The Wrath of God in Romans 12-13

In Romans 12:12-21, we find echoes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Romans 13:1-4, we find Paul endorsing the use of lethal force by the state to maintain justice and order, echoing the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 72). How can Paul commend Christian non-violence in one breath and endorse state violence in the next? The tension we find in Romans 12-13 is quite significant for Christians living in participatory democracies in which believers have a voice and a civic role to play.

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The chapter divisions we find in the Bible did not originate with the authors. As we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, the fact that we move from chapter 12 to chapter 13 sometimes hides a remarkable juxtaposition for modern readers.

In Romans 12:12-21, we find echoes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Romans 13:1-4, we find Paul endorsing the use of lethal force by the state to maintain justice and order, echoing the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 72). How can Paul commend Christian non-violence in one breath and endorse state violence in the next? The tension we find in Romans 12-13 is quite significant for Christians living in participatory democracies in which believers have a voice and a civic role to play.

In Romans 12:12-21, we read:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)

In Romans 13:1-4, Paul says:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1-4)

Bless those who persecute you. Repay no one evil for evil. Never avenge yourselves. If your enemy is hungry give him something to eat; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. This sounds very much like Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, I think.

A close reading of Romans 12 reveals that Paul qualifies his instructions, somewhat. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with peaceably with all.” Still, the contrast with what follows is remarkable.

Why does Romans 13 follow Romans 12? How are these two passages related. The key to their connection is the word “wrath” (orge). In Romans 12:19, Paul tells the Christian community to “leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” In Romans 13:4, Paul says that the magistrate is “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

When Paul tells Christians to “leave it to the wrath of God,” it is the state (at least in part) which executes that wrath. In other words, Paul’s directions to the Christian community assumes that the state will provide them protection. Christians don’t defend themselves; the state (as God’s agent) does. Of course in Paul’s case, his state ultimately persecuted Christians. Systematic, world-wide persecution of the Church by Rome didn’t really get cranked up until the 3d century CE and came to a peak just before Constantine’s reign. It’s no wonder that most of the 4th century church thought God sent Constantine to save them. In Paul’s own day, however, Christians had more to fear from unruly mobs and unfriendly neighbors as they did from the Roman government. That’s why Paul dialed 911 when he got in a jam in Jerusalem (Acts 21-23).

The fact that states don’t always fulfill God’s intention for them (and never perfectly fulfill it), does not change that intention. God intends states to protect the innocent with the force of its power. But this raises a problem for Christians living today. Paul and the early Christians lived in a world in which the church and the government were completely separate. I don’t mean that in the modern sense of “separation of church and state.” I simply mean that the church was a tiny minority in a great sea of paganism. For the most part, Christians did not participate in making government decisions or in performing government functions. For early Christians, the government was “somebody else.”

Eventually, that would change. Now, for those of us living in participatory democracies, the government is us. We have a voice in our government. Some of us work directly within the of government and many more of us work in institutions that have a great influence on our society.

As we read Romans 12-13, how do we maintain God’s mandate to kings and rulers to enforce justice while at the same time fulfilling Christ’s command to love even our enemies. I don’t believe the answer is found in leaving the institutions of this world to unbelievers. Renouncing responsibility for others is hardly a Christian virtue.

Augustine (“two cities’) and Luther (“two realms”) offer suggestions on how to think of about these dual mandates. While their thoughts are helpful, I’m not entirely satisfied with their reasoning (at least as I understand it).

For the time being, I’m content to live with the tension. It is really, I think, a tension between living with one foot in this present age and one foot in the age to come.