Does the Bible approve of violent government?

Those who insist that the Bible approves of violent government as the God-mandated institution by which men must order society can cite numerous scripture passages to support that thesis. There is, for example, St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Rom. 13:1-2.

Elsewhere, St. Paul writes: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities.” Titus 3:1. Some would say that Christians are here instructed to obey authority, without exception, but other scriptures make it obvious that there is more to the story.

In Acts 5:29, we see the apostles defying the their rulers saying: “We must obey God rather than men.” Later, St. Augustine adds: “An unjust law is no law at all.” On Free Choice Of The Will, Book 1, § 5. The Catechism forbids obedience to any law “contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.” CCC 2242

Obedience to government can never be absolute. No Christian may obey a law that requires them to disobey God. No Christian may commit an inherently evil act, even for a good purpose. Rom. 3:8 and here.

They may, however, find themselves in a situation of obeying an unjust law simply because to disobey would cause more harm than to obey. Thus, I pay my taxes because going to jail would prevent my supporting my family. If any man with a gun demands that I give him money, I may question both his authority and his demand, but obedience may be the wiser, Christian course.

As to the notion that government is instituted by God, all creation is instituted by God, as well as our need for order and authority, but as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens.” CCC 1901.

God has left the social order in human hands and mankind has made mixed bag of it. If we rejoice that men no longer offer human sacrifice or enslave their fellow men, we cannot deny that immense evils are still perpetrated by governments everywhere. We cannot lay this at God’s doorstep. He permits it, but He neither approves nor appoints such things.

In the early years after Moses died and Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, the people were ruled by what were called the “judges.” This rule was minimal—one might say libertarian. The taxes (the tithe) were voluntary. The judges did not generally meddle in people’s lives. The main roles of the judges were to resolve disputes brought to them and to provide leadership during wartime.

Some judges did a good job, but some did not, so the people came to the prophet Samuel and said, “Give us a king to govern us like all the nations.” Samuel was displeased by this, for the Lord was their king and had given them the law of Moses and the judges. So Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord told him not to worry about it: “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. . . . Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.” So Samuel did as the Lord directed and said to the people:

This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day. 1 Sam. 8:6-18.

With Samuel, we want to shout–across three millenia–“Don’t do it!” but they did and then paid the full price they had bargained for.

The Church, the scripture and our common sense all teach us to obey the laws of coercive government as long as those laws do not command us to do evil, but that does not suggest that the institution of such government itself is not inherently evil. St. Paul’s commands to obey do not baptize the institution itself.

If we read biblical commands to obedience as commending the goodness of the institution of government, then we must also accept Ephesians 6:5, as commending the institution of slavery. Here St. Paul commands: “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters.” He writes elsewhere: “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth.” Col. 3:22

Such commands—in the Roman world—were wise for both spiritual and worldly reasons, but no one today uses them to justify the continuation of the institution of human slavery. Christians unanimously condemn slavery as a grave moral evil. The Catholic Church forbids the “enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise.” CCC 2414.

Ultimately, both citizens and slaves may be obliged to obey their overlords, but neither slavery, nor violent government are commanded by God. The modern state has grown monstrous in its destruction of freedom; in its thefts and murders of innocents.

When government turns aside from the only possible justification for its existence it becomes illegitimate. It exists to protect human rights, and as the Catechism teaches: “[i]f it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects.” CCC 1930. Neither the initiation of force–nor any authority that relies upon it–is necessary to a just society.

 

Occupational Licensing and the monks’ caskets


I
government is ever to get out of the welfare business, few things are more important than removing the government regulations that prevent people–especially the poor and the weak—from supporting themselves. Prohibitions against home businesses and street vending are not helpful to anyone except existing businesses.

Another big barrier to individual success is occupational licensing which limits employment opportunities and raises prices. Like every governmental power, licensing grows with each passing year. In the 19th century, few barriers existed to prevent a person from pursuing an occupation. By the early 1950s, about 4.5 percent of occupations required a government-issued license. In 2000, the number of licensed occupations ran from a low of 47 in Kansas, all the way to 178 occupations in California. By 2009, the percentage of American jobs that required the government’s blessing was about 29 percent.

Those who favor licensing claim to be protecting the health, safety and welfare of the people, but what they do is create monopolies which eliminate competition and raise prices. Numerous studies reveal that mandatory licensing (as opposed to voluntary certification) does not raise quality, but does keep consumer products and services more expensive. Licensing legislation is sought—not by the consumers it purports to protect—but by the doctors, lawyers and funeral directors that are regulated by it.

The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey

A real-life example of government protection of a favored business through licensing is the persecution of the brothers of Saint Joseph Abbey in Louisiana. The monks earn their living building and selling wooden burial caskets but were threatened by the state of Louisiana for selling those handmade caskets to the public. The reason the monks got into trouble was because they were not government-licensed funeral directors.

It seems that casket sales are a profit center for which the directors had secured a monopoly from the state government. The monks had twice petitioned the legislature to reform the law, but each time the funeral-director lobby mobilized to protect its lucrative monopoly.

The monks finally sued in federal court to strike down the Louisiana law. After a trial, the district court ruled:

There is no rational basis for the State of Louisiana to require persons who seek to enter into the retailing of caskets to undergo the training and expense necessary to comply with these rules. Simply put there is nothing in the licensing procedures that bestows any benefit to the public in the context of the retail sale of caskets. The license has no bearing on the manufacturing and sale of coffins. It appears that the sole reason for these laws is the economic protection of the funeral industry.

–Saint Joseph Abbey, et al. v. Castille, et al.

The funeral directors and their state board have appealed the ruling. A decision is expected soon. Meanwhile, the monks continue to support themselves as they turn out their beautiful cypress caskets.

Frédéric Bastiat, Catholic Libertarian

“The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”

–Frédéric Bastiat, Selected Essays on Political Economy

Frédéric Bastiat (pronounced “bahst-ja”) (1801 – 1850) was a French Catholic, born in the Atlantic seaport of Bayonne, France near the border with Spain. He was orphaned at the age of nine and raised to work in his family’s export business.

Bastiat had a youthful fling with religious skepticism, but that “skepticism was short lived and Bastiat soon returned to the traditional catholic faith.” George Charles Rocher III, Frédéric Bastiat: A Man Alone

At twenty-four, his grandfather died, leaving him the family estate in the inland town of Mugron where he would spend twenty years as a gentleman farmer, reading widely and developing intellectual interests in philosophy, religion, history, political theory and biography. He became active in the local government and was elected as justice of the peace and as a county councilman.

Bastiat’s business experiences and his studies coalesced to form an unshakable conviction that free trade was essential to economic prosperity. He began to write essays opposing protective tariffs and he closely followed Richard Cobden’s free trade movement in England. In 1844, with the publication of Bastiat’s piece on English and French tariffs he finally became recognized in French economic circles. Numerous lectures, books and articles followed, not only on tariffs and free trade, but much economic analysis that holds up as well in the 21st century as in the 19th.

One of Bastiat’s best known contributions is his “fable of the broken window,” in which he demolished the still popular idea that events like war, natural disasters and the destruction of perfectly good automobiles will stimulate the economy. Bastiat tells the story of an unfortunate shopkeeper whose window is broken out by his careless son:

If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact, that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation: “It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?”

Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.

Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier’s trade — that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs — I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.

But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, “Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.”

It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way which this accident has prevented.

In the end, the glazier has traded his labor and a pane of glass for six francs, a fair trade. The shopkeeper, however, gains nothing he did not have before the window was broken, but also suffers a loss of six francs. Destruction never stimulates the economy; it only diverts resources from a desired activity to a remedial one.

Bastiat explained how the free market–based on self-interest and competition–works better than any other system; how even the greedy man is compelled to serve his fellow man:

[S]elf-interest is that indomitable individualistic force within us that urges us on to progress and discovery, but at the same time disposes us to monopolize our discoveries. Competition is that no less indomitable humanitarian force that wrests progress, as fast as it is made, from the hands of the individual and places it at the disposal of all mankind. Economic Harmonies

By virtue of exchange, one man’s prosperity is beneficial to all others. Economic harmonies

While Frédéric Bastiat’s public fame was based on free trade and economic issues, he recognized that the underlying issue was human freedom. He believed that the role of government was limited to the protection of life, liberty and property because any authority of the state could only be derived from individual men:

If every person has the right to defend – even by force – his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. This principle of collective right – its reason for existing, its lawfulness – is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force – for the same reason – cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.  The Law

Government that exceeds this defensive role thereby becomes an unjust aggressor, such that “The law is no longer a shield, but a sword!Selected Essays.

Bastiat’s view of human freedom was grounded in his Catholic worldview and his works show his “deep and abiding belief in God as the source of human dignity.”  Frederic Bastiat: A Man Alone. Believing the purpose of law was to protect life, liberty and property, it follows that only an unjust government infringes those rights by benefiting some at the expense of others: “Let us never forget that, in fact, the state has no resources of its own. It has nothing, it possesses nothing that it does not take from the workers.” Selected Essays.

By the time Bastiat became well known in France he was suffering from the tuberculosis which would kill him. His doctors prescribed rest, but there was no time to rest, for in 1848 his country was being torn apart from within.

Bastiat was elected to the French legislative assembly as he poured himself into finishing his life’s work. Bastiat’s greatest efforts for liberty and the role of law came at the very end of his life. His short but influential book, The Law, was completed the year that he died. He regretted that he had yet more work to do. “Before his death he declared that if God would but grant him a new lease of life he would devote his energy to the development of Christian harmony and political economy, but he did not live to fulfill his vow.” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1914.

Frédéric Bastiat died in Rome on Christmas Eve, 1850 of tuberculosis at the age of 49. He is buried in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

 

The Candlemakers’ Petition, Frédéric Bastiat

More Readings on Bastiat:

Bastiat for the Ages
Frederic Bastiat: A Man Alone
Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850): Between the French and Marginalist