Enemy Love: Is It for Governments, Individuals or the Church?
Mar 30, 2009 by Craig Blomberg | 14 Comments
"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities" (Rom. 12:21-13:1).
I remember when the preparations for war in Iraq gave way to the intense, initial bombing of Baghdad, dubbed "Shock and Awe." A preacher I heard, who usually displays good exegetical acumen and theological insight, announced, in essence, "Up until now, it was important for Americans to debate the issue of war in Iraq from all perspectives. Now that our government has made its decision, Romans 13:1 teaches us as Christians that we must support the war effort. That's all there is to it."
I was shocked and not at all in awe. That's it? That's all there is to it? One solitary Bible verse settles it all? What about the immediate context of Romans 13:1? What about the actual meaning of Romans 13:1, to say nothing of the rest of Scripture?
The chapter break between Romans 12 and 13 is one of the more unfortunate, though understandable ones, in the Bible. Romans 12:9-21 is united by the theme of love. Verses 14-21 keep coming back to the theme of loving one's enemies. Verses 17-21 never leave the topic.
Pacifists have often seen these verses as a mandate for governments. If governments won't follow them, then at least individuals Christians should be conscientious objectors and refuse to participate in war, even when their governments declare it. Those believing in just-war theory focus on 13:1-7 instead. Not only should believers obey their governments, it is argued, but God has ordained violence, at times, as means of peacekeeping or peace-restoring. Hence verse 4b: "rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer."
There are many points about both of these back-to-back sections in Romans that must be made before using either in service of a theory about violence or non-violence. I have briefly sketched a number of them in From Pentecost to Patmos in my treatment of this part of Romans. Here I simply want to remind us who Paul's most immediate audience is-the gathered community of believers in Rome.
It is unlikely any government officials read Romans when it was first written. It is unlikely any Christians in Rome had any access to influence government decision-making. So it is doubtful that Paul envisioned his letter in any way changing emperor Nero's mind about anything. He knew, already in 57, the most likely year in which Romans was written, that the emperor blasphemously asserted divine prerogatives and disliked Christians, hostility that would lead to full-blown persecution of them starting in 64. So it cannot directly have been intended to influence governments' behavior.
Martin Luther recognized that 12:14-21 and 13:1-7 did not contradict one another, but harmonized the two by arguing that the former represented the individual Christian's responsibility, as a private citizen, as it were, while the latter reflected the state's responsibility. This was part of what came to be known as his "two-kingdoms" approach to church-state relationships.
But it is unlikely that the Roman Christians would have thought first of their individual responsibilities before their responsibilities as part of the group of Jesus followers in Rome. Theirs, like the rest of the ancient Mediterranean world, was one in which people thought of group loyalties before individual rights or responsibilities. Most likely, in Romans 12, Paul has the church as a community first of all in mind. Whatever governments may ask their subjects (or citizens) to do, wherever individual Christians may draw the boundaries beyond which they personally cannot proceed without violating their own conscience's understanding of the principle enunciated so well by Peter ("we must obey God rather than human beings"-Acts 5:29), the church has the responsibility to love her enemies, and to be seen by the world as doing so.
So whether we as individuals today see, with the Republicans, Iraq and Iran as the biggest threats to peace in the Middle East and elsewhere, or see, with the Democrats, Pakistan and Afghanistan as the biggest threats, whether we enlist in our military or promote pacifism, the church of Jesus Christ in America and around the world has the responsibility of separating itself sufficiently from both parties, indeed from our government more generally, so that the watching world can see that our highest priority on issues like these is loving our enemies-providing them with humanitarian aid in Jesus' name and then providing them with Jesus' name--the gospel itself.
Neither evangelicals or liberals are anywhere close, collectively, to that mandate today. Little wonder that each new dead American civilian in various Asian countries is found with his corpse left out in the open and a sign affixed to it saying "CIA." Do the terrorists who so label our dead countrymen know they are lying? Perhaps. But many ordinary people don't. Not until we as the church give them clear reason for distinguishing us from our governments and their spies can we expect anything to change.