“The Right to Bear the Sword the State Has”

Nomura Sword By jpellgen
Nomura Sword By jpellgen
When asked where I stand on the subject of pacifism, I tend to say that I’m somewhere towards the non-violent end of the spectrum. When asked to elaborate, I admit that the primary reason I’m drawn towards pacifism is that it allows me to tell people I follow a teacher called Yoder.

I jest of course, but there is a strange sort of irony in the fact that the Mennonite pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder bears a remarkably similar name to a little green creature who trained insurrectionists to be fighting machines. Yoder was one of the most significant modern pacifist theologians, who in turn mentored others such as Stanley Hauerwas. His best known book The Politics of Jesus is a seminal text, ranked by Christianity Today as the fifth most important Christian book of the Twentieth Century. I am not an out and out pacifist, nor am I convinced by the entire thesis of Yoder’s book, but in this post I want to make a couple of comments about the nature of pacifism, and then look briefly at just one of Yoder’s arguments.

What Pacifism is and isn’t
Pacifism is not always a weak or cowardly theological position. In fact arguably it’s a very courageous position to take, since it requires self-restraint and counter-intuitive action even in the face of pressure, persecution and of course violence. Many pacifists find the term unhelpful and instead opt for a term like ‘non-violence’, which implies not passivity, but active commitment to something believed to be more powerful than violence. Mark Kurlansky in his (ok-ish-and-worth-a-read-but-a-little-hit-and-miss) book Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, writes:

Lesson number one from human history on the subject of nonviolence, is that there is no word for it. […] While every major language has a word for violence, there is no word to express the idea of nonviolence except that it is not another idea, it is not violence […] If we lived in a world that had no word for war other than nonpeace, what kind of world would that be? It would not necessarily be a world without war, but it would be a world that regarded war as an aberrant and insignificant activity. The widely held and seldom expressed but implicit viewpoint of most cultures is that violence is real and nonviolence is unreal. But when nonviolence becomes a reality it is a powerful force. […] Nonviolence is not the same thing as pacifism, for which there are many words. Pacifism is treated almost as a psychological condition. It is a state of mind. Pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active. Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than nonviolence, which is dangerous. (Kurlansky, p5-6)

It’s a distinction worth making, and passages like Matthew 5:38-48 can be seen to demonstrate a kind of creative engagement with oppression that is best described not as pacifism, but rather non-violence. It is neither the ‘do nothing’ of pacifism, or the ‘fight back’ of retaliation. Instead it is as Rob Bell puts it, “A particular kind of focussed, disciplined action in the face of the world’s injustice.”

So given the failure of language at this point, perhaps I can make the distinction by referring to capital-p Pacifism, by which I mean passive ‘do nothingness’ and small-p pacifism, which is the end of the spectrum incorporating both non-violence and Pacifism proper.

As Matt Hosier’s article War & Peace, Part 1pointed out, the first three centuries of the Church seem to have been largely pacifist, and from that period there are incredible stories of people finding creative, non-violent ways to stand up for themselves and their faith. For example, Josephus recounts the story of Emperor Caius, who sent Petronius to erect a statue of him in the Temple in Jerusalem, telling him that if the Jewish people resisted he could conquer them by war. Petronius took as many auxiliaries as he could find, and two legions of the Roman army, but tens of thousands of Jews came out to meet Petronius, telling him that they could not permit an idolatrous statue to be placed in the temple. Josephus writes:

They replied “We will not by any means make war with [Caesar], but still we will die before we see our laws transgressed.” So they threw themselves down upon their faces, and stretched out their throats, and said they were ready to be slain: and this they did for forty days together, and in the meantime left off the tilling of their ground, and that while the season of the year required them to sow it. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xviii.8)

You may well wonder as to the relevance of the tilling of the soil. Josephus continues, explaining that the social issues that would have been caused by the Jews not tilling the ground would have raised an enormous problem for Caesar; with robberies, famine and the inability of people to pay tribute. The threat of social disorder was enough to cause Petronius and Caius to think about the consequences of their actions and eventually back down.

Now this sort of episode raises other ethical questions about the right to strike and suchlike, with which I’m not primarily concerned here. But at least it demonstrates that non-violence, rather than being a passive thing, is a proactive, creative attempt to stand up to wrongdoing in a way that shuns violence and exposes the cruelty of oppression. It is courageous and it is risky; people die for this stuff!

Non-pacifists should resist the urge to fall back on simple stereotypes that paint pacifists as weak, fluffy, irresponsible, effeminate cowards who so value their own comfort that they refuse to get their hands dirty. I’m sure that’s true of some, but not of all. Similarly, pacifists should resist the temptation to vilify those who support Just War Theory as irresponsible, bloodthirsty, trigger-happy, gun-toting violence-loving men who get a kick out of war. Again, I’m sure that is true of some, but not of many. These sorts of issues are too complex and too important to be plagued by a throwing around of cheap caricatures.

Yoder on Romans 12-13
There are, of course, many texts that could be cited for each side of the debate, and I have no doubt we’ll pick some of them up in the comments and rejoinders over the next few days. But let me focus the rest of this post on one key passage, which has given me a lot to think about. Romans 13 is an obvious go-to text for those wanting to justify the use of force or weaponry. It reads,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1-4)

I distinctly remember the first time I read Yoder on this passage. He completely subverted the way I’d always understood it and I’ve been unable to shake some of his questions ever since. In chapter 10 of The Politics of Jesus, Yoder essentially makes six points about Romans 13:

  1. The New Testament speaks in many ways about the problem of the state: Romans 13 is not the centre of this teaching.
  2. In the structure of the Epistle, chapters 12 and 13 in their entirety form one literary unit. Therefore the text 13:1-7 cannot be understood alone.
  3. The subordination that is called for recognises whatever power exists, accepts whatever structure of sovereignty happens to prevail. The text does not affirm, as the tradition has it, a divine act of institution or ordination of a particular government.
  4. The instructions to the Romans are to be subject to a government in whose administration they had no voice. The text cannot mean that Christians are called to do military or police service.
  5. The function of bearing the sword to which Christians are called to be subject is the judicial and police function; it does not refer to the death penalty or to war.
  6. The Christian who accepts his subjection to government retains his moral independence and judgment. The authority of government is not self-justifying. Whatever government exists is ordered by God; but the text does not say that whatever the government does or asks of its citizens is good.

I have reservations with some of these points – but before you dismiss them you really should read the chapter. It’s provocative, if not always 100% convincing. But the point that has challenged my thinking more than any other is point two. Romans 12-13 is one literary unit, and we cannot (as many do) try to understand the ‘bearing of the sword’ outside of its context.

Yoder shows that Romans 12 begins with a call to non-conformity, motivated by the mercies of God (v1-3). This non-conformity finds expression in quality relationships, which flow from a transformed life; we have sober judgment, we use our gifts in service, we love one another sacrificially, we undergo suffering and persecution in a godly manner, we live in harmony with one another, even our enemies (v4-21). Then skipping forward to Romans 13:8-10, we see again the theme of loving one another, followed by v11-14 which talk about the future salvation. It is sandwiched in between these two sections on love, and just before the section on the triumphant future that we find 13:1-7. Yoder argues (I think convincingly) that this is one literary unit, and that 13:1-7 must therefore be interpreted in the light of the immediate context.

I’ll let him speak for himself:

The entire text thus sees Christian nonconformity and suffering love as driven and drawn by a sense of God’s triumphant movement from the merciful past into a triumphant future. Any interpretation of 13:1-7 that would make it an expression of a static or conservative undergirding of the present social system would therefore represent a refusal to take seriously the context. Any interpretation in which God’s mercies are not seen as overcoming hostilities through the creation of community, reaching even to the nuts and bolts of financial sharing and missionary support, has covered over the meaning of each part of the text by not seeing it whole. (Yoder, p198)

He then addresses the role of the Christian in the administering of God’s wrath:

There is a most specific dialectical interplay around the concepts of vengeance and wrath. Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognised (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God. It is inconceivable that these two verses, using such similar language, should be meant to be read independently of one another. This makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians. However able an infinite God may be to work at the same time through the sufferings of his believing disciples who return good for evil and through the wrathful violence of the authorities who punish evil with evil, such behaviour is for men not complementary but in disjunction. God can in his own way, in his sovereign permissive providence, “use” an idolatrous Assyria (Isa. 10) or Rome. This takes place, however, without his declaring that such action which he thus uses is morally good or that participation in it is incumbent upon his covenant people. (Yoder, p199)

I find this fascinating and thought-provoking. When taken together as a literary unit, Romans 12-13 paints a picture of a new community, which refuses to conform to the pattern of the world, but in which people give themselves to each other and overcome evil with good (12:21), heaping not physical coals, but kindness on the heads of their enemies (12:20). The Christian is told not to avenge himself, for that is God’s prerogative (12:19) and that God outworks his vengeance through the state (13:4).

So we are left with the lingering question: If Christians are instructed not to do what the State is empowered by God to do, to what extent can a Christian participate in the State?


This post forms part of a dialogue on violence and pacifism between Liam, Matthew Hosier and Andrew Wilson. Check out the whole series: 

Who Would Jesus Punch? by Liam Thatcher
War & Peace, Part 1 by Matthew Hosier
“The Right to Bear the Sword the State Has” by Liam Thatcher
War & Peace, Part 2 by Matthew Hosier
Violence: My View from the Fence by Liam Thatcher
Just War? by Andrew Wilson

A few resources to get you thinking:

    • Bell, Rob – Calling all Peacemakers (x3 MP3s)
    • Boyd, Greg – The Myth of a Christian Nation
    • Carson, D.A. – Just War (x2 MP3s)
    • Hayes, Richard – The Moral Vision of the New Testament
    • Holmes, Arthur (ed) – War and Christian Ethics (a reader)
    • Kurlanksy, Mark – Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea
    • Wright, N.T. – Evil and the Justice of God
    • Yoder, John Howard – The Politics of Jesus

One Comment Add yours

  1. When I first read The Politics of Jesus some 25 years ago I could not believe that anyone would be convinced by Yoder’s interpretation of Rom. 13. Yes, it is one literary unit; however, it does not say what he says it says. What is missed by Yoder and generally in this entire debate is that the OT already taught that personal vengeance was wrong and that vengeance was to be left to God especially via governmental officials. For example, Leviticus 19:17-18 clearly states, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You SHALL NOT TAKE VENGEANCE or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. I am the Lord.” The same attitude and action is commanded towards foreigners residing amongst the Israelites at the end of the same chapter in 19:33-34! These same and similar principles are taught over and over in other parts of the OT including love for one’s enemy (e.g. Exodus 23:4-5; Prov. 25:21-22). However, despite these commands to love, not take vengeance, not repay evil for evil, etc. the OT still – at the very same time commanded capital punishment for numerous crimes in Israel as well as just war against evil nations in a variety of contexts. This shows that the commands to love one’s neighbors and not take vengeance are not to be understood as absolutes but instead are qualified by other commands and principles including the command for capital punishment and killing in just wars – each via governmental agents including the Israelitic governmental administration itself as can be seen in the very next chapter of Lev. 20!! Paul, in Rom. 12-13 is following the exact same teaching and even quotes directly from the OT to support his points in Rom. 12:17ff. The point is, individual Christian believers are not take vengeance themselves but rather to leave vengeance to God (just as in the OT). That vengeance is then shown to be carried out as a responsibility of government in Rom. 13 rather than as individuals – just as in the OT. In addition, both in the OT and the NT this governmental function is described as godly, not evil, which is the very reason that Christians – at the very least are commanded to pay taxes to support it and also in 1 Tim. 2 to pray for it. Simply put, proper government service including its use of “the sword” is the work of God via God’s avengers in government and can be carried out by unbeliever or believer alike. There is nothing evil about it all anymore than it is evil for God himself, who is love, to judge the world either in this age or in the age to come. Jesus was by no means seeking to overturn this OT teaching in the Sermon on the Mount; rather he was contradicting the casuistry of the religious leaders of his day who were trying to get around the clear OT teaching of OT sections like Lev. 19, etc. Paul makes this crystal clear in his teaching in Rom. 12-13. Yoder on the other hand interprets Rom. 13 in a way that contradicts the rest of scripture on this issue and attempts to force it to say something that it does not itself actually. Rom. 13 is in fact the central teaching of the Bible on the godly role of government and the rest of the Bible – OT and NT – supports the same principles.


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