The topic of a just revolution is one which has long been debated in the Christian church. In addition to some of the key Christian leaders I discuss in Part One of this article, others can also be mentioned. Plenty could be brought into this discussion here, but let me just focus on a handful.
Back in 1982 the American constitutional attorney and religious freedom specialist John Whitehead wrote an important volume called The Second American Revolution. After examining how America is heading off the rails with secularism, immorality, and anti-Christian government, he asks how Christians should respond to this.
He writes, “The battle for Christian existence may be upon us. As the state becomes increasingly pagan, it will continue to exert and expand its claims to total jurisdiction and power over all areas, including the church. . . . Strong biblical grounds serve for a foundation for Christian resistance to state paganism.”
Whitehead also appeals to Rutherford. “Citizens have a moral obligation to resist unjust and tyrannical government. Unfortunately, this has long been overlooked in churches, as a whole. While we must always be subject to the office of the magistrate, we are not to be subject to the man in that office, if his commands are contrary to the Bible.”
He continues: “Rutherford was not an anarchist. In Lex, Rex he does not propose armed revolution as a solution. Instead, he sets forth three levels of resistance in which a private person may engage. First, he must defend himself by protest (in contemporary society this would usually be by legal action). Second, he must flee if at all possible; and, third, he may use force, if absolutely necessary, to defend himself….
“Christian resistance does not mean that Christians should take to the streets and mount an armed revolution.” However, there “does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate. When all avenues to flight and protest have closed, force in the defensive posture is appropriate. This was the situation of the American Revolution.”
Just one other book can be mentioned here: the 1984 volume by Lynn Buzzard and Paula Campbell, Holy Disobedience: When Christians Must Resist the State. This helpful volume carefully looks at the issue of civil disobedience more so than just revolution. But it contains many helpful insights and observations, examining biblical, historical and political matters.
For more on the issue of civil disobedience and the Christian, in addition to the article I link to in Part One, see also this more specific article relating civil disobedience to the abortion issue:
Davis and Geisler
Let me finish this discussion by examining the positions of two famous evangelical ethicists, John Jefferson Davis and Norman Geisler in some detail. They both have written much about this topic, and they take differing approaches to the question of justifiable revolution, with Davis affirming it and Geisler opposing it.
Davis argues that there is both a philosophical and a biblical justification for revolution. He examines the thinking of Calvin, Rutherford and John Locke, and then deals with the biblical evidence: “Scripture makes it clear that God’s providential judgments in history can take the form of removing from power unjust civil authorities.”
He cites a number of texts, including Daniel 2:21 which informs us that God “removes kings and sets up kings”. But God works through people, so they have a place in this: “Such judgments on unjust rulers are not exercised in a vacuum; God uses human instruments to accomplish his purposes.” For example, the book of Judges demonstrates how God raised up judges to rescue his people from oppressive situations.
Davis then offers us conditions for a just revolution. The cause for which a revolution is undertaken “must be a just cause, not merely a response to burdensome or inconvenient conditions, or merely a rationalization for narrow class or party interests.”
Also, such action should be a last resort. And it should be issued by lawful authority. “This criterion, borrowed like the rest from just-war theory, may seem to be self-contradictory, given that revolution is a repudiation of the existing order.
“As we noted, however, in cases of the judges of Israel (Judg. 2:16), the existing (de facto) authority did not continue to be the legitimate authority in the sight of God. A revolutionary situation can call into question the moral legitimacy of the existing authority, and the people of God may be called to recognise a new leader or leaders raised up by God to restore a legitimate government.”
Also, such a revolution should have widespread support of the people, and there should be a reasonable hope of victory. And there should be “due proportion between the good to be achieved and the probable evil effects of employing violent means.”
Davis recognises there are clear dangers and limits to all this. For example, he quotes Brian Griffiths: “While revolution may create new social institutions and destroy old ones, it is powerless to change human nature.” Thus the believer will not hold to messianic illusions as did secular revolutionaries such as Karl Marx.
Concludes Davis: “The Christian works for temporal justice, with the realization that perfect justice is not attainable under the present conditions, but will be instituted only when Christ returns and brings the kingdom of God in all its fullness.”
Norm Geisler takes a different point of view here. He argues that while Christians can and should resist an unethical or unjust government, they should not rebel against it. He offers the following reasons as to why revolutions are always unjust:
-“God gave the sword to the government to rule, not to the citizens to revolt.”
-“God exhorts against joining revolutionaries.” He cites Proverbs 24:21 here, “Fear the Lord and the king, my son, and do not join with the rebellious”.
-“Revolutions are consistently condemned by God.” He uses such examples as that of Korah in Numbers 16 and Absalom in 2 Samuel 15.
-“Moses was judged for his violent act in Egypt.”
-“Israel did not fight pharaoh but fled from him.”
-“Jesus exhorted against using the sword.”
He looks at various objections that are raised here. For example, was there not a revolution against the wicked queen Athaliah (2 Chronicles 23)? Geisler says this was “a divinely sanctioned special theocratic case, just like the wars against the Canaanites were under Joshua (Josh. 10)”.
So what are we to do with oppressive regimes? How are we to respond? Geisler offers a number of suggestions, including the need to pray for oppressive governments; the need to peacefully and legally change it; willingness to disobey unjust or oppressive commands; and either patiently endure, or if need be, flee such tyranny.
Before leaving these two authors, I am sure by now some readers might be asking, “So where do you stand in this debate Bill?” Well, I am glad you asked! I must say that while I appreciate where Geisler is coming from, I have to side with Davis on this (and by implication, Whitehead, Schaeffer, Rutherford and Calvin).
But this is an area where believers can and will disagree. Indeed, even on the more limited issue of civil disobedience Geisler admits that “there is difference of opinion concerning how one should disobey”.
The idea of a just revolution, like the idea of a just war, is of course one which can be easily discussed in theory, but the application can be much more difficult. Just war theory of course developed over many long centuries, and its principles can still be applied to the ethics of warfare today.
In the same way some of the thinking surrounding just revolution is also of value, but how and when we apply these principles is a matter of some debate. Indeed, an article like this will likely raise far more questions than it answers. Plenty of questions still need to be carefully teased out here:
-Exactly when is a revolution called for, if ever?
-What degree of tyranny must exist before revolt can morally take place?
-Can the average citizen participate in such revolutions?
-How are believers to understand such passages as Romans 13:1-7 in this regard?
-Can force of arms be used in such revolts?
-How does political revolt tie in with spiritual realities?
-What happens when Christians disagree as to whether a particular government is unjust or immoral?
-What can we learn from church history here?
To these and other questions all I can say is stay tuned: more articles on this may be forthcoming. But at least this two part article hopefully provides some fodder for reflection, debate and discussion.
Part One of this article is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/11/is-revolution-ever-justified-part-one/