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The following text was delivered to a gathering at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando on July 5, 2017. A hard copy of this text may be downloaded at this link.

 

This presentation provides an interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 that reflects an Anabaptist perspective toward the text. In achieving this goal, the author also demonstrates that an Anabaptist reading of Romans 13:1-7 is a more than satisfactory exegetical option. Therefore, rather than being problematic for Anabaptists, as some interpreters may suppose, Romans 13:1-7 actually reinforces their convictions.

The presentation proceeds along the following path: First, following a brief recitation of Anabaptism’s origin and significance, the author explains what he means by an Anabaptist Perspective. Second, from a position within that perspective, the author comments on the meaning of the Romans text within its broader historical and literary context.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANABAPTISM’S ORIGIN AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE

Contemporary Anabaptists trace their origin to the 16th century Reformation movement distinguished by its insistence on believer’s baptism, hence the moniker Anabaptists or re-baptizers. In addition, these reformers advocated a radical imitation of the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, with special attention given to the Sermon on the Mount. They based this conclusion on the conviction that Jesus had inaugurated the promised messianic kingdom during his earthly ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and session.

The Anabaptist insistence on a “believer’s church,” though, put its adherents in direct conflict, not only with Roman Catholics, but also with Protestants, both Lutheran and Reformed. This conflict, in turn, boiled over into opposition from these three groups’ governmental protectors, with whom, in practice, they were effectively merged.[1] When this opposition came to a head in the form of persecution, Anabaptists’ radical adherence to the teaching and example of Jesus prohibited them from active resistance, resulting in widespread deaths.[2]

This brief account of the origin of the Anabaptist movement reveals in seed-form the two most apparent ways in which the practices of its members differ from that of members of contemporary Protestant faith traditions: Anabaptists maintain that the New Testament requires of disciples a level of commitment to Christ’s Kingdom mandating (1) strict separation of church and state and (2) non-resistance or pacifism.

These contemporary Anabaptists are represented primarily by Mennonites and by most groups with the word Brethren in their name.[3] However, their influence can be seen among Baptists and most free-church groups.[4] Evidence for this influence exists not only in the widespread practice of believer’s baptism and in various expressions of the separation of church and state, but also in the adherence to Anabaptism’s teaching on the symbolic nature of the ordinances and the visible nature and autonomy of the local church.

AN ANABAPTIST PERSPECTIVE

The preceding account identified two prominent Anabaptist distinctives: separation of church and state, and pacifism. One frequently hears that a plain reading of Romans 13:1-7 contradicts these positions. Anabaptists, however, approach these verses from a perspective that finds them compatible with these convictions.

The perspective, or story, an interpreter inhabits and, therefore, from which the interpreter reads a text profoundly influences one’s interpretation.[5] Put another way, two interpreters who use the same interpretive strategies, and yet come to different conclusions, are not necessarily guilty of sloppy exegesis or some nefarious sleight-of-hand. Rather, their disagreement may be due to the fact that each one possesses different presuppositions and preunderstandings. They possess different interpretive perspectives.

What this author is calling the Anabaptist perspective consists of the preunderstandings just visited, but also significant presuppositions. Taken together, these preunderstandings and presuppositions contribute to the development of a salvation-historical story, a story that, in turn, influences the interpretation of Romans 13:1-7.

A significant presupposition among those to which Anabaptists cling concerns the relationship of the parts of the Canon to one another.[6] First, they see a wide discontinuity between the Testaments. The Old Testament, including the Law, testifies of Christ and is fulfilled by him. Second, the Gospel is the Gospels, both in event and in the proclamation they contain. As such they are discipleship manuals. The epistles, on the other hand, explain, interpret, and apply the Gospel to particular people, places, times, and situations. Therefore, the New Testament, specifically the Gospels, containing accounts of the life, teaching—summarized in the Sermon on the Mount—, and work of Jesus is the starting point for ethical instruction. Implications of these presuppositions are embodied in the following salvation-historical story, an Anabaptist account of the scriptural metanarrative. (more…)

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The following text is from The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, translated by R. H. Fuller (2nd ed., 1959), 127–130.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no opposition and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match. Of course this can only happen when the last ounce of resistance is abandoned, and the renunciation of revenge is complete. Then evil cannot find its mark, it can breed not further evil, and is left barren.

By willing endurance we cause suffering to pass. Evil becomes a spent force when we put up no resistance. By refusing to pay back the enemy in his own coin, and by preferring to suffer without resistance, the Christian exhibits the sinfulness of contumely and insult. Violence stands condemned by its failure to evoke counter-violence. When a man unjustly demands that I should give him my coat, I offer him my cloak also, and so counter his demand [Matt 5:40]; when he requires me to go the other mile, I go willingly, and show up his exploitation of my service for what it is [Matt 5:41]. To leave everything behind at the call of Christ is to be content with him alone, and to follow only him. By his willingly renouncing self-defense, the Christian affirms his absolute adherence to Jesus, and his freedom from the tyranny of his own ego. The exclusiveness of this adherence is the only power which can overcome evil.

We are concerned not with evil in the abstract, but with the evil person. Jesus bluntly calls the evil person evil [Matt 5:39]. If I am assailed, I am not to condone or justify aggression. Patient endurance of evil does not mean a recognition of its rights. This is sheer sentimentality, and Jesus will have nothing to do with it. The shameful assault, the deed of violence and the act of exploitation are still evil. The disciple must realize this, and bear witness to it as Jesus did, just because this is the only way evil can be met and overcome. The very fact that the evil which assaults him is unjustifiable makes it imperative that he should not resist it, but play it out and overcome it by patiently enduring the evil person. Suffering willingly endured is stronger than evil, it spells death to evil.

There is no deed on earth so outrageous as to justify a different attitude. The worse the evil, the readier must the Christian be to suffer; he must let the evil person fall into Jesus’ hands.

The Reformers offered a decisively new interpretation of this passage [Matt 5:38–42], and contributed a new idea of paramount importance. They distinguished between personal sufferings and those incurred by Christians in the performance of duty as bearers of an office ordained by God, maintaining that the precept of non-violence applies to the first but not to the second. In the second case we are not only freed from obligation to eschew violence, but if we want to act in a genuine spirit of love we must do the very opposite, and meet force with force in order to check the assault of evil. It was along these lines that the Reformers justified war and other legal sanctions against evil. But this distinction between person and office is wholly alien to the teaching of Jesus. He says nothing about that. He addresses his disciples as men who have left all to follow him, and the precept of non-violence applies equally to private life and official duty. He is the Lord of all life, and demands undivided allegiance. Furthermore, when it comes to practice this distinction raises insoluble difficulties. Am I ever acting only as a private person or only in an official capacity? Is it right to forget that the follower of Jesus is always utterly alone, always the individual, who in the last resort can only decide and act for himself? Don’t we act most responsibly on behalf of those entrusted to our care if we act in this aloneness?

Jesus vanquished evil through suffering. It looked as though evil had triumphed on the cross, but the real victory belonged to Jesus. And the cross is the only justification for the precept of non-violence, for it alone can kindle a faith in the victory over evil which will enable men to obey that precept. And only such obedience is blessed with the promise that we shall be partakers of Christ’s victory as well as of his sufferings.

The passion of Christ is the victory of divine love over the powers of evil, and therefore it is the only supportable basis for Christian obedience. Once again, Jesus calls those who follow him to share his passion. How can we convince the world by our preaching of the passion when we shrink from that passion in our own lives? On the cross Jesus fulfilled the law he himself established and thus graciously keeps his disciples in the fellowship of his suffering. The cross is the only power in the world which proves that suffering love can avenge and vanquish evil. But it was just this participation in the cross which the disciples were granted when Jesus called them to him. They are called blessed because of their visible participation in his cross.

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Yorifumi Yaguchi (b. 1935) is a Japanese Christian who, following his conversion, took the unpopular position of refusing to sing the Japanese national anthem, since it amounted to a prayer for the eternal reign of the emperor. He eventually became a respected university professor, pastor, and poet. He wrote the following words in 2007:

“When the Enola Gay left for the skies of Hiroshima, a chaplain prayed for the crew’s safe flight and successful bombing of the city. . . . They must have believed that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was the will of God. But how did they feel at the sight of Hiroshima agonizing in the terrible whirlwind of destroying flames? More than 140,000 people died within a few months. Many were burnt in an instant, and far more people started to suffer from radiation disease for the rest of their lives. Was the crew pleased with this? . . . I imagine they were cheered by their seniors and comrades. They were told that the bomb was needed to end the war and that if they didn’t use it, far more war dead would have accrued. And they believed it. But what kind of god was he who was pleased with such terrible carnage? He is none other than the god of War. He must have been more than happy to see such colossal misery brought to the city and to human history. He is certainly different from the God who created human beings and who loved the world so much that He gave his only Son.”

Quotation taken from Apocalypse and Allegiance, by J. Nelson Kraybill (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 69-70.

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Pacifism.

There are few topics that agitate American Christians as much as pacifism. This reaction is puzzling to Christians who believe that the prima facie reading of Scripture demands pacifism.

This reaction is also puzzling to Christians who advocate a form of Just War theory. Just War theory seeks to articulate criteria by which one may judge whether a war is “just,” and, therefore, is a war in which one may take part. The criteria, however, set a high bar for what is a just war.

The majority of American Christians, based on my observations, however, embrace neither pacifism nor a set of reasoned criteria to guide their decisions on whether or not to participate in a war. Instead, in practice, their guide seems to be an unexamined nationalism, bordering on jingoism—especially when one’s favored political party is in power and urging military action.

In support of this contention, one only need look at how most Christians use Scripture to defend their views on participating in warfare: They don’t. Rather, they assume, without explanation, that Scripture supports their view. They, then, assign to those who disagree with them, the burden of proving the contrary to be true. For example, in response to a positive presentation of opposing warfare based primarily, such as, on the life and teaching of Jesus, one is peppered with questions such as the following ones: “What about war in the OT?” “What about the instruction in Romans 13:1–7?”

However, this “position” reveals at least three hermeneutical mistakes, mistakes that typically are not committed when the topic is less “agitating”: (1) It denies progressive revelation. In this case, it denies that the life, teaching, and atoning work of Jesus may necessitate a posture toward the Hebrew Scriptures that is different from the posture of a Jew who does not recognize Jesus as Messiah. (2) It misreads Romans 13:1–7, by not giving due attention to the surrounding context of this passage. (2) It dismisses Jesus’ teaching on how to treat an enemy on dubious grounds like the following ones: (a) His teaching was intended for some sort of “ideal” living situation, such as a future kingdom age, and is, therefore, impractical and optional in the “real” world. (b) It was intended for personal relationships and not national relationships. (c) It is superseded by apostolic interpretation or revelation.

The only viable positions that the Christian may embrace, then, are either pacifism or Just War theory. My experience, however, reveals an almost universal ignorance of just war criteria among college students. Nevertheless, these same students come to college with detailed convictions on almost every other political issue of which one could conceive. From whom have they been taught these convictions? The same people who have failed to teach them just war criteria? Is it a stretch to conclude that this ignorance of just war criteria among college students reflects widespread ignorance among the general Christian populace?

What, then, are the criteria for a just war? I reproduce below a summary of Just War criteria. These criteria are based on those articulated by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

As you read the following list, ask yourself this question: Which, if any, of the wars fought by America meet all the criteria?

Criteria for a Just War according to Just War Theory

Just cause
The reason for going to war needs to be just and, therefore, cannot be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life.

Comparative justice
While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to overcome the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other.

Competent authority
Only duly constituted public authorities may wage war: A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice.

Right intention
Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.

Probability of success
Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success.

Last resort
Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical.

Proportionality
The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.

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The following simple flow diagram and accompanying comments place Romans 13:1 – 7, a passage often used to justify Christian service in the military, within its larger context of Romans 12:9 – 13:10.

Left-click separately on each image to view a larger version.



 

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The Myth of Justified Violence: Many of Us Have Been Brainwashed From Childhood

by Dennis Byler

For as far back as there are written records of civilization, people have been fed the myth of “justified violence” from earliest childhood. The classic presentation of this myth is the story of the reluctant hero who resists his sacred duty, established by the gods, to defend the defenseless and protect the weak. In this tale, the unmitigated evil and villainy of those who do not respect life eventually compels the hero to come to his senses, avenge innocent victims and slay the evildoers. And at that point the gods intervene to right every wrong and bring forth a new age of peace and prosperity.

This plot is easily recognized in literature and film. It is conscientiously worked into children’s stories, helping shape their moral attitudes. As a children’s story, the plot sticks to its purest form in Disney’s The Lion King. Perhaps the most memorable film version is the 1952 movie High Noon, in which the pacifist convictions of Quakers are shown to be wickedly irresponsible in the face of the real, nitty-gritty evil in this world. It is also the plot of many other films, such as Braveheart and The Patriot, and much of television.

About 13,000 years ago, humanity adopted agriculture and animal husbandry, and populations grew to the point where, for the first time, large concentrations of people dwelt together in close proximity. About that time true warfare arose (as opposed to the occasional skirmish involving small numbers of nonprofessional fighters). At this time also religion arose (as opposed to a haphazard collection of beliefs and superstitions). One of the functions of religion has always been its usefulness for making this most unnatural (actually bizarre) behavior of warfare seem necessary and unavoidable. For these purposes, I include as “religion” more recent, superficially secular, phenomena such as nationalism, fascism, communism and many other ideologies. These substitute some abstraction other than gods, yet they are religious in the power of the loyalty they inspire, a loyalty so emotional, unquestionable, worshiped and beloved as to motivate people not only to lay down their lives but be willing to kill.

Exceptional individuals will always be willing to die for others, and to kill as well; but the willingness to do so on a massive scale, and for such abstract causes as justice or nation or peace or God, requires the whole society to be mobilized to indoctrinate its individuals from earliest childhood with moral tales along the lines of The Lion King.

The myth of justified violence is everywhere. It is so pervasive and unavoidable as to amount to systematic, continual brainwashing. It is the most consistent and constant moral grounding found in TV programming. Its repetition is so unceasing, it ends up being taken for unshakable moral truth. The myth of justified violence is so irresistible in its ceaseless repetition, so foundational to our earliest training in human values, morals and attitudes, that most Christians are unaware of how profoundly pagan, how unChristian or anti-Christian, this myth is. (more…)

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The following article, “Early Challenges to Capital Punishment: Christians in the Early Centuries Forbade the Death Penalty,” by David W. T. Brattston, appeared in The Mennonite, May 1, 2011 © David W. T. Brattston, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada.

The earliest church prohibited Christians from participating in capital punishment, as is evident from the following pronouncements by Christian writers before the Decian Persecution of A.D. 249-251. This time period marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of distinctively Christian literature. Dating from before the division into modern-day denominations, such writings are the common inheritance of all Christians.

In addressing a rebellious faction in the church at Corinth, 1 Clement 45 recalls that when in the Old Testament the righteous were persecuted or put to death, it was only by the wicked, the unholy and the hate-consumed. Variously dated between A.D. 70 and 97, 1 Clement is one of the oldest extant Christian documents outside the New Testament. This letter was written while in the church at Rome [where] “there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, from The Ante-Nicene Fathers [ANF]: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325). It was so authoritative and influential that it was included in some early editions of the New Testament. It refers in passing to a recent government persecution of Christians, which means the death penalty was not far from the author’s mind as a punishment for some acts and beliefs regarded as criminal.

Around A.D. 177, the philosopher Athenagoras of Athens wrote a defense of Christianity and description of its beliefs and practices. In it he dealt with and refuted pagan allegations that the Christian faith commands its adherents to murder and practice cannibalism. Athenagoras stated that (more…)

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