Struggling with the Concept of Righteous Violence

The concept of righteous violence has been on my mind. I would really like some feedback on this topic! I’m working very hard (hehe. Probably way TOO hard) to sort it all out, so I apologize if my train of thought is hard to follow.ย  ๐Ÿ™‚

I recently finished reading and discussing Paul’s letter to the Romans with a fellow blogger. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Romans 13, but in verses 1-5 (subheading is “Submission to the Authorities”) there are some difficult words for someone like myself who feels passionately that non-violence is the best way to approach everything… even for those in authority. (Before I go any further, this post is not intended to offend or criticize those who are serving or have served in the military. I have deep respect for people who support their convictions with actions and are willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the people and principles they love.)

Romans 13: 1-5

1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is Godโ€™s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is Godโ€™s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

On the surface, this seems political and quite unfair. There have been so many oppressive leaders. Surely we shouldn’t follow and submit to the authority of those we know are doing evil things. But my study leader shared a helpful perspective with me. She feels that this passage defends the office of authority, not specific rulers. I agree. God gave us a system of hierarchy, perhaps to address earthly chaos.

But I still have a hard time with this text when I read it sandwiched between Paul’s non-violent, “love your enemy” recommendations. And Paul was hardly submissive to the authorities. For that matter, neither was Jesus. So who are these “rulers” God has appointed to wield swords of righteousness? Do they know who they are? Do they have some kind of divine permission to read this passage from a position of power or should we all be reading it assuming that we are servants rather than authorities?

Jesus exhibited anger, yes, but didn’t advocate violence. Are we not all supposed to model our lives’ after Christ’s? Maybe this is an odd question, but do we actually take this advice too far sometimes? After all, Jesus had the ultimate authority. He tells us, “I and the Father are one.” John 10:30. If we can’t claim the same authority and knowledge, perhaps we shouldn’t always act as Jesus did – from a position of power. Although, if we should follow Jesus as closely as possible, then even the powerful must note that Jesus had incredible power, and yet chose to give himself to humanity as a servant.

In King’s Cross, Timothy Keller intimates the opinion that a God of love must also be a God of wrath. I agree completely. When you love, you become angry at that which harms or destroys the object of your love. But where do we draw the line? If your anger is righteous, are violent actions ever justified? Every fiber of my being shouts, “NO!” But even in the New Testament, God chose to end lives. Jesus did not. How do we reconcile these different facets of God’s character?

I guess I’ve always felt that God, in his power and intimate knowledge of all things, can take people out of the world if he sees fit, but as we do not have the benefit of… well… being God, we can hardly feel justified doing the same. So what do you make of Romans 13? Do you think it seems contradictory to other biblical themes?


11 thoughts on “Struggling with the Concept of Righteous Violence

  1. What a great post. Many question this. God prepared King David for battle against Saul and the Giant. He prepared Joseph for battle with his own brothers. He saved his people by preparing them for battle in the Old Testament like in 2nd Chronicles 20; they really didn’t have to fight but God prepared them. I believe God hates war as he does divorce, homosexuality but he loves those who fight. We are constantly fighting battles in our own lives; or we allow God to fight for us.

    1. Thanks for your response and examples, Naphtali! I sometimes get caught up in the details, but that helped remind me of a simple truth: God hates evil, so evil (however it manifests) is what we should guard ourselves against.

  2. Gosh, you do a good job of making it hard to reply in anything less than a full essay! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    “…there are some difficult words for someone like myself who feels passionately that
    non- violence is the best way to approach everything…”

    And this, I think, is the core issue. While I know you are striving to be honest and objective, you are grappling with deep-seated cultural assumptions. The idea that violence can always be thwarted by some nicer solution is based on the assumption that humans are basically good–and only environment and exposure will cause a person to develop hurtful, abusive, or violent behaviors. If something better is modeled long enough, people will eventually come around, and the cycle of violence will end. So the story goes…

    According to the Bible, humans were created amazing and powerful, capable of both unfathomable goodness and unthinkable wickedness. And since the fall, we inherit a broken nature and a propensity toward sin. Exposure to life in a sin-sick world does not help matters, but it is not the root cause of our sin.

    Who modeled murder for Cain?

    I say all of that only to make the point that as long as there are folks who are willing to use violence for personal gain, counter-violence will often be the only effective course. It is no less of an evil to sit by while people are abused, exploited, or tyrannized.

    Plus, a pacifist position just doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of life. Is pain evil? Exercise is painful–should we not do that even though it is ultimately beneficial? How about shots? We are willing to inflict pain on our kids if it will ultimately make them healthier. Is one kind of pain always evil and other kinds aren’t? Pain is a teacher, and a very good one. It lets us know when we are doing things that are harmful to us.

    The cause of the pain or motive for inflicting the pain is where sin or wrong comes in.

    Concerning the message of the Bible: Does God want violence or pain for any of us? I don’t think so. Pain is a part of the curse of sin, and I think he hates watching us hurt. But he is also willing to use the reality of pain to teach us, and he is willing to use violence to stop wickedness.

    “And Paul was hardly submissive to the authorities. For that matter, neither was Jesus.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this. They certainly had conflicts with those in authority, but did they actually disobey lawful authorities? And even if they did, God is our ultimate authority. He is the top of the ranks…so if a lesser authority is requiring us to do something in violation of God’s commands, we have to defer to his superior position.

    Non-violence is a Biblical ideal, not a rule. As far as it depends on us, we are to live in peace. Don’t be an instigator. Don’t unnecessarily retaliate. If someone is harassing you, suck it up, show them compassion, and patience. This is the attitude we are to cultivate in our daily lives. This is good. This is the more desirable thing.

    But, if gross injustice goes unchecked and rebellion is unanswered–then violence and chaos reign. This is clearly not God’s desire.

    It isn’t an EITHER we cultivate a lifestyle of compassion and self sacrifice OR we give authority the power to punish. That’s like saying our choice is EITHER to nurture and comfort our children OR protect them from disease. Should we usually, or without good reason, hurt our kids? No! That is called abuse. Will we hurt them if it will save their life or prevent the spread of disease? Of course!

    “Jesus exhibited anger, yes, but didnโ€™t advocate violence.”

    Neither did he condemn it–and he had ample opportunity (Luke 7:8-9). In the case of Pilate, Jesus affirmed Pilate’s authority to pardon or to kill–only clarifying that the authority was given to him by God (John 19:10-11). Of course, as you pointed out, it is not an affirmation of how he chose to use that authority.

    And what about the cleansing of the temple? (John 2:13-17) It is popular to say that Jesus made the whip, but didn’t use it. Maybe. But normally if you read that a person made a whip and drove people out with it, what would you assume?

    That being said, Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth that time was to offer peace and salvation. When he comes back again, the sword is coming out. Those are different facets of God’s character coming out, but I think the strong contrast you observe has more to do with the particular mission at hand.

    As for Paul, he willingly suffered much for the sake of the gospel, but he also had no problem appealing to authorities or using Roman soldiers for protection (understanding that they would use violent force against anyone who tried to harm him) (Acts 23:12-24).

    So yes, love your enemy (Matt 5:44). Practice peace (Rom 12:40). Turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39). If someone takes your shirt, give him your coat too (Matt 5:40). But if someone murders your spouse, don’t offer him your kids too–or anyone else’s. There are some things worth getting physical over. Peace and violence are both advocated in the Bible. Where that line is for a particular position of authority OR for an individual is a matter of law, conscience, and common sense.

    That’s what I think.

    And as to your questions about servants vs. authorities, I think you are making it too complicated. ๐Ÿ™‚ It isn’t that God has given certain individuals the right to wield authority (though he can do that too), It’s more like he has given humans the freedom (ability) to create structures of order and authority for the purpose of governance. Once designated, that authority (ability to do specified things) is real. The man who happens to occupy the position has the authority because he happens to occupy the position, not because he is inherently a special sort of person.

    I really ought to have just written my own blog post in response to this. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks Crystal! You successfully highlighted some personal inconsistencies. ๐Ÿ™‚ It isn’t that I think of non-violence as a solution to violence, exactly. I don’t think that people will “come around.” Just as an example, if I am killed because I refuse to answer violence with violence, then I took the higher road and simply hasten my arrival at my final destination. HOWEVER, I also agree with your assertion that “It is no less of an evil to sit by while people are abused, exploited, or tyrannized.” I suppose I can’t have it both ways. Thanks for guiding my thought process. I still have some work to do.

      Also, another question about the nature of evil. When someone who does evil things dies, does the evil that was at work in that person also die? I know that God destroyed cities and people, but perhaps the deaths of those people were a result of God destroying evil… okay, I know that smacks of “too complicated,” but I really would be interested in biblical references that apply if you have any. ๐Ÿ™‚

    2. On second thought, maybe I do think of non-violence as a solution. And while that might be a cultural assumption, I think it is perpetuated by the huge number of biblical admonitions that seem to encourage it. Like Romans 12:19-21:

      Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, โ€œVengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.โ€ To the contrary, โ€œif your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.โ€ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

      1. Again though, your assumption seems to be that inflicting pain (violence) = evil. If your enemy gives you poisonous food, don’t give him poisonous food in return. Feeding him isn’t bad, but the sort of feeding you do and the motive you do it with can certainly be bad. He may dislike the taste of the food you give him, but if it is good for him, you are still loving him and seeking out his best good.

        There is definitely the idea here that kindness can win over a hard heart. This principle is taught by Christ, and it is found in the proverbs and elsewhere. We have been shown mercy; we ought to show mercy. This is how we are to live out our daily lives. Love has the power to overcome evil. But this is a principle that is often true – not universally true. Freedom is still freedom. Even God does not operate as though every hard heart will eventually be wooed by his love.

        Believers should not run around seeking petty, personal vengeance. Such behavior would not be motivated by seeking out best good for our enemies or the best good for society.

        This really has nothing to do with institutions for the governance of society, except for the personal conscience and level of integrity with which believers in positions of authority carry out their responsibilities to serve society.

        Neither Jesus nor Paul condemns participation in governance or military (even though these institutions used violence and force on a regular basis). Jesus praises the Roman centurion. John the Baptist instructs soldiers to be fair and be content with their wages. Paul writes a glowing letter of love and affection to the believers in Philippi (a military town), never once addressing any conflict between military activities and the Christian lifestyle.

        Paul was not shy about addressing popular practices that were incompatible with Christian living. Neither was he stupid. I don’t think he slipped and missed his own inconsistency. It would seem that the exercise of the authority in established governmental institutions is simply assumed. The believer is being instructed to not be a part of the problems that the government is responsible for solving.

        Was any of that helpful–or was it more like buck-shot that missed your question entirely?

      2. No, you definitely addressed my question. Your examples are completely relevant. I do understand the distinction betweenviolence stemming from evil motives and inflicting pain for good and valid reasons. I still don’t know exactly how I feel about this issue, but suffice it to say for now that I believe that non-violent solutions can be found for problems far more often the governments of the world seem to think they can. I get the sense that relationships between countries, for example, are so complex that sorting out motives at all is tough. Thanks again for all your help!


    1. Thank you so much for the pingback. I’d love more feedback on this issue, so I really do appreciate it. ๐Ÿ™‚ Doesn’t really matter, but my blog is actually just called “Delve.” Thanks again!

  3. Here’s some very belated feedback. The New Testament indicates that we should not be following legalistic rules in our life following Jesus, but rather walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 2 Cor 3:5, Romans 7:6). Therefore I suggest these verses about authority, and most other ethical/behavioural teaching, provides principles to be applied under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our behaviour will thus depend on the situation and the Spirit as well as the Biblical principles. Because some principles conflict in some situations, we will need to pray especially for the Spirit’s guidance then.

    So I, like you, think the default teaching is non-violence, but I accept there may (terrifyingly) be rare situations where violence is the right choice. I just hope I am never put in such a situation.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

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