When I played soccer in my university days (go ahead, be impressed), the referees would often penalize guilty players with a yellow card (as far as I can remember, I never received a yellow card; but as parents, both Jo and I were once warned and then kicked out of a hockey game in which our son was playing!). Here’s the point: Some of you have waved a metaphorical yellow card in my face recently. You have said it was unfair, unjust and unfathomable that I would ask three difficult, but engaging questions, but never give any hint of answers. To you I say, it was a perfectly legitimate teaching technique, so just keep that yellow card in your pocket! But I am willing to concede that maybe it would be good to discuss these questions further. So, let’s talk about it. The three questions I am talking about were raised in my first sermon on Romans 13 on how we are to relate to the political or governing authority over us. Question number one asked if the Boston Tea Party was biblical or sinful. Question number two asked if the American War of Independence was biblical or sinful. And question number three asked if Bonhoeffer’s participation in the assassination attempt of Hitler was biblical or sinful. How do we even begin to talk about these issues? Let’s start with seven quick preliminary thoughts.
First, these are obviously complicated issues and cannot be easily answered. However, that is not to say that we shouldn’t try to answer them. Thinking is always a good strategy even if we never completely solve the issue. Plus, thinking about these things helps us learn how to think wisely about these and other similar issues. Perhaps, another way to look at this is if I was involved in this, would I be sinning or justified?
Second, the idea here is not to dictate biblical laws that regulate every conceivable action, but to think about how the Bible speaks about issues so we can grow in wisdom, discernment and spiritual insight. We are not looking to uncover mandates (i.e., “Thus says the Lord” about the Tea Party), but trying to discover how we should approach all thorny issues. I would contend that there are only a few one-law-fits-all commands in the Bible (love God and love your neighbor is a one-size-fits-all-situations command); the rest require wisdom so that we may properly apply God’s Word to our lives. That’s what we are trying to do here.
Third, conversations about difficult issues, even if they are theoretical, are invaluable. Rachel Held Evans once noted the difference between the traditional way Jews handle the Bible and how we do. She wrote: “While Christians tend to turn to Scripture to end a conversation, Jews turn to Scripture to start a conversation.” When it comes to knotty issues, conversations provide light. We would be ill-advised just to cut to the answer. The process is crucial. Hearing from other perspectives is crucial. Listening to different perspectives is crucial.
Fourth, while there are many absolutes in the Bible, there are also a lot of situations that call for a “Yes, but” response (“in certain cases, yes, but in other cases, no”). For example, is lying a sin? Yes, but when Pharaoh asks the midwives why they are not killing the Hebrew newborns, the midwives lie, saying that the Hebrew women are too strong and give birth before they get there. Lying is a sin, but here the Bible seems to celebrate the faith and ingenuity of these two women and offers them up as heroes (and think about this: the Bible never names the Pharoah in this story; we have no definitive word on the identity of this famous man, but Exodus records the names of both Shiprah and Pauh, the Hebrew midwives! Who’s more famous now, eh Pharoah?). Every situation must be carefully evaluated so we can apply Biblical truth to the matter at hand wisely. Context is everything.
Fifth, we live in a fallen world where, the vast majority of the time, everyone is guilty to one extent or another. In all my years of counseling, I have never seen a divorce where one person was completely innocent and the other was completely guilty. The scale of guilt may be heavily tilted to one side, but the other side will always have some degree of culpability in the dissolution of the marriage. I have always found it helpful to remember that in a divorce there is the guilty party and the less guilty party, but never a completely innocent party.
So, it is with many ethical issues. There are very few totally innocent participants. Both parties are guilty to one extent or another.
Sixth, the Bible teaches that we are all free moral agents who choose our responses. If you punch me in the nose, that is your sin. If I retaliate, I am choosing violence over forgiveness. It may not feel like I could have done anything other than to retaliate, but I could have. We can always choose to do right because we are free moral agents.
Seventh, in talking about my first two questions, I am certainly not suggesting that the colonies were comprised of all Christ followers and that America was a Christian nation being persecuted by the godless British. The questions I am asking (are these actions biblical or sinful?) are truly better suited for our actions as Jesus’ disciples and not for nations. Technically speaking, the proper questions to ask of nations revolve more around issues of right and wrong, just and fair, and not biblical and sinful. However, it’s my blog; and my questions focus on these acts being biblical or sinful!
Okay, with that, let’s talk about the Boston Tea Party, biblical or sinful? While there was no actual violence and while the “Mohawks” actually swept the deck afterwards to make sure they caused no harm to private property (even when they accidentally broke a lock onboard the ship, they paid for it the following day), it was still an act of provocation and unnecessary (in my opinion). True, American trade was being threatened, but as difficult as that situation was, I wonder if there were other better options that could have been tried. Could they have allowed the tea to be unloaded and then boycotted the purchase of the tea so not a leaf would ever find hot water? Or could they (and I know I am being anachronistic here) have had an 18th century version of a sit-in on the dock to prohibit the tea from being unloaded? Were there no other ways to communicate to the British Crown that unjust trade policies were unacceptable to the Colonies? Here’s my question: did they have to resort to an act of vandalism? It is very clear that the patriots wanted to make a statement here and throwing tea into the harbor made that statement. But was that biblically legitimate? As sad as it is for me to say this, in light of Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek, to forgive those who wrong you, to love your enemies and to seek peace, the Tea Party has to be seen as sinful. Yes, I know those were desperate times and, yes, I know that the real issue was not simply a tax on tea but dealt with an unreasonable British monopoly of all American trade. Nevertheless, that did not give the patriots the right to destroy a million dollars-worth of tea in protest. Now, I understand the British were guilty here, too. They were unjust, unkind, greedy and arrogant and should have responded to their American sons and daughters with at least a modicum of humanity. But they did not. And yet, in light of Jesus’ teaching, I cannot condone these acts of theft and provocation. The Boston Tea party, I would say, was sinful. What do you think?
Let’s talk about the American Revolution. Is it ever biblical to respond to evil with violence? There is no doubt that the British treatment of the colonists was unjust. They were trying to suffocate the colonies in every way possible, and the colonies had legitimate grievances against British tyranny. And yet, Paul urges us to pursue peace in every situation and to go the extra mile. This kills me, but I cannot condone the violent response to British tyranny. I wish I could because I understand how agonizing it would be to endure such horrific treatment; but according to the Bible, we should never try to overcome evil with more evil. When we lived in Canada, many of our friends argued that had we as a nation been patient, as Canada was, we would have eventually earned our freedom and independence without resorting to violence. It irritates me to say this, but I fear my Canadian friends may have had a point. I wonder if we had waited and if we had not resorted to violence, if our history as a nation would not have been so violent. Jesus said (Mt. 26:52), “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Has our violent beginning brought about these violent ends? I hate to say this, but I fear it is true. The American Revolution was sinful. What do you think? What would you have added to this conversation?
Let’s talk about Bonhoeffer. (Actually, we need to make one clarifying comment. Recent scholarship has raised doubts that Bonhoeffer was actually involved in any conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. While he boldly stood against Hitler, German nationalism, the Nazi party and the war, his commitment to biblical pacificism, it is thought, would prevent him from advocating Hitler’s murder.) But what if he did plot to kill Hitler? What if he believed that by removing Hitler, he could help bring a swift end to the war and put an end to German atrocities? Here’s our question: Is violence ever allowed if its purpose is to end more violence? Can you ever kill an enemy in hopes of preventing other killings? I would argue on the basis of the Hebrew midwives, the story of the Judges, and the story of the people in Esther defending themselves, that sometimes in a fallen world, where things rarely work as they should, committing a lesser evil to prevent a greater evil is acceptable. However, before one commits to a violent path, one must carefully think about all the possible repercussions. One needs to spend a great deal of time in prayer. One needs to talk to all sorts of people to get their opinion. One needs to think through all their various options. And then, only as a last resort, do evil to prevent further evil. What do you think? What would you add to this conversation? Biblically, how would you justify using violence?
Now, this was not meant to be an entire conversation. It was meant to be a conversation starter and to spur you on to your own thoughts about these things. And it was meant to help us sort out, in a little more detail, what Paul was saying in Romans 13 where he called us to submit ourselves to the governing authorities. See, Paul’s whole paragraph is not to establish rules that must govern our actions, but to give us an example of how we should think about complex situations. In other words, this was an exercise in growing in wisdom and discernment.
So, “Rally, Mohawks, and bring out you axes and tell King George we will pay no taxes.” And “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here” as Captain Parker said before the battle of Lexington. And as Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” I love all three of these quotes, but two probably depart from the teaching of the Bible.
As for us, we were kicked out of that hockey game unjustly after we complained (justly) that the referees were conspiring against our team and turning a blind eye to dangerous play. We were warned. We continued to protest. We were thrown out. We left. It was totally unjust and unfair, but we submitted to their authority. But if I had known which car in the parking lot was his, I might have flattened all four tires! Biblical or sinful? Biblical, I’m sure!