Is Revolution Ever Justified? Part One
The West over the centuries has gone through various phases which in broad-brush fashion can be characterised as follows: from pagan to Christian to post-Christian to anti-Christian and thus back to a new paganism. All over the Western world a war has been declared against Christianity, and increasingly Christians are being targeted by secular left states.
Thus we often find our faith rubbing up against the dictates of the state. And increasingly laws are being passed which go directly against our Christian beliefs. Thus there are more and more occasions in which we may have to disobey the state in order to be true to our Lord.
If and when we should resort to such disobedience to the powers that be I have addressed elsewhere, so I refer you to this article to get further information on this important topic: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/
But what about a possible next step? What if things get so bad that Christians – and/or others – may need to do more than just disobey and suffer the consequences of such actions? Are there ever times when things may become so extreme that the proper course of action is to agitate for a new state – and resort to revolution to achieve this?
Of course I must state at the outset here that I may be biased – after all, my home country started with a revolution. If it had not, at the very least, I would be putting vinegar on my fish and chips instead of ketchup on my fish and French fries. I would also likely be spreading my bread with Marmite and not peanut butter and jelly.
But what does the Bible and church history teach us about this topic? For millennia there has been a strong tradition of holding to just war theory, both by Christians and non-Christians. Is there an equivalent theory of just revolution which believers can champion?
This is not the place for an exhaustive examination of this, so I will have to offer more of an outline on this instead of a detailed treatise. And since I am a Protestant I will here confine my remarks to what other Protestants have taught on this over the centuries.
So let me start with a brief historical overview. The Reformers of course spoke to this issue in various places. For example, Martin Luther believed that we must respect the office of the magistrate. Because civil government is established by God, people must not resist it. However, he also said that obedience to the state is not unconditional.
He said for example, “There are lazy and useless preachers who do not denounce the evils of princes and lords…. Some even fear for their skins and worry that they will lose body and goods for it. They do not stand up and be true to Christ!”
Appealing to Acts 5:29 he taught that we must obey God rather than man when tyrannous rulers violate God’s laws. But his insistence that we resist such magistrates was to be understood as more of a passive resistance or civil disobedience as opposed to active revolt.
John Calvin in his Institutes said that private revolution was not allowable but proper representatives of the people could and should resist the tyranny of kings. Appealing to Daniel’s refusal to obey the king’s decree (Dan 6:22), Calvin says this: “We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it.”
The book Lex, Rex (1644) by Scottish Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) is of course perhaps the most important and most detailed discussion of all this. The title, simply meaning ‘The Law, the King’ refers to the biblical truth that the law is king, and the king is subject to the law, which is under the law of God.
Very simply stated, Rutherford argued that there are limits to monarchies, since everyone, from kings to the common man, are subject to the rule of law – God’s law. When a king or magistrate violates God’s law, he loses his authority, and people may then have the right to overthrow this ruler.
Tyrannical governments are immoral and can and must be opposed. Indeed, tyrannic government is satanic government, and the believer must resist it. To oppose tyranny is to honour God. The office of the magistrate demands our respect, but we need not blindly respect the ruler in that office.
His important book of course deals with far more than the place of revolution against unjust authorities. It is a comprehensive discussion of key issues such as the rule of law, the case against royal absolutism, the importance of constitutionalism and limited government, and the nature of political theory based on biblical law and natural law.
The book was certainly a volatile volume, and was later burned in Edinburgh. But it was hugely influential, not only in refuting the then widely-accepted notion of the divine right of kings, but paving the way for resistance to government tyranny, most notably as found in the American Revolution.
The noted Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer is worth looking at more closely here. He spends the last four chapters of his important 1981 volume, A Christian Manifesto looking at this issue in some detail. He sided with Rutherford and believed that just revolution is the duty of the Christian. He argued that we are getting very close in the West today to seeing the need for such revolt to be carried out.
He appeals to historical and political grounds, as well as to biblical principles: “Simply put, the Declaration of Independence states that the people, if they find that their basic rights are being systematically attacked by the state, have a duty to try to change that government, and if they cannot do so, to abolish it.”
To say we cannot resist an unjust and tyrannical state means that we are elevating the state above God and his law: “If there is no final place for civil disobedience, then the government has been made autonomous, and as such, it has been put in the place of the Living God.”
And again: “It is time we consciously realize that when any office commands what is contrary to God’s Law it abrogates its authority. And our loyalty to the God who gave this law then requires that we make the appropriate response in that situation to such a tyrannical usurping of power.”
And the use of force is morally licit in the face of tyrannical regimes: “There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate. The Christian is not to take the law into his own hands and become a law unto himself. But when all avenues to flight and protest have closed, force in the defensive posture is appropriate. This was the situation of the American Revolution. The colonists used force in defending themselves.
“Great Britain, because of its policy toward the colonies, was seen as a foreign power invading America. The colonists defended their homeland. As such, the American Revolution was a conservative counter-revolution. The colonists saw the British as the revolutionaries trying to overthrow the legitimate colonial governments.”
Such rebellion against authority was also appropriate in Hitler’s Germany: “A true Christian in Hitler’s Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state and hidden his Jewish neighbors from German SS troops. The government had abrogated its authority, and it had no right to make any demands.”
But Schaeffer also said, “When discussing force it is important to keep an axiom in mind: always before protest or force is used, we must work for reconstruction. In other words, we should attempt to correct and rebuild society before we advocate tearing it down or disrupting it.”
He again appeals to Rutherford here: “Rutherford offered suggestions concerning illegitimate acts of the state. A ruler, he wrote, should not be deposed merely because he commits a single breach of the compact he has with the people. Only when the magistrate acts in such a way that the governing structure of the country is being destroyed—that is, when he is attacking the fundamental structure of society—is he to be relieved of his power and authority.
“That is exactly what we are facing today. The whole structure of our society is being attacked and destroyed. It is being given an entirely opposite base which gives exactly opposite results. The reversal is much more total and destructive than that which Rutherford or any of the Reformers faced in their day.”
Part Two of this article will examine other Christian thinkers on this important issue: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/11/is-revolution-ever-justified-part-two/