How might we think about resistance to evil rulers?
(Author’s necessary preface: This is one of those pieces where I must say something up front – otherwise I will get into all sorts of trouble! No, I am NOT here saying we should resort to killing diabolical rulers. What I am doing is simply offering a brief biblical and historical overview of these matters, to be teased out in further articles addressing these topics in more detail.)
Rulers have to be careful – sometimes they are so disliked and hated that being killed is their fate. Regicide of course means the killing of a king, while tyrannicide entails a tyrant being put to death. They are distinct because not every tyrant is a king, nor is every king a tyrant.
Throughout human history we have seen examples of both. The Old Testament records how ancient Israel often found rulers being killed by the people or by other leaders. Usually such killing is merely described without being prescribed. That is, we often do not have any (divine) commentary added to it, saying that this was a good thing or a bad thing.
In 2 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 23:12-15 for example we read about how Queen Athaliah of Judah was killed. The latter account is this:
When Athaliah heard the noise of the people running and praising the king, she went into the house of the Lord to the people. And when she looked, there was the king standing by his pillar at the entrance, and the captains and the trumpeters beside the king, and all the people of the land rejoicing and blowing trumpets, and the singers with their musical instruments leading in the celebration. And Athaliah tore her clothes and cried, “Treason! Treason!” Then Jehoiada the priest brought out the captains who were set over the army, saying to them, “Bring her out between the ranks, and anyone who follows her is to be put to death with the sword.” For the priest said, “Do not put her to death in the house of the Lord.” So they laid hands on her, and she went into the entrance of the horse gate of the king’s house, and they put her to death there.
And in 2 Kings 21:19-26 and 2 Chronicles 33:21-25 we read about King Amon of Israel. The latter passage says this:
Amon was twenty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned two years in Jerusalem. And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. Amon sacrificed to all the images that Manasseh his father had made, and served them. And he did not humble himself before the Lord, as Manasseh his father had humbled himself, but this Amon incurred guilt more and more. And his servants conspired against him and put him to death in his house. But the people of the land struck down all those who had conspired against King Amon. And the people of the land made Josiah his son king in his place.
Christians have long discussed such matters, wondering how ethical or normative they might be. One quote from the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia offers a succinct summary (with references) of some of the main players:
Though Catholic doctrine condemns tyrannicide as opposed to the natural law, formerly great theologians of the Church like St. Thomas (II-II, Q. xlii, a.2), Suarez (Def. fidei, VI, iv, 15), and Bañez, O.P. (De justitia et jure, Q. lxiv, a. 3), permitted rebellion against oppressive rulers when the tyranny had become extreme and when no other means of safety were available. This merely carried to its logical conclusion the doctrine of the Middle Ages that the supreme ruling authority comes from God through the people for the public good. As the people immediately give sovereignty to the ruler, so the people can deprive him of his sovereignty when he has used his power oppressively. Many authorities, e.g. Suarez (Def. fiedei, VI, iv, 18), held that the State, but not private persons, could, if necessary, condemn the tyrant to death. In recent times Catholic authors, for the most part, deny that subjects have the right to rebel against and depose an unjust ruler, except in the case when the ruler was appointed under the condition that he would lose his power if he abused it. In proof of this teaching they appeal to the Syllabus of Pius IX, in which this proposition is condemned: “It is lawful to refuse obedience to legitimate princes, and even to rebel” (prop. 63). While denying the right of rebellion in the strict sense whose direct object is the deposition of the tyrannical ruler, many Catholic writers, such as Crolly, Cathrein, de Bie, Zigliara, admit the right of subjects not only to adopt an attitude of passive resistance against unjust laws but also in extreme cases to assume a state of active defensive resistance against the actual aggression of a legitimate, but oppressive ruler.
Many of the Reformers were more or less in favour of tyrannicide. Luther held that the whole community could condemn the tyrant to death (Sämmtliche Werke”, LXII, Frankfort-on-the-Main and Erlangen, 1854, 201, 206). Melancthon said that the killing of a tyrant is the most agreeable offering that man can make to God (Corp. Ref., III, Halle, 1836, 1076). The Calvinist writer styled Junius Brutus held that individual subjects have no right to kill a legitimate tyrant, but that resistance must be authorized by a representative council of the people (Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, p. 45). John Knox affirmed that it was the duty of the nobility, judges, rulers, and people of England to condemn Queen Mary to death (Appellation). https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15108a.htm
And a fairly recent example of this has to do with the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was famously involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, but he and some other conspirators were caught and executed by the Nazis before this could take place. Future articles will look more closely at his commitment to resisting tyranny in Germany, so stay tuned.
John of Salisbury and resistance theory
Tyrannicide is the more extreme aspect of what is known as resistance theory. This theory asks the following sorts of questions: Is there ever a place to oppose the ruling authorities? Is civil disobedience morally permissible? Under what circumstances if any is rebellion to rulers and the laws of the land justifiable? Is revolution ever ethically defensible? Can Christians ever take up arms against the state?
This happens to be the 80th article I have written on this topic, so I view the issue as being quite important indeed. This has especially been the case over the past few years as we saw and experienced repressive and ugly statism unleashed on us under the pretext of keeping us safe from Covid. The easy – and easily accepted – erosion of key freedoms and basic human rights was shocking to behold.
How far should Christians go in the face of this increasing tyranny and Big Brother Statism? I have looked at various options we might consider including civil disobedience. And I have written before about whether there can be such things as just revolutions: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/11/is-revolution-ever-justified-part-one/
But let me finish with just one individual who argued for tyrannicide, the English Bishop John of Salisbury (1115-1180). He wrote the Policraticus (or the Statesman’s Book) in 1159, which was the bestselling volume of the twelfth century.
As George Sabine put it in his A History of Political Theory: “This book has the great interest of being at once the first attempt in the Middle Ages at an extended and systematic treatment of political philosophy and … his book had the doubtful honor of presenting the first explicit defense of tyrannicide in medieval political literature. ‘He who usurps the sword is worthy to die by the sword’.”
Gerry Bowler in his 2018 book on Tudor Protestants and resistance to tyranny says this:
Though a strong papalist, John believed that the office of a king was a high and onerous one, instituted by God to repress evil and maintain divine law. In this role he was to be guided by the Church who, after all, knew God’s law best – the metaphor John used was that of the human body where the king was represented by the head and the clergy by the soul. Should the king ignore his clerical guides and transgress against the divine law, he would cross the line into tyranny. Prayer was one remedy for tyranny, but John also prescribed another, more drastic one: tyrannicide, the killing of an unjust ruler by a private citizen. Using classical examples such as the assassination of Julius Caesar and biblical examples such as the slayings of Eglon and Sisera, he concluded that it was an honourble thing to kill tyrants when there was no other way to curb them.
Lastly some comments by David Kopel from his vital volume, The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action: The Judeo-Christian Tradition (Praeger, 2017):
John explained that a good Christian should not be expected to obey the law or a superior’s order in all circumstances, for “Some things are…so detestable that no command will possibly justify them or render them permissible.” For example, a military commander might order soldiers to deny the existence of God or to commit adultery. Similarly, if a prince “resists and opposes the divine commandments, and wishes to make me share in his war against God, then with unrestrained voice I must answer back that God must be preferred before any man on earth.”
And again: “Policraticus broke away from the old Two Swords debate about whether monarchs or the church were supreme. Instead, Policraticus turned the discussion to the rights and duties of government and to people’s remedies when the government exceeded its rightful powers or failed to perform its duties.”
Later Christian thinkers would also consider the role of things like tyrannicide as a last resort against evil and unjust rulers. And of course, as with just war theory, seeking to determine when something is a last resort, and who should be subject to such physical resistance, are difficult questions to fully and properly determine. But they are part of the development of political and ethical theory over the centuries.
But the issue of how to deal with a cruel and oppressive ruler is certainly an ongoing concern. It is something that not just military leaders contemplate and discuss, but ethicists, theologians, philosophers and others also think long and hard about. Consider just one recent case of this: the death of Libyan strongman Gaddafi. I spoke about it at the time in this two part article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/10/21/gaddafi-evil-and-our-response-part-one/
In that situation we saw both just war tradition and the possibility of a just revolution brought together. Should citizens work to depose a wicked ruler, and should international actions be undertaken to help achieve such a result? Plenty of questions arise here. They are well worth thinking about.
I must repeat myself: I am not here calling for tyrannicide. I am simply looking at how past thinkers – many of them Christians – have discussed such matters. So please, do not report me to the authorities – I am not calling for a Biden or a Trudeau or a Morrison to be sent to the guillotine!