by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
In the spring of 1999, during NATO’s bombing of Serbia, I was in the “Tent City” in Tirana, Albania. Floods of Kosovar refugees were pouring into the camps, telling horrific stories of rape and ethnic cleansing. Something needed to be done. The Serbs had to be stopped. But as fighter jets roared above and thundering Apache helicopters flew overhead, I experienced tremendous inner conflict. Could I support violence to stop violence?
The truth is, I prefer non-violence. That’s exactly what I mean. I cannot with integrity say I’m committed to non-violence because most of the champions who’ve made this commitment don’t seem to agree on a clear definition of what they mean by “violence.” And, if the use of force to protect a vulnerable child or my wife is “violence,” then I may not be able to fully commit to non-violence in every situation.
This past weekend Osama bin Laden was assassinated, shot in the head, in what no doubt was an awful, bloody mess.
Immediately after his death was announced, there was a virtual flash mob of social media reactions. It’s not surprising that the collective response was overwhelmingly celebratory; after all, bin Laden was America’s #1 enemy.
But as I started sifting through the Tweets and Facebook status updates from friends, many of them self-proclaimed Christians, I wasn’t sure what to make of the celebration of death.
Chris’ post has stirred up some incredibly polarized reaction within Q’s online community. Dozens upon dozens of comments exhibit displeasure, if not anger, at Chris’ post. We are not, it seems, comfortable wrestling with the ambiguity of the situation or the blatant contradictions of Christians rejoicing at the death of a fellow human being.
Yet these are the kinds of things we should be examining, questioning, and reflecting upon. If our Christian faith is to mean much in this ever-changing dynamic world, we have to ask the tough questions of ourselves, of God, and of God’s church. That’s why earlier this week we posted some initial reflections here, and linked to Miroslav Volf’s own perspective here.
Many of the comments following Chris’ post followed justifications of war based on Old Testament practice, and (as always happens), Romans 13 was cited. For those who don’t remember this passage used to defend our government’s triumphalist practices:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment
One brilliant commenter followed up on the invocation of Romans 13 with this pithy, provocative thought:
I’ll remember that scripture should China nuke the Western US. After all, God appoints all govt’s and leaders, so we must extend to their government and leaders the same grace we extend our own, yes?
And that, perhaps, is where this whole things falls apart. This commenter takes Romans 13 to its logical conclusion and demands that we count the cost of following this scripture in this way. Do we really mean what we say we mean? What happens when another superpower supplants ours? What happens when we are not the world’s policing agency?
Will we fall in line, or will this convince us of what Jesus was up to, and what Paul really said when he wrote Romans? What did Paul really mean? I’m not suggesting he’s the final arbiter of truth, but Brian Walsh takes this passage on in his challenging 2008 post “To Hell With Romans 13.” If the title offends you, just wait till you read the content:
Let me put my cards on the table right from the outset. I am sick and tired of hearing Christians who have something at stake in the status quo of economic, social and political systems of injustice appealing to Romans 13 to legitimate unswerving obedience to oppressive and deceitful regimes.
I speak a fair bit in the US and whenever I am addressing the question of the meaning of the gospel for our political lives someone invariably asks, “yes, but what about Romans 13?”
What about it? I reply.
“Well, how can you use language of subverting the empire when Paul says that we are to submit to the governing authorities?”
And for years I have attempted to be patient in my response. My patience has run out. In the light of Guantanamo Bay, the deceit of the administration in leading America into war in Iraq, the refusal of that state to submit to almost any significant international treaty, and the idolatrous protection of the revered “American Way of Life.”