Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jesus and John Galt

I’d like your input on a problem I’ve got. I suspect some high-profile theologian has written extensively on the subject, but I’m curious about how the folks in the trenches deal with it.

A little background: A co-worker referred to me yesterday as “a reincarnation of John Galt” because I suggested that the threatened closing of Philadelphia’s public libraries might be a good thing. (It would provide an opportunity for someone to provide a private system that would either meet the true need out there or go broke.) He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but I took it as such. I mentioned that I’m a Christian, and he put “militant Christianity” in a pile with other aspects of a decadent society. So in the course of two e-mails I’ve put my two little toes in the waters of persecution, one for sounding like an atheist and the other for identifying with Jesus.

Yes, John Galt, the hero of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, her epic defense of atheism as a system that makes people good neighbors, would fulfill the first part of my description of a good neighbor: one who keeps his hands to himself and tells the truth. His version, “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,” gets to the same place by a different road: to violate my neighbor’s body or property, either directly or through deceit, is precisely to “ask another man to live for mine.” What his version misses, of course, is part two of my description, which is that a good neighbor lives sacrificially so that others may know God. But, while the book treats sacrifice as a dirty word, Galt’s Gulchers voluntarily endured hardships, perhaps considering them investments, and the result was benefit for their neighbors.

While Rand would certainly have issues with the laudatory view of government in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, since the word for almost all government and its hangers-on in Atlas Shrugged is “looters,” she would probably have no trouble with the Bible’s descriptions of what government actually does: wasteful public works (the Tower of Babel, the pyramids, Absalom’s tower), enslavement (Gn 47:21), selling expropriated goods to their former owners (Gn 41:34; 47:14), nepotism (Gn 47:12), murderous pillaging (Gn 14:1-11), and absolute control over the property, minds, and hearts of its subjects (Re 13:15–17). I can even imagine her saying that if there were a god and that god came to earth as a man, government would kill him.

Here’s my problem. I find myself agreeing with her and disagreeing with other Christians, almost all of whom take their view of government from Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 rather than from what looks to me like the rest of Scripture.

As I understand it, Christian hermeneutics reads the Old Testament through the lens of the New and focuses it on the cross of Christ. How can one read the story of Naboth (1 Ki 21) that way? Ahab violated the Torah (Dt 17:16–20) and the prophets (Is 5:8), and Elijah called him a murderer (1 Ki 21:19). In what way did Ahab “hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” (Rom 13:1–7)? Most specifically, how does Romans 13 take the Naboth story and focus it on the Son of God who said, “The kings of the gentiles lord it over their subjects, … but it is not to be that way among you” (Lk 22:24–26)?

Rand can draw a straight line from Naboth’s death to Jesus’ words and his death. I don’t see how Paul can. Further, if she believed in sin, she would class even well-intended government action that goes awry (surprise!)—I’m thinking here of the bailouts that has given my unborn grandchildren’s money to the super-rich in the name of an economic revival that hasn’t happened—as qualifying for damnation not only those directly responsible but those who supported it in any way: they need to repent if they are to avoid the hell they so richly deserve. But I infer from Paul’s open-ended approval of government that the worst he can say in such situations is “stuff happens.”

And the doctrine of predestination would make such actions risk free for Christians who engage in them. No wonder Christians support the unbiblical practice of imprisonment for activities the Bible nowhere calls crimes while not supporting restitution for activities for which the Bible prescribes it! If they’re wrong, they won’t find out until Glory, and “there’ll be no more crying there: we are going to see the King” (but see Am 5:18).

If we defend evil government actions on the basis of Romans 13, how will our neighbors see us as good neighbors, their own sin as odious, and the cross of Christ as the real “final solution”?

So, here’s where I’d like you to weigh in. How do you get from Naboth’s murder (or any similar government atrocity in the Old Testament) to the cross by way of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2? How do you get those passages to accord with the rest of scripture? The answer to these questions are part of the theological basis on which we can approach the work of being the city on the hill that will cause our neighbors to glorify our Father in heaven.

The comment button is just below. Thanks.


  1. Let me just deal with I Peter 2:11-17. We're told to (a) live lives of holiness, and (b) submit to the authorities. That's generic, covering all authority, which we are told is instituted by God.

    Parallel to that is the same theme in I Sam. 15:23, "for rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft." It ain't allowed to Believers.

    Now this is the same Peter who was told by the Sanhedrin, "Cease your preaching about Jesus, claiming he was the Messiah." (I'm paraphrasing.) And what did Peter tell these guys, who had authority over him, clearly a chain of authority ordained by God? He said, "Sorry, Guys, be we must obey God rather than men."

    When Civil Government, ordained by God, orders you or me to commit a moral sin, we are commanded to disobey them. That is not rebellion, that is duty to God. OTOH, when Civil Govt. orders you to make bricks without straws, there is no moral sin there, just a hard life. You obey. We are to obey even unreasonable civil authorities, until that day when a Redeemer (in the case of the Hebrews making bricks, after 400 years, it was Moses, sent by God, with CIVIL AUTHORITY that no Hebrew could have arranged.)

    When Civil Authority tells you to don't smoke MaryJane, you shouldn't do it. You should even fasten your seat belt. When they tell you, on the other hand, to bow down and worship the King, or to commit adultery, or to register your prayer meetings with the State, you can politely tell them the good news -- they are going to a hot place, if they don't repent, and you are going to obey God.

    And then you pray that either THE Messiah returns, or a redeemer with civil authority comes along and you can follow him (her?) with a degree of confidence. The American War of Independence (which was NOT a rebellion) consisted of precisely this

    The doctrine is quite old and recognized, and Moses is one of the sources of it, called the "Interposition of the Lower Magistrate."

  2. There seems to be an undertone in your writings that if government went away that people would all of a sudden start acting responsibly toward one another.

    It's a nice sentiment, but it shows a certain naivete.

    Name a major civilization that has last even as long as our civilization that had no central government to organize security, infrastructure, and some level of morality.

    The government, although distasteful, serves a purpose to allow us to leave one another alone. Isn't there something in the Bible about "render unto Caeser."

  3. Thanks for your comment, Andy. It's good to hear from you again.

    What is Caesar's? In the book of Esther, it was all the pretty girls in the empire. If Caesar were to take away the apple of your eye---think of the children killed by "shock and awe" during the "liberation" of Baghdad---"distasteful" wouldn't be quite the word for it.

    I infer from Romans 12:1, 2 that self-government is better than political government. But what, you're asking, if people refuse to govern themselves?

    That was the question posed in 1 Samuel 8, and the answer they gave was the same as yours: "We need a king." I would say that account from that moment until the fall of Jerusalem shows that having a king gained them nothing over not having a king. Only God in Christ can handle the job of being a king.

    If we are to convince our neighbors that they need a savior, we need first to be faithful to ours, but somewhere along the line, we need to show them that their idols, the most important of which today is the beneficent state, not only cannot save but is opposed to God and therefore evil. God worked through Auschwitz, but that doesn't make it good. (And Auschwitz could not have happened apart from what began as a beneficent state).

    Does that make sense?

  4. Isn't it a fallacy of logic to go to one extreme to disprove another extreme.

    Given your view of how Christians should view the federal government, I was expecting to find scriptures that tell us to resist government.

    Yet we find just the opposite. Should we oppose governments that are taking away our religious freedoms? I would agree with Daniel's earlier comment on this subject.

    But Jesus in Matthew 22:15-22 doesn't seem to acknowledge that we should stand up to the government when given the chance.

    At the time that is most appropriate in Jesus' life to stand up to the government (when Judas comes to the garden to take him into custody) Jesus tells his apostles with him that they are to lay down their opposition to the government even though his life would be forfeit--isn't this what he meant by turn the other cheek.

    I also think your reading of Rom. 12 and interpreting self-government would be better read as self-discipline. Because if Paul intended us to govern ourselves outside of the established government, why would he, in the very next chapter, tell us to submit ourselves to the civil government.

    I think you are reading into the scriptures what you choose in order to establish your distaste for government in general and our government in particular.

  5. Andy, I like your point about self-discipline, though when Paul says he buffets his body, that sounds more like government to me. Maybe there's a lot of overlap. "Outside of the established government"? Isn't he saying that we should imitate Christ regardless of our circumstances? Our obedience to authority would then be a subset of the love he discusses beginning in 12:9.

    If my readers were flying North Korean flags, I wouldn't be ragging on Uncle Sam. If this were Rwanda in 1993, I'd be suggesting to my Tutsi friends that mistreating the Hutus was not only bad for the Gospel, it could make life miserable for them as well.

    I'm not sure how the thread got on to resistance to government---my original question was about hermeneutics---but we can go with it.

    Both posts and comments are necessarily terse, so both sides should expect to have to explain themselves on occasion. Could I get some context for your remarks so I know where to pick you up? If we're not to resist the government, does that mean we don't resist invaders? Would you say that the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq was immoral on the basis of Matt 5:39? Could a Christian join the Underground Railroad that violated the Fugitive Slave Law in the US in the 1850s and before? I'm guessing you'd say no. Should the Ten Boom family have hidden Jews in their house to keep them from being sent to the camps? Or was not joining in both cases a violation of Prov 22:11?

    Hitler was extreme, but not by much. Most of the world will go to bed hungry tonight, primarily because of government. Summary execution, secret police, and imperialist wars have been pretty common throughout time and space.

    Ten thousand Cherokee died when they were forced to walk from North Carolina to Oklahoma in the dead of winter; that's an extreme example, but it's Uncle Sam's doing. I'd never heard of it until I was 25, though I'd heard many times that I was to obey Uncle Sam because God put him in power. Is it any wonder that there are so few Cherokee Christians?

    The society I grew up in was exceptionally free, but it is becoming less so by the day, and Christians seem to be contributing to the change as much as anyone. The loss of our freedoms is no biggie, but causing God's name to be dishonored by being bad neighbors is. This blog is an attempt to stem the tide.

  6. Fair is fair. But I think my answer may surprise you.

    Essentially, I believe that as long as the government is not acting in direct opposition to the Bible, then I should obey it.

    So I think that the pre-emptive invasion was wrong based on the fact that we were not in direct conflict with them (nor as history seems to have shown) were we in any threat from them. I only believe that we have a right to defend ourselves, not to attack based on political whim.

    As far as being a member of the Underground Railroad or part of hiding Jews from the Holocaust, both are acceptable actions since in both cases the persons in question were being treated in immoral ways. Note: slavery in and of itself doesn't appear to be immoral, but the way slavery was practiced in the United States, by and large, appears to be.

    Thus, I don't believe that we have an obligation to follow every edict of government if that edict is sinful or would cause us to sin. Beyond that we have an obligation to follow the civil government.

  7. You're not kidding I'm surprised! I could have written almost all of that myself. Thanks!

  8. A tidbit I'd like to toss into the mix ->

    I'll set aside the argument that Romans 13 may have been the prescription specifically for a specific group of people at a specific time under specific circumstances as I'm sure we have both been through it elsewhere a number of times in regard to various passages.

    I think that our country throws an interesting spin on Romans 13. In most of the world, through the time when Paul was writing and beyond, 'government' largely meant a chief, king or emperor and his agents. Submitting to the ruling authority meant submitting to the passing whims of a human being. 'Law' was, for the most part, still in her infancy.
    I would suggest that here, in the US, 'government,' ' authority,' 'Caesar' would be embodied in that which is supposed to rule this land -> not the electee du jour, but the Constitution. I would also point out that the Constitution's goal is to place the role of preserving government, the burden of authority, not on the President, Congress, Supreme Court, military, police force, etc, but it places that role and burden on we the people.
    In that light, I would argue that rebellion against unConstitutional public servants is not an act of rebellion against authority, but rather an act of submission to it. Conversely, submission to unConstitutional public servants would actually constitute rebellion against the actual ruler of our land.

  9. Mmmmmm. I like that. But I see water coming through that phrase "supposed to." Aha! A subject for another post!

  10. Here's some food for thought from an Objectivist. Of course the Bible says you should support the govt, it was put together at the behest of the Roman emperor to be the basis of the empire's new religion. How fitting that the equivalent empire of our era is using the same fairy tales as its religion.

    To answer Andy's question, "Name a major civilization that has last even as long as our civilization that had no central government to organize security, infrastructure, and some level of morality."

    First, there is no govt that has helped maintain any level of morality, they destroy it. See "The Rise of Government and the Decline of Morality"

    One can point to medieval Iceland as an example of a stateless society. That situation lasted 300 years. Our republic only lasted about 85 years until Lincoln destroyed it.

  11. Welcome, Darren!

    I can give you two for three. I don't know about Iceland, but you have nothing to gain by making a false claim about it, so you get a point there. In fact, that may be the answer to a question that has nagged me for years. Why was it Iceland, of all places, that Disney chose to be the country that fielded the villain team in Mighty Ducks II? Maybe Disney, no enemy of the welfare state, was getting back at the Icelanders for daring to be free all those years.

    And I have no major quibbles with Dorn's article.

    But the manuscript evidence indicates that Romans 13 was written at a time when Christians were being persecuted. The earliest extant witness to Romans 13 is the Beatty papyrus, which even scholars who doubt the authority of its message date at about AD 200. The death of Polycarp in 136 would still be fresh in people's minds (they had long memories, more like today's Iraqis than like us in that respect), and this was before the persecutions of Septimius Severus, Decian, Valerian, Diocletian, and Licinius. Somewhere in there, someone with more to lose than we've had so far would have wondered what planet the writer was living on and tried to find out if the passage were genuine or added later. Apparently they were convinced it was genuine.

    In short, in 200, Christians in the Roman Empire could no more imagine Christianity becoming an official religion than the Christians in Saudi Arabia or North Korea can today. The most they could hope for was that an Objectivist would become emperor so they could be ridiculed but otherwise left alone.

    Thanks again for your comment. You're more than welcome to chime in anytime.

  12. Henry,

    Thx for the very polite response, it is probably better than my bluntness deserves. I half expected a lynch mob. :-)

    To your point about Christians in the year 200, could they had been aspiring to make Christianity at least acceptable to the state by appeasing it?

    Some more on Iceland, "Medieval Iceland and the Absence of Government"

  13. Lynch mob? Never here, I hope.

    My friend, this blog exists to remind Christians that the Christian church is the only organization in the world (or was before the Libertarian Party was formed?) that exists almost solely for the benefit of those who disagree with us. Our first priority regarding even our enemies, let alone those with whom we find common ground, is to show them where the red carpet to God's throne room is.

    There have been some in our number who thought that that meant lynching and worse, and I've probably imitated them more than I care to admit on these pages, but that is not my intent.

  14. Thx, Henry, it's good to know I won't be lynched here. :-)

    As to "the red carpet to God's throne room" I'd be happy to see them, if they exist!

    In the mean time we should focus on what we agree on, liberty.