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The Powers That Be

January 10, 2002

My most recent column, questioning the authority of the state, has gotten negative reaction from people I usually agree with: my fellow Christians.

Several readers appeal to chapter 13 of the Epistle to the Romans, in which St. Paul says (in the King James Version): “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.” He adds that the ruler “is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” He adds we should obey the ruler not just for fear of temporal punishment, but because conscience requires it. If we have charity toward our neighbors we will keep the divine commandments, abstaining from adultery, murder, theft, perjury, and so forth.

A priest friend asks how I square my position with the teachings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. I don’t know their political writings well enough to answer.

First, notice that Paul is assuming a decent ruler, whose laws are consistent with the commandments. He is addressing the small body of early Christians, who were suspected of sedition but incapable of posing a real threat to the government. It is important, with the threat of persecution facing them, that Christians appear to be good citizens. In the same way, Paul and the other Apostles, in their epistles, urge slaves to obey their masters.

The Apostles knew that tyranny, slavery, and war were evils. But in their time these were generally believed to be necessary evils which could never be eliminated. In the fullness of time, if society were thoroughly christianized, they might be done away with; but for the time being, Christians had to come to terms with them by concentrating on their positive side.

It is always easier to imagine a perfect world than actually to make slight improvements in this fallen one. Even when Europe was Catholic and the popes condemned the slave trade, that horrid commerce continued for centuries. Today latecomers like Lincoln are credited with abolishing it; but if not for Christianity, it might have continued forever.

Can St. Paul have meant that Christians must always obey whatever a given ruler commands? I doubt it. What if the ruler orders Christians to commit murder? In fact the best early Christians defied their rulers when ordered to renounce Christ; and they were honored as martyrs for this disobedience.

[Breaker quote: Did God ordain the 
state?]If taken to the extreme, this supposed absolute duty of obedience would mean that a Russian Christian must obey his Christian tsar; but that when an atheistic regime overthrew the tsar and persecuted Christianity, he would immediately have an equally absolute duty to obey those who had rebelled against the tsar! As Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More asks, how can a rebel expect obedience?

This raises the problem the twentieth century made a practical reality: the problem of the perverted state, which systematically murders, robs, and subverts morality. This is the very opposite of the just ruler St. Paul had in mind: it uses the forms of law to enact the contrary of true law.

One of the things I do know about Augustine and Aquinas is that they agreed that an unjust law was no law at all. A state without justice, Augustine said, was nothing but “a band of robbers.”

Certainly law in itself is good and necessary, and even philosophical anarchists agree that it must be enforced; they merely think it could be done by a plurality of private associations. Even tyrannical states do some good insofar as they justly perform necessary functions. The question is whether a state can monopolize these functions without degenerating into tyranny. To monopolize the power to do good is itself to do a sort of evil.

A Christian can believe that God “ordained” the “powers that be” — including political rulers and slaveholders — for purposes too deep for us to understand fully, and that while they last we must provisionally accept them; but that they were not meant to last forever.

There came a time when Christians agreed that chattel slavery had to go. It may be time to say the same about the state. At least recent history should make us begin thinking about it.

Joseph Sobran

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