When St. Paul Tweaked the Emperor’s Nose

Christian statists like to drag out St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans to demonstrate that disobedience to government is not an option:

st paul“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.

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.”  Rom. 13:1-4

Some laws must be disobeyed

Long recognized, however, are certain exceptions to this “always obey the government” rule. While St. Paul here equates obedience with “doing what is good,” no one argues that governments have ever confined their conduct to what is good. We find the famous standoff recorded in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Peter and the apostles defy the rulers saying: “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29. Numerous other approving recitations of civil disobedience occur in both the Old and New Testaments.

Some must always (and everywhere) be obeyed

So first of all, we must disobey some laws, but even the government gets many laws right. This second sort of law are those that seek to prevent or correct harm to others; such prohibitions would have to be obeyed in any society.

Unjust Nanny-state Laws

Finally, alongside the protective laws (which must be obeyed) and the laws which command us to do evil (which must be disobeyed) we still have that great morass of laws designed either 1) to steal from us; or 2) punish us unless we conduct our own lives according to the ruler’s demands.

It may well be wise to obey this third sort of law (if only out of self-defense), but as to any Christian moral obligation to obey, a closer look at St Paul’s epistle to the Romans suggests another layer to the analysis and raises the question as what duty—if any—is owed to the authorities:

For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Rom.13:6-7.

How much honor is due?

The rulers might read this passage as satisfying homage, but the subversive undercurrent of this verse is barely beneath the surface for any objective reader. Indeed, justice might cry out that no taxes are due; that the bloody hands of the ruler merit no respect; and his thefts deserve not honor but punishment. Only a fool feels honored at having been wished “all the respect he is due.” St. Paul’s words are reminiscent of Bilbo’s speech at his birthday party:

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

It’s hard to make out whether he is insulting or paying a compliment.

As with so much of scripture, the writings of St. Paul are rich with multiple levels of meaning. It turns out that the stern apostle possessed a perilous sense of humor, quite capable of lampooning the king.

Nero runs his race

In the year 66 A.D., the Emperor Nero left Rome to compete in the Olympic games and make a concert tour of Greece. At Olympia, he competed in the four-horse chariot race. The historian Suetonius, in The Twelve Caesars, reported that Nero drove his chariot with at least 10 horses. The emperor was thrown from his chariot during the race and had to be picked up and put back at the reins.

The emperor was unable to remain in his seat and gave up the race before the finish. Since he was the emperor, the judges crowned him the winner anyway. Nero generously declared the whole province a free country and gave the judges large sums of money.

This humiliation would have been fresh news when the buffoonish emperor returned to Rome and soon afterward had the apostle Paul beheaded. Could there be a connection between Nero’s race and a letter St Paul penned from a prison cell in Rome? The apostle wrote this in his last letter to his young friend Timothy,:

An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. . . . [T]he time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day.  2 Tim. 2:5, 4:6-8.

Nero the athlete had also competed, but he never finished the race. Nero did not compete according to the rules, yet was awarded the crown. Can there be any doubt that St Paul combined his bittersweet farewell to Timothy with a joke at Nero’s expense? If Nero was due respect simply for being the emperor–as Romans 13 is so often read–then St. Paul failed to follow his own rule. It is something to ponder when we consider one’s duty to any ruler or government.

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Read the related post: “Does the Bible Approve of Violent Government” here.

How to recognize an unjust law.

Unjust lawThe initiation of violence is the very the essence of government. No one disputes this fact. It is practically the definition of the modern state.

“What essentially sets a nation-state apart,” declared candidate Barack Obama, is that it has a “monopoly on violence.”

Since the state is known for its use of violence to enforce its decrees, Catholics need to go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraph 1930, to understand why governments use violence to compel obedience:

1930. Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. . . .

What are these human rights? The right to private property. CCC 2304. A worker’s right to spend his earnings however he chooses. Rerum Novarum 5. The principle purpose of the state is to protect these rights and the right to personal and collective security; that is, to promote the common good. CCC 1925.

The government that “flouts” the rights of people–an unjust government–can only obtain obedience to its laws by the use of violence.

Saint Thomas Aquinas explained that an unjust law is no law at all:

ThomasAquinas“As Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5) “that which is not just seems to be no law at all”: wherefore the force of a law depends on the extent of its justice. Now in human affairs a thing is said to be just, from being right, according to the rule of reason. But the first rule of reason is the law of nature, as is clear from what has been stated above (91, 2, ad 2). Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.” Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 95, Art. 2.

Since natural law is recognizable to most men, many succeed in conforming their conduct to much of it without the need for punishment. One way of measuring the “justness” of a law is to ask whether most people readily obey a law even without the fear of punishment. By this measure, laws against murder, theft and assault are just laws.

Contrast these laws–which are widely respected–with laws designed to control people who are not harming anyone (except perhaps themselves). These people may be unlicensed barbers, brewers, midwives or street vendors. Or they are guilty of questionable conduct: gamblers, smokers, drug users & sellers, drunks and adulterers. Most of these people would not kill you even if they could get away with it, but they freely commit these and other offenses, none of which harm anyone but themselves.

Some of these actions are widely considered to be immoral vices, while other conduct is prohibited for various political/regulatory reasons. People are more likely to commit such offenses when the law appears arbitrary, meddlesome and paternalistic; especially if the likelihood of being caught is low.

The one law that no one obeys voluntarily

There is one demand of government that almost no one (however virtuous they may be) would obey except under the threat of violence. That demand is the payment of taxes.

DonationImagine that the United States of America sends me an annual tax bill. It’s not really a bill. It’s just a notice telling me that my family’s share of the national budget is $7,325.00. The payment is purely voluntary, but I really ought to “do my part” and send in the money. Other than the social ostracism my failure might engender, there is no penalty for non-compliance.

Would anyone pay this bill? Perhaps we would, if: 1) we heartily approve of everything the government does; and 2) we think the government is so efficient that we are not motivated to look to competing services. Realistically, this is not going to happen. Those few people who claim they would pay such a “bill,” still want a proviso that everybody else would pay too. Of course, without the threat of violence, that is not going to happen either.

The benchmark of an unjust law is the degree to which the lawgiver must threaten or use violence to enforce obedience. A law which few will obey without the threat of force is–by this measure–an unjust law. Compulsory taxation is, therefore, unjust.

Libertarian Catholic

For more on violence and government: