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Welcome to the Crawl

Welcome to Theology Crawl! This year, we are meeting online to really try and unpack one big question…”How the heck did we get here?” 2020 has been a year of reckoning on a lot of fronts, and we want to take time to discuss how God-talk has often contributed to the many problems we are facing, and how better theology might help us navigate our way out. 

This week, we are talking about how Christianity has variously supported and opposed the State’s monopoly on violence, and how we should view this in light of recent discussions about police brutality. Before you start, make sure someone gives The Spiel to your group.

HISTORY: HOBBES’ LEVIATHAN AND THE MONOPOLY ON STATE VIOLENCE

Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan in 1651 as a response to the religious wars which followed the Protestant Reformation. This treatise was a philosophical and theological document that laid out an early version of social contract theory (the idea that society existed as a contract between the rulers and the ruled). Arguing against ecclesiastical overreach and against monarchs who claimed they had a “divine right” to rule, Hobbes took a secular route and argued that the State gained absolute power only when people ceded their natural rights to the sovereign. In his view, humans had a right to enact violence as a form of justice, but that in becoming part of a society, humans cede this right to the State. Thus, through the military, the police, or specially authorized people, the State sanctions particular acts of violence for the greater public good. 

  • On the State’s Monopoly of Force. A Common-wealth by Acquisition, is that, where the Sovereign Power is acquired by Force; And it is acquired by force, when men singly, or many together by plurality of voices, for fear of death, or bonds, do authorize all the actions of that Man, or Assembly, that hath their lives and liberty in his Power.
    On How Authority is Granted to the State. That men who choose their Sovereign, do it for fear of one another, and not of him whom they Institute: But in this case, they subject themselves to him they are afraid of. In both cases they do it for fear: which is to be noted by them, that hold all such Covenants, as proceed from fear of Obedience death, or violence, void: which if it were true, no man, in any kind of Common-wealth, could be obliged to .
    On the Right of the Sovereign to Punish. Before I infer anything from this definition, there is a question to be answered, of much importance; which is, by what door the Right, or Authority of Punishing in any case, came in. For by that which has been said before, no man is supposed bound by Covenant, not to resist violence; and consequently it cannot be intended, that he gave any right to another to lay violent hands upon his person. In the making of a Common-wealth, every man gives away the right of defending another; but not of defending himself. Also he obliges himself, to assist him that hath the Sovereignty, in the Punishing of another; but of himself not. But to covenant to assist the Sovereign, in doing hurt to another, unless he that so covenants have a right to do it himself, is not to give him a Right to Punish. It is manifest therefore that the Right which the Common-wealth (that is, he, or they that represent it) hath to Punish, is not grounded on any concession, or gift of the Subjects. But I have also shewed formerly, that before the Institution of Common-wealth, every man had a right to everything, and to do whatsoever he thought necessary to his own preservation; subduing, hurting, or killing any man in order thereunto. And this is the foundation of that right of Punishing, which is exercised in every Common-wealth. For the Subjects did not give the Sovereign that right; but only in laying down theirs, strengthened him to use his own, as he should think fit, for the preservation of them all: so that it was not given, but left to him, and to him only; and (excepting the limits set him by natural Law) as entire, as in the condition of mere Nature, and of war of every one against his neighbor.

THE MAIN QUESTIONS

Historical / Theological Questions

  • Read through the “History” section. Do you think the State’s monopoly on force is a good thing? Why or why not?

  • According to Hobbes, there are very few instances where it would be unjust for the State to use violence if that violence benefited society as a whole. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?

  • In the Leviathan, Hobbes’ approach was “secular” in the sense that it saw the State as a product of human activity, not divine mandate. At the same time, Hobbes spent a great deal of time in the treatise justifying his viewpoint theologically. Should Christian theology be used to define/limit the role of the State? Why or why not?

  • Look at the below section labelled, “Theological Concept.” Which model do you see at work in Hobbes’ Leviathan? Which model do you typically use?
  • What Biblical passages do you see as important for discussing the legitimacy of the State and/or its use of force by the State (Hint: See the “Important Scriptures” section below)? What about these passages is significant?

Contemporary Questions

  • In your experience, how do Christians usually talk about the use of State-sanctioned force (e.g. Capital Punishment, Police Shootings, Armed Foreign Conflicts, etc.)? Do they question it, justify it, rebuke it, or something else? Why do you think they respond this way?

  • Do you think that State sanctioned violence is justly administered in the United States? If so, what are the causes of injustice? If not, how so?

  • What do you think the limits on the use of deadly force should be in America? Are there any theological reasons for holding this belief?
  • What biblical ideas or theological concepts would help the Church as it speaks out against the unjust use of violence by the State?

Bonus Question: Can/should a Christian participate in the State’s use of violence (i.e. be a police officer, prison guard, soldier)?

THEOLOGICAL CONCEPTS: FOUR MODELS OF CHURCH-STATE RELATIONS*

  • State Controls Church: The State has supremacy over the Church and all legislation related to the Church must have State approval. Society is benefited through the State’s ability to control and limit the power of the Church. Historical Example: Church of England.
  • Church Controls State: The Church has supremacy over the State and all legislation related to the State must have ecclesial approval. Society is benefited through the State’s moral oversight and guidance of the levers of State power. Historical Example: Papal States, High Middle Age Europe.
  • Separation of Church and State: The Church should have no involvement with the State, and vice versa. Ideally, Christians should not even be involved in matters of state. The society led by the State is corrupt, and the heavenly society of the Church should represent a stark difference. Historical Examples: Early Anabaptists, Mennonites.
  • Church and State in Relationship: There is a mutual recognition and responsibility between the Church and State. Society benefits as each operates in its separate, but related spheres of jurisdiction. Historical Example: Constantinian Church.

     

    * Adapted from A.T.B. McGowan, “Church and State: The Contribution of Church History to Evangelical Models of Public Theology,” European Journal of Theology 14, no. 1 (2005), 5-16.

IMPORTANT SCRIPTURE

  • Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. // Romans 13:1-4
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. // Matthew 5:9
  • Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. // 1 Peter 3:9
  • Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. // Mark 12:17
  • For the kingdom is the Lord’s / And He rules over the nations // Psalm 22:28
  • Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. // 1 Peter 2:13-15

THOUGHTS FROM OTHERS

  • A state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. // Max Weber
  • It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible. // George Washington
  • Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace // Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • The moral law of God is the only law of individuals and of nations, and nothing can be rightful government but such as is established and administered with a view to its support. // Charles Finney
  • I wish that Christian men would insist more and more on the unrighteousness of war, believing that Christianity means no sword, no cannon, no bloodshed, and that, if a nation is driven to fight in its own defense, Christianity stands by to weep and to intervene as soon as possible, and not to join in the cruel shouts which celebrate an enemy’s slaughter. // Charles Spurgeon
  • To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. // Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Would we send our daughters off to have sex if it would benefit our country? Yet, we send our sons off to kill when we think it would benefit our country! // Leonard Ravenhill

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