Somehow it appears that the thought that Christians should not take pleasure in the killing of a fellow human being is controversial. Indeed, it seems that many Christians are eager to draw lines in the sand between “us” and “them,” between those of us who are “good” and those of them who are “evil.” This is an interesting thought in light of scripture which plainly teaches over and over again, though never more directly than in Romans 3:23, that we are all sinners. Were we to draw such a line in the sand between those of us who are “good” and those who are “evil” we would all be on the side marked “evil.” You and I would stand shoulder to shoulder with Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa. We may fight amongst ourselves over who is more evil, but that fight cannot move us across the line into “good.”
Recently on my Facebook page and in other threads of discussion across the internet I have seen Romans 13:3-4 used as a proof that we Americans are the good guys doing the good thing and therefore we can dance in the streets, play our vuvuzelas, and chant “USA! USA! USA!” in triumph over the killing of Osama Bin Laden. I find this particular selection of scripture curious, but then I find any use of scripture to justify violence and killing curious. (That’s not to say that I disagree with the killing of Bin Laden necessarily, but more on that later.) So let’s take a look at the passage in context and see if it works the way its proponents want to use it. Romans 13:3-4 says:
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Taken on its own, it could almost be Toby Keith lyrics… which should be the first red flag that the context might be important. Let’s start by backing up a bit to what Paul said just seven verses before he wrote this. Take a look at Romans 12:17-21:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Right before the passage that is being used to say that America was the good guy in an act of vengeance, Paul says “never avenge yourselves.” And right before the passage being used to say that we are justified in placing a proverbial “boot in yer ass,” Paul says “do not repay anyone evil for evil.” I think we can safely say that Paul does not then, just two verses later, completely contradict himself.
So what is Paul saying? First, let’s remember to whom he is speaking. He is addressing the Christian community in Rome. At that time they were a subset of Judaism and generally regarded as the lowest members of society. It wouldn’t be too many years later before the emperor at the time, Nero, would look for a convenient scapegoat for a fire he was most likely responsible for setting, and he found the Christians. This set off the first major persecution whereby Christians were set ablaze in the Coliseum and tossed to the lions.
Which leads to the second point: Rome isn’t exactly a friend to Christians. So is Paul saying that Roman authority was a good thing? Not exactly. Chapter 13 is part of a larger discussion on how the Christian community is supposed to get along and thrive in the shadow of the empire. Paul’s instructions here are to help the Christians not attract any further undo attention to themselves so that their work spreading the gospel could continue. N.T. Wright says this about the passage, “Paul is anxious, precisely because he believes that Jesus is the true Lord of the world, that his followers should not pick unnecessary quarrels with the lesser lords. They are indeed a revolutionary community, but if they go for the normal type of violent revolution they will will just be playing the empire back at its own game. They will almost certainly lose, and, much worse, the gospel itself will lose with them.” Rather than advocate for anarchy and a might-makes-right world, Paul is saying here that order and governance of society are God-ordained.
But further than this, rather than merely isolate this passage to 13:3-4, (as must be done if it is to be twisted into some kind of defense of a triumphing strong-armed government), let’s also look at verses 1-2. They read:
“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.”
These verses obviously support what is said above about an ordered and governed society being God’s design. It does not, notably, say that particular governments are extensions of God’s authority. Rather it says that governmental authority is God’s institution. And more to the point, for anyone who might be tempted to think that this places government on a rather high pedestal, to a world in which government was universally some form of monarchical autocracy, the idea that government was subject to the authority of God would have been seen as a demotion. The Caesars following Caligula, (which included Claudius, under whom Paul’s ministry was active, and Nero, who was emperor at the time of this writing), were all worshiped as gods on Earth during their lives. To be told that they were under any authority would have been an affront, not a glorious promotion. We would be wise to read it the same way – not that our government is good and must take action to smite the evildoer, but that it is under authority and should act like it.
It is also worth noting that since Paul was speaking about a form of government that was autocratic and ours is democratic, we might expect some nuanced differences. I would argue that our government is even more accountable to the standards of authority and moral behavior since it is elected by us to be led by those among us. But that’s not the major thrust of the passage.
When taken as a whole, from earlier instructions about how to live a Christian life in the capitol of the empire beginning in chapter 12 through the first part of chapter 15, we can see that the isolated verses of 13:3-4 do not constitute any kind of blanket divine approval on the acts of government. Nor do they imply that acts of government in the name of justice are always good and are therefore to be celebrated. Truthfully, they do not speak to government at all but rather to the governed. And they fall right in line with the earlier instructions in chapter 12 to abstain from seeking vengeance and to bless our enemies.
But back to what I said earlier about this not necessarily meaning that I disagree with the killing of Bin Laden, I don’t know how I could possibly be any clearer. I believe that killing Bin Laden was the just and necessary thing to do. But ends do not justify means. Simply because the result of his death may be good if fewer people in the future die as a result of his words or actions, that does not make the act of killing him a good act. Killing is not a good act. Nor is his killing justice in the sense of vengeance since we as Christians are told time and again not to take vengeance. It is not Christian justice. But when allowing him to live would be a worse act, then the just thing to do is to kill him. This is a case of a choice between “bad” and “worse.” Just because we are forced to do “bad,” and it is better by comparison than “worse,” does not mean that we can call a “bad” act a “good” one any more than we could jump from our side of the line dividing “evil” and “good” from my example before. True, in this instance, as referenced in Romans, the government was God’s servant for our good. It did not do a good act, but the results will be for our good. But before we go marching up and down the streets celebrating that government, we should also remember the 100,000+ Iraqis, 8,000+ Afghani civilians, and 6,000+ American soldiers that died due to orders from that same government. Such a reality must prevent us from citing Romans 13:3-4 entirely out of context in order to paint the American government and its actions as wholly “good.”