testament passages about being nice to visitors, while ignoring the Old Testament passages about killing off the original inhabitants of the land and enslaving foreigners only (and not your own kin), etc. And you haven't quoted any actual New Testament passages yet, i.e. passages from the section of the Bible that is uniquely Christian and not part of a shared pre-Christian heritage.

And, more to the point, you haven't quoted any verses that give any sort of specific direction with regard to immigrant quotas and so forth. These are secular government policies and there is no particular "Christian" approach to them, any more than there is a particular "Christian" approach to taxation policies and so forth.

: Let's assume that when the Bible clearly and consistently lays out the same message, again and again . . .

First of all, I don't assume that the Bible DOES do that, partly for the reasons I just gave.

: Please don't attach the word "Christian" to that response.

Um, I think that's kind of my point: that this is a secular government matter and not a "Christian" matter.

: This is also a biblical concept, and it's laid out in Acts 5.

I see nothing about immigration policy in there.

#46 Andy Whitman

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 10:55 AM

Andy Whitman wrote:
: Because there really is a Christian response to immigration policy. Seriously. It has to do with what the Bible teaches about immigrants. That sounds like it might at least be a good place to start, no?

So far all you've done is cherry-pick Old Testament passages about being nice to visitors, while ignoring the Old Testament passages about killing off the original inhabitants of the land and enslaving foreigners only (and not your own kin), etc. And you haven't quoted any actual New Testament passages yet, i.e. passages from the section of the Bible that is uniquely Christian and not part of a shared pre-Christian heritage.

And, more to the point, you haven't quoted any verses that give any sort of specific direction with regard to immigrant quotas and so forth. These are secular government policies and there is no particular "Christian" approach to them, any more than there is a particular "Christian" approach to taxation policies and so forth.

: Let's assume that when the Bible clearly and consistently lays out the same message, again and again . . .

First of all, I don't assume that the Bible DOES do that, partly for the reasons I just gave.

: Please don't attach the word "Christian" to that response.

Um, I think that's kind of my point: that this is a secular government matter and not a "Christian" matter.

: This is also a biblical concept, and it's laid out in Acts 5.

I see nothing about immigration policy in there.

Again, the best place to develop a biblical response to immigration policy is where the Bible actually discusses immigrants. What does it say?

#47 Thom Wade

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 11:08 AM

America is piety and crassness, freedom for all and unfathomable greed, the inherent dignity of each human life and total disregard for the most helpless lives. It's no wonder that the rest of the world is so exasperated with us. We are utterly clueless as a nation. We have no idea who we are, and we experience a total disconnect between reality and image, but we'll gladly sell that image to anyone who may or may not be interested.

You keep using this term "we", but you're voicing what is only a politically liberal elitist minority point of view.


I would disagree. Andy's comments sound like how almost all my extremely conservative, Republican friends and aquaintences talk about America.

#48 Andy Whitman

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 11:15 AM

America is piety and crassness, freedom for all and unfathomable greed, the inherent dignity of each human life and total disregard for the most helpless lives. It's no wonder that the rest of the world is so exasperated with us. We are utterly clueless as a nation. We have no idea who we are, and we experience a total disconnect between reality and image, but we'll gladly sell that image to anyone who may or may not be interested.

You keep using this term "we", but you're voicing what is only a politically liberal elitist minority point of view.


I would disagree. Andy's comments sound like how almost all my extremely conservative, Republican friends and aquaintences talk about America.

Heh. Bless you.

The funny thing is I don't approach these issues from the standpoint of political parties. I'm not even particularly interested in thinking in those terms. I'm interested in the Kingdom of God coming to earth, and I believe there's some precedent for praying that way. I'm firmly convinced that Republicans don't have the answer. I'm firmly convinced that Democrats don't have the answer. But I'll work with either, or both, when their interests seem to coincide with bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. The naive part of me views this as part of the Christian life, although I've been around long enough to know that it's hopelessly convoluted, imperfect, and inexact.

#49 Thom Wade

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 11:38 AM

:)

I was merely pointing out there is nothing inherently liberal or conservative about you comment. I wasn't trying to pinpoint you as either liberal or conservative. :)

#50 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 12:26 PM

Andy Whitman wrote:

: : : This is also a biblical concept, and it's laid out in Acts 5.
: :
: : I see nothing about immigration policy in there.
:
: Again, the best place to develop a biblical response to immigration policy is where the Bible actually discusses immigrants. What does it say?

Well, I thought I was asking *you* that. What *does* Acts 5 say about immigration policy?

As for the Old Testament, i.e. the document which guided and shaped the Israelite theocracy (and please note: neither your country nor mine is Israelite or a theocracy), we're back to the tension and conflict between passages that I have articulated before: e.g., in passages like the Book of Ruth, we find the foreigner (specifically, a Moabite) welcomed into Israel's ranks, while in passages like Nehemiah 13 we are told that our Old Testament heroes "excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent" because Deuteronomy 23 explicitly forbids certain foreigners (including Moabites) from joining the assembly of Israel. And I've already alluded to the passage in Leviticus 25 which tells the Israelites that they are forbidden to enslave fellow Israelites, even if they become poor etc., but they CAN add to their slaves "from the nations around you" and from "the temporary residents living among you", etc.

FWIW, I can't help but find it funny that, when it comes to America, you see all sorts of awkwardly ambivalent diversity (from George Washington to Howard Stern), but when it comes to the Bible, you suddenly see only one message being taught, one image being projected.

#51 Anna J

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 12:33 PM

Let's not get derailed, friends! Discussions involving Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas are great, but this isn't the place to go into immigration policy. Thanks.

#52 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 12:37 PM

I don't think the Old Testament's position on what makes good government is quite as nice and neat as you're trying to make it.

What it is is an attempt at answering two questions. Is there a Biblical form of government? If so, what is it?

Well, I can think of a few Mexicans, plenty of Native Americans, and even some Southerners who might disagree.

Many Americans treated the Native Americans horribly. The culture clash (particularly with different points of view about property) was hard to reconcile, but that still didn't mean we shouldn't have enforced our treaties better. This does allow us to conclude that mistreatment of the Native Americans = following American principles. I personally wouldn't have been able to ascribe to "Manifest Destiny" and it's a political belief that led to our unfairly dealing with Mexico. This doesn't mean the war for Texas independence wasn't justified, or that defeating Santa Ana wasn't still a worthy goal. And oh yeah, Southerners don't count.

Here's the article. I was mistaken, working from distant memory: the success rate is 4 out of 15, where success is defined as the nation having a functioning democracy 10 years after the end of hostilities. In addition to Japan & Germany, the other 2 successes are Panama and Grenada.

I respect Minxin Pei, but he's using an awfully broad construction of the term "nation building." The Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada and Panama all involved intervention designed primarily to prevent the spread of Communism. Looks like he's listed Cuba three times on the list (with three different U.S. actions), but we actually did help Cuba become democratic, but we just lost it to Communism. Besides, the very idea of Nation-Building in the modern world is going to look entirely different than during the Cold War, or during the time our politics was heavily influenced by Woodrow Wilson's idealism.

First, it's this whole "spreading democracy by force" idea that still annoys me. What this sounds like is us forcing other people to do things our way. What it constitutes in reality, is killing or stopping the bad guys, and then simply letting people be free.

Does anyone really think what we did in Iraq was that simple? It's a majority Shiite nation ... are Iraqis free to elect Muqtada al-Sadr should he choose to run for office?

It obviously doesn't encompass everything going on in Iraq, but yes. Democratically speaking, the majority of Iraqis can elect whoever they want to. They have never been able to do this before in the entire history of any people living in that region. Mugtada al-Sadr could even win an election, if he runs for office in the right district. There is more work they need to do to strengthen this new system of theirs, but they've got a start, and most of them are very excited about it.

The words of Christ to the Pharisees who were asking him about taxes go towards whether accepting a combat role would violate his Christianity.

No, they don't. That is a dizzying theological leap across multiple layers of non sequiturs.

If government is ordained by God, then paying taxes to that government is right, correct? If government is an institution ordained by God, then I can find myself owing a particular temporal loyalty to it.

I think there's two separate issues here, though. That college students are taught to be ashamed of some aspects of our history is, I would say, a fact, and we could debate whether that's a net-negative or -positive for the long-term benefit of our colleges and students. But I'd want it to be an informed debate, one citing data rather than just anecdotal evidence. And I'd want us to unpack our personal biases in the process. (By the way, this isn't a debate I'm interested in having on the Internet.)

Having personally experienced this, I'd testify to the fact that they teach we ought to be ashamed of far more than just "some aspects of our history." I admit I have personal biases. But whenever anyone declares that Americans are clueless and have no identity worth believing in, I find myself rather passionately opposed to this teaching. I have friends who died in Iraq. In the small picture, they just died at their government/military jobs and trying to protect their friends. In the big picture, they died working so that another people could be free - and so that doing this could help protect their families at home. Seeing this first-hand makes me frown upon the idea that being American doesn't mean anything good.

But that's a separate issue from the use of language such as "politically liberal elitist minority point of view" in a conversation among friends. You seem to have an entire worldview in mind when you write that, and you're reacting against that worldview despite the fact that, even if I understood what you mean exactly with that particular string of words (Are all academics elitist? Only those who are politically liberal? Am I politically liberal if I often vote for Republicans? Is the shamefulness of slavery a minority view?) -- despite the fact that, even if I knew what you meant, I doubt the worldview you're reacting against is remotely similar to Andy's.

Unlike Buckley when he wrote God and Man at Yale, I have not researched modern day academia's majority points of view. So I'm willing to admit I could be wrong on this. The terms liberal and conservative both still have meaning, and I don't mean anything disparaging by either adjective. But I do find the idea that Americans are clueless and have no identity as an elitist point of view.

America is piety and crassness, freedom for all and unfathomable greed, the inherent dignity of each human life and total disregard for the most helpless lives. It's no wonder that the rest of the world is so exasperated with us. We are utterly clueless as a nation. We have no idea who we are, and we experience a total disconnect between reality and image, but we'll gladly sell that image to anyone who may or may not be interested.

You keep using this term "we", but you're voicing what is only a politically liberal elitist minority point of view.

I would disagree. Andy's comments sound like how almost all my extremely conservative, Republican friends and aquaintences talk about America.

Point taken. I made an unfair generalization about one political philosophy. Although, if I had to guess by "extremely conservative" you might mean libertarian? I have some libertarian friends who look down their noses on America quite frequently.

The funny thing is I don't approach these issues from the standpoint of political parties. I'm not even particularly interested in thinking in those terms. I'm interested in the Kingdom of God coming to earth, and I believe there's some precedent for praying that way. I'm firmly convinced that Republicans don't have the answer. I'm firmly convinced that Democrats don't have the answer. But I'll work with either, or both, when their interests seem to coincide with bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. The naive part of me views this as part of the Christian life, although I've been around long enough to know that it's hopelessly convoluted, imperfect, and inexact.

So Andy, I'm sorry if I was offensive. I know some other friends who believe their love for Christ excludes their love for country. I'm saddened by this point of view, but that doesn't mean I still don't respect it and can't learn from it. So I value your point of view. You make some very good points about how unquestioning and uncritical patriotism can be contrary to what Christianity teaches. And yet, it is no coincidence that the only countries in the world that possess some form of self-government are countries with heavy Christian influence at some point in their history. My patriotism is closely tied to my loyalty to our form of government and Constitution. The Army Oath of Enlistment that every modern American soldier takes focuses upon protecting and defending the U.S. Constitution.

If there is, in fact, a Biblical form of government, and if there are Biblical principles for how to form a good government, then following those principles is something to be valued and advanced. Being critical of our country for not following these principles is a worthy position to take. But such criticism can be engaged in as much out of a sense of patriotism than out of a sense of none.

#53 mrmando

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 12:59 PM

What it is is an attempt at answering two questions. Is there a Biblical form of government? If so, what is it?

There are five Biblical forms of government and/or social organization: (1) enslavement in a foreign country;
(2) tribal theocracy; (3) monarchy; (4) living in exile in a foreign country; (5) living in your own country under foreign occupation.

You and I don't live under any of those conditions, so the extent to which we ought to seek to establish a "Biblical form of government" is, at best, open to a variety of interpretations.

#54 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 01:06 PM

Anna J wrote:
: Let's not get derailed, friends! Discussions involving Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas are great, but this isn't the place to go into immigration policy. Thanks.

Fair point. But to be honest, I don't think we even WERE discussing immigration policy; I mean, we certainly weren't getting into the politics of it. Rather, it seemed to me that we were having more of a meta-discussion of whether the Bible is useful in shaping immigration policy, which ties into similar questions regarding whether the Bible is useful in shaping financial policy, or military policy, etc. -- all of which tie into the larger question of how Christian faith can be related to participation in a secular democracy in general.

To come at this from another angle: A&F doesn't have a politics forum any more, but it does have a "Faith Matters" forum ... so a thread, like this one, on the relationship between faith and politics will inevitably get into a bit of both. But for my part, I was trying to focus on the faith angle, and specifically on the question of whether the Bible speaks with one voice or "contains multitudes", so to speak, on this subject. That, to me, seemed to be within the purview of this subforum.

#55 Thom Wade

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 01:54 PM


America is piety and crassness, freedom for all and unfathomable greed, the inherent dignity of each human life and total disregard for the most helpless lives. It's no wonder that the rest of the world is so exasperated with us. We are utterly clueless as a nation. We have no idea who we are, and we experience a total disconnect between reality and image, but we'll gladly sell that image to anyone who may or may not be interested.

You keep using this term "we", but you're voicing what is only a politically liberal elitist minority point of view.

I would disagree. Andy's comments sound like how almost all my extremely conservative, Republican friends and aquaintences talk about America.

Point taken. I made an unfair generalization about one political philosophy. Although, if I had to guess by "extremely conservative" you might mean libertarian? I have some libertarian friends who look down their noses on America quite frequently.


Nope...straight ahead Republican conservatives. Mind you, they tend to aim their aggression at East and West Coast liberals. I remember people I knew trying to argue that the 9/11 attacks were partially Hollywood's fault-because Hollywood exports sex and violence. (My conservative film snob friends did not fall into this because they have actually seen foreign films)

#56 mrmando

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 02:03 PM

If government is ordained by God, then paying taxes to that government is right, correct? If government is an institution ordained by God, then I can find myself owing a particular temporal loyalty to it.

It was Paul, not Jesus, who claimed that government is ordained by God. Jesus said you should pay taxes to Caesar because it was Caesar who issued the coin ... not because God ordained Caesar's government.

Paul, a Roman citizen writing to Christians in Rome, did indeed suggest in Rom. 13 that the Roman government was ordained by God to do justice ... although, as mentioned earlier, a government that consistently fails to do justice isn't holding up its end of the bargain.

So far, so good, but from here your arguments start running into trouble. You're trying to equate paying taxes to the government with putting one's neck on the line for the government. Becoming a soldier means rendering one's entire self, up to and including one's very life, to the government to use at its disposal. That is a huge stretch from Jesus' statement about taxes. The same Paul who said government was ordained by God also taught us that our bodies are the temple of God, we are bought with a price and therefore we should honor God with our bodies. I don't know what that means to you, but a Christian might reasonably and seriously conclude that while his money indeed is Caesar's and should be rendered to Caesar, his body and his self are God's and should be rendered to God. Caesar gave me the coin; God gave me my body. This belief was very common in the early church under the Roman Empire, when after all, soldiers weren't allowed to be Christians, and those who became Christians while serving, or who were appointed without anyone knowing they were Christians, faced martyrdom if they were found out (St. Sebastian, the 40 martyrs of Sevaste, etc.).

You've stated earlier that the Bible specifies that good governments are democratically elected, citing David and Saul as proof. Yet Saul (democratically elected) gets failing grades in the Bible, whereas Josiah (ascended the throne at 8 years of age after his dad was assassinated) gets a glowing report. You've said that accession by means other than election = bad government. Yet Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans sometime between A.D. 51 and 55 — meaning that the "government ordained by God" he wrote about was that of either Claudius (put on by the Praetorian Guard after they assassinated Caligula) or Nero (nutjob who became Caesar because he was Claudius' adopted son, and proceeded to persecute the Church like nobody's business). Most scholars like the later date for Romans, meaning that Nero was probably already on the throne.

So, if the government of the friggin' Emperor Nero was "ordained by God" according to Paul, then what business do you or I have declaring ANY government illegitimate according to some "Biblical" standard? Saddam Hussein was one bad hombre, but I should think Nero still has him beat.

Edited by mrmando, 10 May 2011 - 02:05 PM.


#57 Thom Wade

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 02:15 PM

So, if the government of the friggin' Emperor Nero was "ordained by God" according to Paul, then what business do you or I have declaring ANY government illegitimate according to some "Biblical" standard? Saddam Hussein was one bad hombre, but I should think Nero still has him beat.


This is something I find interesting about the Romans 13 verse. What is the message to a Christian living under the tyrant-because according to Romans 13 all governments are ordained by God to weild the sword-not just the ones we like or are comfortable with. The Christian living under Saddam is being told the same thing by that verse about their government as we Americans are about ours. There is no "Evil Dictator Clause" in Roman's 13.

#58 David Smedberg

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 02:20 PM


If government is ordained by God, then paying taxes to that government is right, correct? If government is an institution ordained by God, then I can find myself owing a particular temporal loyalty to it.

It was Paul, not Jesus, who claimed that government is ordained by God.

Whatever happened to Christ telling Pilate that "you would have no power had it not been given to you from above"? (Jn 19:11)

#59 mrmando

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 02:25 PM

Whatever happened to Christ telling Pilate that "you would have no power had it not been given to you from above"? (Jn 19:11)

Fair enough, but that still doesn't mean one has the same duty to serve in combat as one has to pay taxes. And anyway, the fact remains: this is not the argument Jesus made in support of paying taxes. Dragging in an argument he made elsewhere in the Bible, at a different time in a different place to a different person on a different topic under different circumstances, recorded by a different Evangelist, is only marginally better than dragging in an argument from a different author at a different time in a different place to different people under similar-but-worse circumstances on a related-but-not-necessarily-equivalent topic. What's wrong with the argument Jesus actually gave?

Edited by mrmando, 10 May 2011 - 02:57 PM.


#60 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 10 May 2011 - 03:42 PM


So, if the government of the friggin' Emperor Nero was "ordained by God" according to Paul, then what business do you or I have declaring ANY government illegitimate according to some "Biblical" standard? Saddam Hussein was one bad hombre, but I should think Nero still has him beat.

This is something I find interesting about the Romans 13 verse. What is the message to a Christian living under the tyrant-because according to Romans 13 all governments are ordained by God to weild the sword-not just the ones we like or are comfortable with. The Christian living under Saddam is being told the same thing by that verse about their government as we Americans are about ours. There is no "Evil Dictator Clause" in Roman's 13.

Well, I think the question is - is it possible for a tyrant to act as if he has power that he does not rightfully possess?

Romans 13:1-7

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rules are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs to subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Elisha Williams, pastor of a Congregational church in Connecticut in 1744, taught on Romans 13 which he describes as "a text often wrecked and tortured by such wits as were disposed to serve the designs of arbitrary power, of erecting a civil tyranny over a free people, and as often wrested out of their hands by the force of truth."

Strong words. Williams explains how he believes this passage is misinterpreted to argue for actual submission to tyranny:

"Here then let me distinguish between two things ... between the powers which are, and the powers which are not. This is a plain and undeniable distinction; since it is well known there may be a pretended power where there is really none. Now the higher powers in the text are the powers which are. Since then it is express and certain, that the powers that be, are the powers in the text, the powers which be of GOD, the ordinance of GOD; it is only of such powers he speaks of subjection to. On the other hand - the powers that are not, are not the powers that be; and so not the powers in the text, not the powers that are of GOD, not his ordinance, and so no subjection to them required in this text ...

"A power that is no better than a pretended one, can't challenge any obedience by virtue of this text. As this text does not shew they have such a power, the pretence of obedience being due to them by this text, if they should be so vain as to fancy they have it, is a mere vanity. The truth of the case is plainly this; that this text shews obedience is due to civil rulers in those cases wherein they have power to command, and does not call for it any farther ..."

At first, I thought Williams was making a cheap point by making a difference between "the powers that be" and then powers which "are not." That sounds really tricky. Other newer translations like the NIV put things a little differently - "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God." So is there really a difference between civil authorities that exist and civil authorities that do not exist? But then I think Williams is really asking a different question. Is it possible for someone without legal authority to pretend and act like he has power over people that he does not rightfully possess? Is it possible for a tyrant to set himself up as the civil authority just because he has the guns and the army to do it? Yes. Not only is this possible, but it has happened over and over before throughout history. So the question becomes, how do governments possess the legal authority to rule? And here we see Williams' Enlightenment/natural law education -

"For the freedom of man and liberty of acting according to his own will (without being subject to the will of another) is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. So that we are born free as we are born rational ... For tho' the law of nature be intelligible to all rational creatures; yet men being biased by their interest as well as ignorant for want of study of it, are not apt to allow of it as a law binding to them in the application of it to their particular cases ...

"Now to remedy these inconveniences, reason teaches men to join in society, to unite together into a commonwealth under some form or other, to make a body of laws agreeable to the law of nature, and institute one common power to see them observed. It is they who thus unite together, viz. the people, who make and alone have the right to make the laws that are to take place among them; or which comes to the same thing, appoint those who shall make them, and who shall see them executed ... Hence then the fountain and original of all civil power is from the people ... There are too too many arbitrary governments in the world, where the people don't make their own laws. These are not properly speaking governments but tyrannies; and are absolutely against the law of GOD and nature."


So, Williams is daring, in his day and age, to argue that there is a difference between a government and a tyrant. He's making a logical argument, based on natural law principles, that there is something called a civil authority that Paul is referring to in Romans 13, and that there is something called tyranny - a mere physical force that is pretending to have the power of civil authority that it does not rightfully have. Is it possible to pretend you have government authority that you don't legitimately have? Yes, it is possible.