On the Force of Law

… for he does not bear the sword in vain … Romans 13:4

Have you ever noticed that the root of the verb “enforce” – as used in the phrase “enforce the law” – is “force”?

Law depends on the use or threat of force. All law is coercive. A law is not a suggestion or a recommendation. If you park illegally, you are fined. If you do not pay the fine, your property is confiscated or you are imprisoned. If you resist the confiscation of your property or resist your captors, the agents of the state will use whatever force is necessary to defend themselves and impose the will of the state. Even small crimes can escalate into lethal confrontations if the perpetrators will not submit.

All government agencies are dependent upon the law for their existence. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education are just as dependent on the rule of law as the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice. They enforce the nation’s will expressed in law. The law creates them and guides their actions.

How, then, do those who champion Sermon-on-the-Mount style non-resistance as the invariable rule for political life then turn around and advocate for the passage of certain laws? Whatever good that you want the law to accomplish will require the state’s enforcement. Whether it’s feeding the poor or healing the sick or educating the children, when there’s law involved, there’s force. How can you ask the state to enforce your will and then turn around and denounce the use of force?

If Christ absolutely forbids the use of force by anyone in any circumstances, then I don’t see how Christians can participate in governing their homelands – serving in any branch of government that makes, enforces or interprets any law – voting in any election – or even telling the government what it ought to do. Government and law are two sides of one coin.

Perhaps some Christians are blind to the coercive nature of law. Perhaps others differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable levels of force, although I don’t know how they do so based on a literal understanding of Christ’s words. “Offer him the other cheek” forbids even raising my hand to block the blow of an assailant. What kinds of force do a direct, literal reading of the red-letter portions of the gospels permit?

I understand that Jesus’ teachings call Christians and the church to exhibit Christ-like sacrificial love in their dealings with others. I believe that the kinds of actions that Jesus commends are living parables of God’s love toward us. If, however, Christ intends for us to extend that rule in literal, absolutist fashion to our civic lives, I do not understand how we can possibly have ANY role in the governing of our communities. The rule of law ultimately requires imposing the community’s will on others – at the point of a weapon if necessary.

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