Saturday 12 May 2012

The Most Disturbing Chapter

A few days ago there was a posting here that asked which passage in the Bible was most disturbing.  Most of the nominations involved horrendous Old Testament passages.  There's certainly a lot to object to in the Hebrew canon, not least the famous 'waters of Babylon' psalm, Ps. 137.
O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed,
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us!
Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!
Perhaps the concentration camp staff at Auschwitz comforted themselves with such verses, but they would be the vilest exception.  Yet, in the context of other ancient literature, this is hardly uncommon.  Brutal times draw forth brutal literature, and that includes scripture.  I recollect being scandalised by a passage in the Bhagavad-Gita some years ago, every bit as contemptuous of human life as anything you'd find in the Pentateuch.  Viewed as god-breathed holy writ such passages are an abomination, but seen as examples of national literature at a time of robber-baron royalty... not so much of a surprise.

My nomination, seemingly far more benign, comes from the pen of Paul the apostle:  Romans 13:1-5.
13 Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government. There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God. So anyone who opposes the authority is standing against what God has established. People who take this kind of stand will get punished. The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing. Rather, they frighten people who are doing wrong. Would you rather not be afraid of authority? Do what’s right, and you will receive its approval. It is God’s servant given for your benefit. But if you do what’s wrong, be afraid because it doesn’t have weapons to enforce the law for nothing. It is God’s servant put in place to carry out his punishment on those who do what is wrong. That is why it is necessary to place yourself under the government’s authority, not only to avoid God’s punishment but also for the sake of your conscience.
This is a licence to do nothing in the face of injustice.  More than that, it is a churchly sanction not only to do nothing, but at minimum to give tacit support to evil.  If it had been taken seriously there would have been no American Revolution, no civil rights movement, no overthrow of dictatorships, no emancipation from slavery, no democracies.  In short, no progress.  Adhere strictly to Paul's advice and we'd all still live in totalitarian states, sanctified societies where the church counsels its members to quietism; sit down, shut up and do whatever you're told.

The ideal society of Romans 13 would look a lot like Nazi Germany, or, given its provenance, the Roman Empire.

And yes, it was indeed a popular passage in Nazi Germany.  Did you have qualms of conscience about disappearing Jewish neighbours, conscription into the Wehrmacht, the euthanizing of the mentally unfit?  Go read Romans 13!

From here we move out into the nightmare nonsense of Augustine's two cities and Luther's two kingdoms, the lethal concept of "left hand of God."  Truly this is a very, very long way from the teachings of Jesus. 

And we have Paul to thank for it.

Anglo theologising has - to briskly stir the bucket - always been rubbish, especially as influenced by that deviant variety of Reformation thought known as Calvinism.  And yet it has been in the grey murk of Anglo Protestantism that slavish obsequiousness to the demands of the state - the Pauline imperative in Romans 13 - has been deemphasised.  It has been here that non-conformism found a voice, and a prophetic stance against the state made not only possible but acceptable and valued.  If for nothing else one is moved to say, thank God for the Methodists.

Go figure.

Romans 13 seems uncontroversial at first but, read with the standard set of assumptions (sadly, the most natural reading) it brims with the potential for the bitterest fruit of human oppression - authorised and enforced by God.  Paul is not talking about a liberal democracy like Sweden or New Zealand;  his point of reference is the iron grip of Rome.  What was Paul thinking when he wrote "The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing... Do what’s right, and you will receive its approval."  Did he not know that the Empire had executed Jesus?  The irony is that, according to legend at least, he too was soon to be crushed under the boot of "God's servant."

No thinking person today could accept the implications of this passage. 

There are other ways of reading the five verses.  Two I'll expand on in later posts.  But even if Paul (assuming Paul did write them, and its not an interpolation) was talking about something other than the obvious, that would not erase two thousand years of damnable precedent.

Two thousand years and counting.


  1. Psalms 50:22 might give some pause.

  2. Heh, I was just reading J.C. O'Neill's commentary on Romans, and of Romans 13:1–7 he says: "These seven verses have caused more unhappiness and misery in the Christian East and West than any other seven verses in the New Testament by the licence they have given to tyrants, and the support for tyrants the Church has felt called on to offer as a result of the presence of Romans 13 in the canon."

    He notes that these verses contract both Jewish and Christian doctrine, and concludes they are a late interpolation for a variety of reasons.

  3. Great point -- giving in to the government is a huge blind spot form billions of people.
    I was going to point out the Acts passage where a married couple is killed for not tithing enough, but your government point is much better!
    This post would have been perfect material for my Poll Challenge! You could ask your readers what their views on these political positions and yet let them remain anonymous!

  4. One thing is certain - there a plenty of very disturbing chapters to choose from. Whatever your taste - torture, rape, slavery, submission to unjust governments, forced belief, ridiculous "logic", no-win situations - you name it, it's in there!

    I admit, the Bible also has some good parts. And I'm glad those are the ones that modern-day christians focus on most of the time. But they're sure mixed in with plenty of bad parts. And many parts have some good and some bad. How is a well-intentioned person supposed to tell one from the other?

    Oh, that's right. The Holy Spirit will guide them. Silly me. We all see how well that works.

  5. Romans 13 is a doozy for sure. No doubt added so Paul or his followers made sure the Romans knew they were loyal to Rome. Have written on this topic in the past. You make fun of and curse those who can't hurt you.. i.e. the Jews. You do not do this however to those who can kill you...i.e. The Romans.

  6. Before I make a few statements, my ancestors were a part of a socially active church. My Great-Great-Grandfather had a farm in Indiana and was actively involved in the trans-shipment of African Americans out of he South and into Canada. One might ask where he found a Biblical underpinning for doing this, given Paul's statement.

    1. I am glad that Paul wrote this. Otherwise, all Christians throughout all time would bear the burden of being insurgents. Is there any government that has been compatible on all points with Christianity? In pracical terms, wherever I went in the world, I would have to become a revolutionary. Bible in one hand, AK-47 in the other and a beret like Che's. That is not the thrust of Christianity.
    2. Christ himself is the revolutionary. He will eventually overthrow all the governments of the world and establish a new government.
    3. God involves himself in the course of history and the governments of nations. His purposes during this eon are not always simplistic. Man has always wanted his own governments so he has them. But Nazi Germany got slapped down so sometimes this desire on the part of man can get out of bounds.
    4. Finally, if there is a opportunity to do good by reforming governement, Christians, with wisdom, should take
    it on. Philemon is not a manifesto for the overthrowing of slavery. But freedom is better than slavery, as we know from other scriptures. My Great-Great-Grandfather did not suffer for his opposition to slavery to my knowledge, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer suffered for his activities. Naziism fell anyway. But Bonhoeffer put a point on it.

    -- Neo