“4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” Romans 13:4-5
With all the uproar over the actions of our government under the shadow of 9/11, I’ve considered whether to write about it here. After much thought, I think I’ve found a way to discuss this biblically with practical examples. I’m going to come at this from a few directions, so please bear with me as I build my argument.
Foremost in my mind has been the above verses from Romans 13, written by St. Paul. In context, he is answering the question of whether or not to submit to governing authorities. In this case, Rome is the governing authority. I offer the following commentary from The Concordia Self Study Commentary by Roehrs &Franzmann, Concordia Publishing House, 1979:
“To faith it is given to recognize in the governing authorities an order that God has appointed for His good ends and man’s benefit, to see in Caesar God’s servant, and in Caesar’s sword (symbol of Caesar’s power over life and death) the consecrated instrument of God’s wrath and to obey for the sake of conscience, to pay not only taxes and revenue but also the heart’s tribute of respect and honor to this ambiguous representative of God.”
To state the obvious, Caesar was not a man after God’s own heart as was, say, David. Nor was the Roman government a God-fearing institution. St. Paul is telling us, however, that it is still a government instituted by God for His purposes, however unclear those purposes are to us.
Even ungodly, abusive regimes serve God’s purpose, as when the Syrians invaded Jerusalem and took the Jews captive. This was Israel’s punishment for abandoning their promises to be faithful to God. God also tells us in Isaiah that, while Syria was the instrument of His wrath, their own punishment was already planned out for their own evil.
So that is point one: Governments, whether we find them Godly or not, serve God’s purpose. We are to keep our noses clean and submit.
Moving on. If I told you that a school bus driver deliberately ran over one of her riders after the kid got off the bus and was walking in front of it, what would your reaction be? I can tell you the driver was not suffering any sudden health problem, and she committed this act consciously and with forethought. What are you thinking? She’s another weirdo committing yet one more act of wanton violence in this screwed up world? She’s just one more headline in a long list of disgusting behavior?
Did I forget to mention that she saw a car coming from behind her bus at speed with no sign of slowing down? She figured the only chance the kid had of not getting killed by this moron was to slip the bus in gear, lurch forward and knock the kid – protectively – under her bus. Scraped, bruised, and definitely traumatized, the little girl lived.
That’s point two: motivation. As someone who has read a great deal of the history of World War II, I can tell you that, on the face of it, there’s no real difference between the Allied and Axis powers. Both used spies, guns, planes, bombs, warships, submarines, internment camps, and all the rest. Both sides committed fearsome acts of destruction, slaughtering each other on an industrial scale. Those horrors, committed by BOTH sides, left permanent physical and psychological scars, even on the victors. Sometimes even the good guys went overboard. I give you Dresden as an arguable example (although Germany had already bombed civilian, non-combatant populations in London, for example. The door was opened).
I recall a man in his 80’s at my home church. He was a kind, gentle soul, and everyone adored him. After he died, pastor told me how this wonderful man confessed on how he manned a flame thrower in the Pacific war, burning Japanese out of their caves. He said he heard their cries every night just as if he was still there on those dreadful islands.
Shall we condemn him and others for the horrific things they did?
Shall we condemn those who invented and then dropped two atomic bombs on Japan? Such death and destruction! We all know the argument that it likely saved American lives by avoiding an invasion. But do you realize that studies have proven it saved many more Japanese lives than were taken by the atomic blasts?
Japanese battle plans called for destruction of railways and highways in their own country to prevent Allied use of them. But movement of food and supplies would have been denied their own population as well, killing many more by starvation than by those atom bombs.
So why did the Allied powers do the things they did? At the risk of sounding childish, “they started it.” Germany exterminated Jews and killed civilians in conquered countries to oppressively gain obedience. The Japanese committed unspeakable atrocities in China. I assume you’ve heard of The Rape of Nanking? If not Google it. You’ll find plenty, pictures and all.
Do you suppose the Allies should have sat this one out, because good, Christian, civilized populations just don’t do those sorts of things?
No, I submit that governments are obliged to address and combat evil in the world. If the war-weary governments of Europe had stood up to Hitler instead of appeasing him, things might have gone differently. But, one way or another, somebody – the Allies – had to take a stand, get dirty, and resist the horrors of the aggressors.
“…rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
I’ve heard it said that the actions of the good and the evil are very hard to distinguish in a confrontation. And that evil often wins unless good is very, very careful. There are many battles that prove this.
So, finally, bringing these points to the topic at hand. The US government used – let’s be honest and not mince words – torture to get information from prisoners to track down the perpetrators of 9/11 as well as prevent future attacks. Those are actions that damaged the people who committed them, however righteous the cause, as well as those who are tortured. But, per the school bus example above, WHY are they done?
Did the school bus driver enjoy running over the little girl? Do American agents enjoy torturing prisoners (documentation supports not)? Are either the actions of someone under the motivation to ultimately good effects??
Government has the often unpleasant job of dealing with lousy situations which call for otherwise avoided actions. They are God’s institution in His overall plans, which we likely will never understand. They stretch out far longer than a human lifetime, the context and complexity beyond our understanding.
I submit in conclusion that the waterboarding and other tortures that were committed post 9/11 were the government “bearing the sword” as is their biblical role. I don’t find it appealing, nor do I take pleasure in the suffering of our enemies. I do believe that, if you ask for trouble, you shouldn’t be coddled when you find it and suddenly cry “foul” when it surrounds you. The individuals who were tortured didn’t receive that treatment because they were model citizens in good standing with the local Better Business Bureau. If the US government simply held a perverse lottery and these guys were the losers, I say our people deserve the scrutiny and condemnation currently directed at them.
At the end of the day, the government agencies made the best calls they could in the proverbial fog of battle. I submit that oversight and rules of engagement are good, but sometimes things happen that aren’t in the playbook. People make decisions. The government played its biblical role of bearing the sword in its job to keep order. Publicly hanging participants out to dry years after the fact by people who weren’t there is disloyal and intellectually dishonest.
If anything, maybe we should say “Thank you” and pray for them. Sitting in seats of government is not an enviable position, and we should be glad someone is willing to do it. Until we are willing to relieve them and assume those awful burdens ourselves, we should give them our prayerful support and our understanding in trying times.