In case you haven’t seen it, there’s video going around these days of the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the face by an inauguration protestor who apparently didn’t care for Spencer getting a soapbox for his platform.
The video has in turn prompted much discussion, along more or less unsurprising lines. Some people think hitting someone like Spencer lowers you to their level, while others point out that, you know, Nazis were made to be punched. (More seriously, the argument runs that punching them denies them the platform they crave so deeply.)
Listening to the discussion brought to mind Romans 13 (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities…”), naturally enough. I thought it would be worth looking at the passage in a little more depth, given what citizen relationships with the government—and each other—are likely to be in the next few years.
The first thing to understand is that unlike most of Paul’s letters, Romans isn’t written to address a specific situation. It’s more philosophical. It’s really a letter of self-introduction before Paul comes to hit the church up for money; in it, he lays out some big themes of his ministry to give his potential donors an idea of where he’s coming from. One of those themes is the Christian’s relationship to the law. Paul, after all, has won the argument within the church about whether Gentile converts to Christianity should or should not to be subject to Jewish law. (Not, says Paul.)
At the same time, Jesus was pretty clear about his teachings relativizing Jewish and Roman law. This leaves people understandably confused. If they don’t have to follow Jewish law, and they don’t have to follow Roman law, can they do whatever the hell they want? Absolutely not, Paul says.
First of all, Christians have to obey the higher law of love, including for their enemies. As he says at the end of Romans 12:
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.
Paul almost certainly wouldn’t have approved of punching Nazis. That’s not who Christians are, it’s not what they do, he’d say. Furthermore, assault is against the law, and Christians are obliged to obey the law. (Don’t get after me if you don’t like this. I’m just telling you what Paul might have said.)
As always, Paul’s speaking dialectically, so you have to be careful. But the idea is Christians are supposed to keep their noses clean. Don’t be a pain in the ass, pay your parking tickets, understand that government is there for a reason. That purpose includes, in Paul’s view, the use of violence to punish wrongdoers. It’s possible he condones capital punishment here. “The authority does not bear the sword in vain!” as he warns his audience. Along the same lines, he counsels them to pay their taxes. You’re a Roman citizen, you cough up to the Emperor. All of this is simply what neighbors and citizens owe one another.
So does this mean Christians have to give in to authority at all times? No, of course not. If the cop says step back for the safety of the crowd, that’s one thing. If the cop says clear the street because the President is tired of these protests, that’s another thing altogether. And yes, John Lewis’ brand of “good trouble” is perfectly consistent with Christian faith, despite what white supremacists will say.
Should Christians engage in punching Nazis, then? Sadly, no. I don’t think so. Not because it’s against the rules, exactly, but because that goes against the Christian identity. It’s not who we’re meant to be. But we don’t really have to be sad about it, either. Fool got what he had coming.
Can Christians take part in illegal marches, strikes, or other forms of protest? Oh my, yes! The authorities derive their power by standing up for what’s right, in Paul’s view. If they don’t, then they concede their authority.
But here’s the thing. Paul is always leery of hard-and-fast rules: the whole point of Christianity for him is to get away from “law.” So he grounds the Christian approach to civil authority not in rules, but in the ethic of love. Christians must discern the best way to share and embody the love of Christ for the world for themselves. There’s always room for disagreement. For example, you could make a perfectly good argument from a liberationist perspective that punching Nazis is applying the love ethic by defending innocents from violence. That’s essentially the same basis Christians use to justify going to war, after all.
But because Paul premises the Christian attitude on the love ethic, it means that while I or the Pope or some other Christian leader can give advice, we can’t say exactly which approach is Christian and which isn’t. It’s a matter of conscience.
So exercise due skepticism if somebody starts denouncing marches or other forms of disobedience as “un-Christian,” particularly if they start dragging in things like abortion or other extraneous issues. The salient question is the competence of the authorities. If they’re acting unjustly, then protest or resistance is fair game. Or at least it is if you discern it that way. Again, I can’t really make the rules.
One more thing: back in chapter 12, Paul clearly delineates different roles for Christians within the body of Christ: prophecy, ministry, teaching, leading, compassion, and so on. It’s not accidental that this diversity is the lead-in to Paul’s section on the love ethic. Christians are called to “discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect,” each in their own way. If you don’t think you should punch a Nazi, then, that’s fine, you don’t have to be that person. But if someone discerns otherwise, well, that might be a legitimate expression of the Christian faith too.+ + +