Monday, 20 October 2014

The Bible is Anti-statist

Introduction

In this article, we shall see that the Bible is an explicitly anti-state collection of books throughout and that the few supposed exceptions to that rule are not exceptions at all. 

Genesis

As Norman Horn of LibertarianChristians.com has pointed out, Josephus does describe the origin of tyranny in the rise of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel.  Whilst this is entirely correct, the text of Genesis would have had an even more explicitly Anti-statist message to its original readers. 

 

The vast majority of scholars recognise that chapters 1-11 of Genesis are intended as a polemic against Babylonian and other ancient Near-Eastern myths.  The Epic of Gilgamesh presents an account in which the barbarian, Enkidu, discovers the wonders of city-life (equal to Statism in that age) after being seduced and lured to the city of Uruk by a prostitute.  But Genesis responds with a ‘decidedly anti-urban bias’ against the city-state propaganda of the Babylonian text.[1]  Whilst Nimrod the tyrant wishes to utilise mankind as a resource to his own ends, God wishes that each person be His representative and steward over the earth and its habitats (Genesis 1:26-28), not over each other.  The biblical perspective therefore promotes the free, ‘uncivilised’ (i.e. unconquered), stateless society and the individual sovereignty of the so-called Barbarians. 

Indeed, we can see that, far from the historical evidence conveying people rushing to the city-states by the rivers in the plains, where food production was more predictable and occupations more varied, people have actually ‘been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects’ to be free from enslavement, conscription, war, taxation and disease.[2]  Yet, the historical context of Genesis as a valuable, ancient, political voice against the rise of the city-state (and later Imperialism) is apparently never explained to the average churchgoer; many of whom, particularly in the US, believe that God and nation go hand-in-hand. 


Certainly, the rest of Scripture presents us with illustrations of government as various monstrous beasts which are destructive and ungodly (most notably in the books of Daniel and the Revelation).  After all, the agent of evil himself, Satan, expresses to Jesus that all governments belong to him (Luke 4:5-6) and their very existence and purpose directly contradict the golden rule taught by Jesus Christ.  But what of the nation of Israel which God established?  Was that evil?  And why does Paul speak favourably of the state in Romans 13?

Israel

Did God vindicate Statism by creating the nation of Israel?  It is important to recognise that the government of ancient Israel was wholly synonymous with the covenant which God made with Moses and the Israelites.  In the ancient Near-East, nations were typically created using the same covenantal method, including the tablets and laws that we read of coming from Mount Sinai in Exodus 20.[3]  Therefore, you cannot have ancient Israel without the Law or vice versa. 

So, was the Old Covenant a perfect system, designed to last forever?  Or was it put forward for us to learn that such a thing was impossible because of our nature?  Of course, many Jews today would insist on the former answer, but as Christians we recognise that the latter is true.  The Law of Moses embodies that purely judicial system of government which was originally established in ancient Israel (see Judges).  However, the New Testament writers are explicit that this was not a perfect system and was only intended to last until the Messiah came to establish His spiritual covenant and kingdom (Hebrews 7-8).  Furthermore, the Mosaic Covenant did not have the purpose of showing us how lovely we could all be but of showing us how frequently or seriously we all fail ethically (Romans 3 & Galatians 3).  It should be of no surprise then that the national framework which was set in place to administer this legal system was wholly for the same purpose – showing us that government cannot and should not be in the hands of fallible men.
Yes, God established a system of government, but it was apparently preconceived that the Israelites would demand more government to their own detriment (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).  As Thomas Jefferson put it, ‘The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield [sic.], and government to gain ground.’[4]  It is for this reason that Samuel called the Israelites’ act of asking for a king ‘wicked’ and a sin (1Samuel 12:17 & 19) and warned of the calamities of taxation etc. which would come upon the people as a result (1Samuel 8:10-18).

God never intended the Old Covenant nation of Israel to be perfect or to perfect anyone, but to show us our imperfection, especially in demanding increasingly oppressive state control over our neighbours.  We shall never find angels to govern us impeccably, nor can people be trusted to vigilantly ensure their government remains limited in power.  We are obliged to learn this important lesson from the example of ancient Israel.

Romans 13

As for Paul’s comment regarding governments being ordained in Romans 13, I admit that I was (like most Christians) convinced that these verses were ipso facto supporting the immoral practice of government, contrary to my conscience and my rationale.  However, upon studying the matter personally, I am utterly convinced of how short-sightedly erroneous that position is.

Whilst these verses are often read as ‘Paul’s Theology of the State’, many scholars have argued that because verses 1-7 stand in such contrast to the many godly rebellions against the state in the Old Testament, the immediate context and normal Pauline language suggest that the passage was a later edition.  For example, Paul says to obey and never resist government for the sake of conscience, but what about when Israel did the exact opposite for the sake of conscience, such as the coup against Queen Athaliah (2Kings 11) or the threat to revolt against King Saul because of the unjust law he implemented (1Samuel 14:24-45).

Assuming, however, this passage is a genuine part of the text, there were good reasons Paul would suddenly write about government in the middle of a discourse about Christian love and everyday behaviour.  Throughout Romans, Paul deals with divisions in the church, specifically between rich/poor and Gentile/Jew.  In its historical context,

Paul’s argument responds to an incipient anti-Judaism, which was already established among Roman aristocrats and was beginning to emerge among Gentile believers as well. Given the horrors of an anti-Jewish pogrom in Alexandria in Egypt (38–41 ce), and even more recent market tax riots that had turned deadly in Puteoli, a city south of Rome, Paul was concerned to prevent in Rome the sort of civic disturbance in which the city’s minority Jewish population would be especially vulnerable. This danger may explain the notorious exhortation to “be subject to the governing authorities”.’[5] 

Furthermore, there was the expulsion of Jews from Rome under Claudius in 49 A.D.; thus, there were significant political events motivating Paul to command peaceful, law-abiding behaviour from the ‘Jewish sect’ of Christianity alongside the command for Romans and Jews to love each other as brothers. 

Jesus had continuously warned in apocalyptic language that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed, something Paul knew was imminent (1Thessalonians 2:16) and which did occur in 70 A.D.  Naturally, he wanted to protect his fellow-Christians by discouraging any unsavoury behaviour which would incur state punishment and consequently give Christians a bad name during that tense period.  This passage is therefore not commanding absolute obedience to all governments and the rules they impose, but would have been addressing specific political issues which were affecting the congregation at Rome, particularly as they expectantly awaited the First Jewish-Roman War.

The only argument against the Libertarian interpretation of this passage is presented indirectly by Schreiner.  Discussing the ‘sword’ wielded by the Roman authorities, he comments:

‘The reference…is to the broader judicial function of the state, particularly its right to deprive of life those who had committed crimes worthy of death. Paul would not have flinched in endorsing the right of ruling authorities to practice capital punishment since Gen. 9:6 supports it by appealing to the fact that human beings are made in God’s image.’[6]

Certainly, it is most likely that Paul is referencing Genesis 9:6, as most scholars have recognised and the covenant God made with Noah to establish a system of Capital Punishment and the general principle of lex talionis-style retributive justice for crimes against person (and property).  In context, this was done to avoid the savagery before the flood.  But do Genesis 9:6 or Romans 13:4 insist that such things must be carried out by the state? 
Luther certainly could not see any way in which a judicial system could function without the state and so assumed that ‘[b]y these words temporal government was established, and the sword placed in its hand by God.’  Sadly, the vast majority of Westerners continue to share this superstition.  However, according to the Talmud, among other sources, the ancient Jewish understanding of the covenant with Noah was that courts should be established, not the state.[7]

Paul was simply re-affirming the Jewish belief frequently stated throughout the Old Testament - if a government comes to power or is conquered or ceases altogether, all these things are in the providence of God.  Paul explicitly says that those governments ‘which exist’ only do so because God predetermined it.  Did God not also predetermine those times in human history when societies were stateless?  Paul does not say that states must exist for judicial punishment to take place, rather those which exist should perform that function.  Indeed, the era in which the story of Noah is set is prior to and outside of the ancient Near-Eastern city-states.  Therefore, the sort of system administering Capital Punishment was understood by the author of Genesis to be a stateless one, perhaps not unlike the Anglo-Saxon Common Law system which ‘developed over the centuries by the competing judges applying time-honored principles rather than the shifting decrees of the State…by applying rational-and very often libertarian-principles to the cases before them.’[8] 

An argument I previously made against Libertarianism was that my ideological belief (Capital Punishment for the crime of murder) would not be properly administrable in a stateless society.  However, upon reflection and study, I found that some of the greatest Libertarian thinkers were and are advocates of Capital Punishment, arguing that it would inevitably become normative in a stateless society.  One notable example is the great scholar, Murray Rothbard who, in his article, The Libertarian Position on Capital Punishment, wrote:

‘It is relatively easy to allot monetary penalties in the case of theft. But what about such a crime as murder? Here, in my view, the murderer loses precisely the right of which he has deprived another human being: the right to have one's life preserved from the violence of another person. The murderer therefore deserves to be killed in return. Or, to put it more precisely, the victim — in this case his surrogate, in the form of his heir or the executor of his estate should have the right to kill the murderer in return.’[9]

Many typical questions are subsequently raised when one suggests the unspoken idea of people actually having basic rules in a society without a state.  But these have been thoroughly answered in numerous works, a more recent book would be Chaos Theory by the Christian Economist, Robert P. Murphy.

Conclusion

Isaiah 9:7  Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Frederic Bastiat, an Economist and Statesman of France during its revolutionary period, noted: ‘antiquity presents everywhere - in Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome - the spectacle of a few men moulding mankind according to their whims, thanks to the prestige of force and of fraud.’[10]  Napoleon himself may also have regretfully agreed with this assertion at the end of his life; in this controversial quote, he compared his military conquests to Jesus winning the hearts of empires and nations:

‘I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.’[11]

The Kingdom Jesus founded exists in our hearts.  It is a clear conscience before God and men whereby we recall the example of the love of Jesus and remember His command for us to love each other, our neighbours and our enemies.  Jesus did not come to force people to do His will - to love and respect each other - but to live it out and become the greatest example to men and women so that we would willingly do the same, from the heart.  Generally, the principle of this kingdom is to do to others as we would have them do to us and to never use force to coerce others to do our will; Libertarians commonly call this the ‘Non-Aggression Principle’.  It is this universally recognised ‘golden rule’, naturally at work in our conscience, which Jesus came to hold up as the objective moral law for all people. 

We do not need that chief manifestation of coercion and evil, the state, to control us and our families.  We only need our freedom, especially freedom of conscience, and the example of the love of Jesus to live out our lives, as stewards of God to the earth, in peace.  I invite you to imagine such a beautiful world and to pray and act with me that God’s kingdom would come and that the dominion of the evil of a past age would be extinguished forever.



[1] HarperCollins Study Bible (1993) HarperCollins Publishers, p.18
[2] Scott, J. (2009) The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale University Press, Preface
[3] Lopez, R. (2004) ‘Israelite Covenants in the Light of Ancient Near Eastern Covenants (Part 2 of 2)’, CTS Journal, Spring 2004
[4] Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, Paris, May 27, 1788 - http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-13-02-0120
[5] The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Fourth Edition, 2010) Oxford University Press, p.1975

[6] Schreiner, T. (1998) Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Baker Academic,

 p.692
[7] See Talmud Sanhedrin, 56a
[8] Rothbard, M. (1978) For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, Ludwig von Mises Institute, p.283
[9] Rothbard, M. (1978) The Libertarian Position on Capital Punishment - http://mises.org/daily/4468 (20/10/2014)
[10] Bastiat, F. (2008 ed.) The Law, Misbach Enterprises, Kindle Edition, p.36
[11] See Conversations avec General Bertrand à St. Helena

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