19A023 Remarks on Romans 13 by Jim Davies, 6/4/2019    


A prerequisite for finding one's way in to market anarchism is a reasoning, rational mind. Myth, superstition and religion may have value, but not so as to form a realistic world-view, or to understand how society can best work. Any who place faith (a belief not supported by reason) above all, will have a hard time telling which way is up.

It's not impossible; there are many fine Christian anarchists and that cannot be denied. I just say it's more difficult; somehow, the believer has to partition his mind, using reason in one part and faith in another.

Nowhere do the two collide more violently than in Romans 13.

In its first verse Paul writes, to the first-Century Christians in Rome, "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."

The passage really begins in Romans 12:17 with "Recompense to no man evil for evil." Fine advice, to the brethren who were being viciously persecuted in the Empire's capital, for refusing to bow the knee to Caesar. Roman government was freely tolerant of all religions, provided all adherents acknowledged the Emperor as having their supreme loyalty. Christians could not do that; God came first.

So Paul wrote to advise them how to handle the persecution. The chapter divisions were not added until about 1227, by Archbishop Langton, and in this instance he didn't do it too well. Paul starts his no-resistance theme at 12:17, and continues in the present 13th Chapter with a full endorsement of government. There's the problem.

He might have written something to the effect that God was testing them with an evil oppressor and they should not resist with violence but be patient, "turn the other cheek" rather like Gandhi did in British India; but he went far beyond that by stating as a general principle valid for all time that all government is a creation of God and for that reason they should not "return evil for evil." The powers that [exist] are ordained [by] God. Wow. He continues in v.6 with "For this cause pay ye [tax] also; for they are God's ministers." Double wow; your local, friendly IRS agent is a Clerk in Holy Orders. Who knew?

So the creator of the universe put and kept in place Caligula and Atilla and Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot... if he exists. To my mind, that is adequate proof that he does not.

Now, it could be argued that when Paul wrote this passage, he was dealing with an unique situation and departed from his general, all-encompassing principles so as to fix an urgent problem. I don't think so. Paul always derived a particular set of advice from a general, permanent principle, and this is no exception; had it been otherwise, he had no reason at all to state the general principle that there is "no power but of God." He made no exception; not even of the Roman Caesar.

It could also be argued that he colored the composition of this letter so that the government censors would allow it through, enabling Christian prisoners to read it. Again, I don't think so - for the same reason. Paul didn't compromise. Or if, arguendo, he did, then the believing reader can never be sure, in this or any other passage, whether what he sees on the page is Holy Writ or something mildly deceptive.

Some who today dislike that obvious understanding of Romans 13 have performed amazing intellectual gymnastics so that the passage is said to mean roughly the opposite of what it plainly says; I applaud their eagerness to reach an anarchist conclusion but can't endorse their exegetic dishonesty. Paul meant exactly what he wrote. And of course, he was dead wrong.

Christians were wrong too when 250 years later, they met with a chastened Caesar at Nicea (today, Iznik in Turkey) and did a deal that seemed good for both Church and State. Christian doctrine was normalized - heretics were kicked out - and the Emperor made Christianity the primary, "official" State Religion (complete with generous State funding to help expansion) in the hope of restoring unity in the Empire. An amazing triumph, for a tiny faction that grew, slowly but exponentially, to become the largest single religion in the Roman world. The Nicene Creed was a product of the meeting; it's a masterpiece of composition that has lasted 17 centuries. But the other outcome was deadly; once established under State supervision, the early Church lost its edge, slowed its growth, and six centuries later became the intellectual and moral whorehouse known as the Roman Church. More in my Which Church (if any)?

Paul's assertion here that the creator of the universe appoints governments to control societies, to limit and punish individual evildoing, is perfectly consistent with the rest of the Bible and was taken as such not just by the self-serving monarchs who claimed they had a "divine right" to rule, but also by Thomas Paine and the others who broke the monarchical mold and pretended to put The People in charge; Tom said "Government [is produced] by our wickedness... and promotes our happiness... by restraining our vices." This is perfectly in line with the myth of original sin, which enters the Bible in Genesis 1 and never leaves. But it's bunk.

So it seems very clear to me that it's either-or; one cannot logically believe simultaneously that we humans are self-owned but also God-owned. As noted, some claim to do that but must partition their minds in order to do so. Seems to me much more honest to make a clean break: self-ownership is undeniable so Romans 13 is wrong. And because Romans 13 is wrong, so may be all the rest.


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