Monday, February 1, 2010

On Romans 13 and Government: a post in which Fr. Ernesto tropes me

Fr. Ernesto Obregon is Cuban-American. A former "Jesus Freak" and former Anglican priest, he is now a priest of the OTHER Antiochian jurisdiction, the byzantine Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, led by Metropolitan PHILIP. Fr. Ernesto is pastor of a parish in Florida. In the following, he speaks to comments I made on another post on his blog, in which I, on the basis of Romans 13, other scriptures, and the entire patristic tradition, defend the legitimacy of government as such, in that government is divinely-instituted.

"On Romans 13 and Government"

Obviously, Fr. Ernesto and I largely agree. I differ slightly with him on two points. On the first, I think it is possible and useful to think of the so-called "American Revolution" as a ("just") war for independence rather than as a revolution per se. Second, I do think it is possible, on the basis of Augustine's "just war" theory, to posit a theory of just revolution. From "the repository of all knowledge," Wikipedia, here are the criteria usually given for just war:
Just cause
The reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot therefore 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. A contemporary view of just cause was expressed in 1993 when the US Catholic Conference said: "Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations."

Comparative justice
While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other. Some theorists...omit this term, seeing it as fertile ground for exploitation by bellicose regimes.

Legitimate authority
Only duly constituted public authorities may wage war.

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. It may be clear that the other side is using negotiations as a delaying tactic and will not make meaningful concessions.

The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.
One large theoretical problem immediately pops out of the above: the matter of legitimate authority. Anyone seeking to justify a violent revolution on Christian grounds would immediately have to deal with this question. As to the rest of the criteria, it is also immediately clear that one could not, at least from a Christian perspective, justify the incitement of violent revolution in the United States at this time. As Fr. Ernesto rightly points out, revolution is a dangerous and unpredictable way of attempting to secure one's political aims.

For all that, as I said, Fr. Ernesto and I largely agree. I do wish to underscore one area of agreement here. Fr. Ernesto writes, "the Anabaptists remind us that verbal violence is just as bad as physical violence. This is why Our Lord said that to even call our brother a fool was tantamount to murder." There is also the matter, as highlighted by Fr. Ernesto, of accurately representing our opponents' positions on issues; Christians must not bear false witness.


† Clement said...

Nice post!
Several thoughts come to mind here:

(1) Nice rules for war - too bad nobody plays by them.
Honestly, I have never given any thought whatever to "just war" or any theory thereof.
War happens - for many reasons.
And sitting around debating and theorizing the just or unjustness of it does absolutely nothing to negate this reality.
For me it's rather simple: if my life, the lives of those I love, my property and/or their property is threatened or endangered, I will respond in kind.
Beyond that, I don't really think about it.

(2) I have never advocated the incitement of violent revolution in this country. It's just bad for business. Constitutional Rule of Law is preferable and far more effective.

(3) "Accurately representing our opponents' positions on issues", I would agree is of critical importance. But one must understand another's position on a given issue before one can accurately represent it.
The mainstream media fails miserably at this because they are not motivated by any desire to objectively report what happens or what is said. They are motivated to cast a favourable light on whatever/whoever is consistent with the populist political agenda and to cast in an unfavourable light whatever/whoever is opposed to said agenda.
As to our Christian responsibility to not bear false witness, I think it would be immensely helpful if we asked each other to explain exactly what our particular viewpoint is on a given political issue and why rather than categorizing each other into populist groups.

(4) I have never denied the legitimacy of government.
I am, however, opposed to the actions of our nation's government when they are not consistent with Constitutional authority and Rule of Law, as is the case now.


FrGregACCA said...

Mother, I thought you would probably comment on this even though it was not directed specifically at you. I will address your four points below:

1) I disagree that nobody abides by these criteria, and even if they don’t, they are, according to the Apostolic Tradition, that which determines whether or not a war is just. As such, they found their way into International Law. Both Tony Blair and George W. Bush appealed to them in the run-up to the Iraqi war. As to your second point: well, this isn’t about you – or me, or any other individual person. This is about when a state may wage war – or when a armed, violent revolution might be justified. We are not discussing self defense here. However, that said, how do you justify your position in light of Jesus’ words about “turning the other cheek” and simply leave it at that? Any Jew, Pagan, Muslim, or atheist could have said the same thing.

2)It is interesting that you immediately express a concern for “business” here. While YOU may not have advocated violence, many have recently (or have acted in a verbally violent way) in defense of what they consider to be “constitutional authority and rule of law.” Again, this post was not directed specifically at you.

3) I must vehemently disagree here and if this reply as a whole seems peevish, it is largely because of this matter. I started college as a Journalism major and have worked as a professional reporter. Some, such as those on Fox News, pretty much function as you describe. Others, such as many on MSNBC, are clearly motivated by their own POV but still put forward some effort to report all sides of an issue. Most, however, do strive to be fair to all sides, to maintain a neutral point of view, “since objectivity is not possible”. However, unfortunately, we all have a tendency to want to “shoot the messenger” when they report things to us that we find uncomfortable. This is true on both left and right, and for that reason, people on the left tend to think that the mainstream media is biased to the RIGHT.

I agree that more dialogue is essential, but it is not helped when people use inflammatory rhetoric, such as that which equates taxation with theft, speaks of “watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants”, or which fundamentally misrepresents positions. For example: Obama is NOT a socialist. If nothing else, his recent State of the Union speech should demonstrate that beyond all dispute.

4)I’m not saying that YOU, Mother, have denied the legitimacy of government. However, again, there are those out there who do, or who want to limit the scope of government such that it would become irrelevant, thus paving the way for a corporate plutocracy which would just as surely trample individual rights as surely as did the Soviets or the Nazis. Regarding constitutionality, my understanding is that you believe the proposed health care law would be unconstitutional. I disagree, but let me ask you: in terms of what is CURRENTLY law, what do you find to be unconstitutional?

Don said...

I'm not sure I agree with the premise that the "Religious Right" has too low of a view of government.

I think the problem is just the opposite: their view of government is too high. Too many people in the Religious Right think that government's role is to perfectly carry out the commands of God (as they see them.) That's why Evangelicals spend so much time and capital (political and otherwise) on "bringing America back to God," an effort with very little to show for it after all this time.

The institution that with the principal task of carrying out God's plan is the church, not the state. I spend some time on this issue in my post Church and State: A Different View.

FrGregACCA said...

That's interesting, Don. I guess part of the problem is the fact that the "religious right" and the "secular right" overlap in such a way that it is oftentimes unclear exactly where the rhetoric is emanating from. Certainly the "religious right" will often advocate, for example, that government intervene in matters of personal morality, but then, often the same people will condemn the government for intervening in the economy, or, in this case for example, at least tacitly characterizing taxation as theft in the context of a discussion of the evacuation and medical care of seriously injured Haitians and how to pay for that.

As far as the relationship between Church and State, certainly the Church is charged with the proclamation of the Gospel and all that this entails. The State is not. The State's job, as far as I can tell, is basically to keep us from destroying ourselves until the Parousia (or until the great Tribulation, whichever comes first). This task can be stated positively, in terms of maintaining the "common good".

Fr. Ernesto Obregon said...

Here is an interesting thought experiment for you. Think about the following statement. "Unless the American Revolution can be justified by a Christian theology of 'just revolution (or just war)' then the claim that the United States was founded on Christian principles or is a Christian nation falls broken upon the sin of its foundation."

This does not mean that I am necessarily against the American Revolution. Rather, it is that when we speak glibly about America having a Christian foundation, we generally assume the utter rightness and morality of our revolution.

FrGregACCA said...

I will certainly think about that and respond further, probably tomorrow, Fr. Ernesto.

In the meantime, just so we're clear, I am not one to make the claim that the United States is unambiguously a "Christian nation" or that it was founded as such. I do not think that this claim is historically tenable.

FrGregACCA said...

Here is a link to Fr. Ernesto's reflection on the morality of the American revolution:

Don said...

Fr. Obregon, you're not the first I've seen who challenges the concept of the American Revolution as a legitimate Christian act. Michael Babcock at Liberty University does the same thing (in a slightly different way) in his book Unchristian America, which I reviewed last year.

† Clement said...


Yes, I realize this was not directed at me and I apologize for couching my responses as though it had been.
Mostly it was my usual facetiousness.

Also please know I meant no offense against you personally RE the media comments. I had no idea about your background in journalism.

Perhaps I can close this out by attempting to clarify a few things.

I realize (from earlier comments) that I seemed to equate taxation with stealing. Taxation is of course necessary and Constitutional. What is objectionable is the levying of specific tax laws at specific classes of people for no other reason than that they are of a certain class. This is discriminatory.
But what is most objectionable is how revenue obtained through taxation is used. That is the critical point. If there is no Constitutional authority for a certain piece of legislation or program then taxpayer funds should not be allocated for it.
Unfortunately, current and active programs and legislation (whatever nature they may be) are extremely difficult if not impossible to reverse or negate but new ones need not be created.

As to "inflammatory rhetoric" I hope I have said nothing that qualifies for that category.
If so, I apologize.

Also, for the record, I do not watch the national news on ANY cable/satelite or broadcast networks nor do I listen to Limbaugh, Beck or any other such characters - from the left or right. I read certain highlights and articles from various sources and try to keep up on a few things.
From what few reports I do read it's obvious there is enough skulduggery and sheer folly being perpetuated by errant knaves to fuel one's Passions indefinitely.
I choose not to be consumed by it as I was before and will try to exercise better restraint.