Friday, November 06, 2015

Render to Caesar

The Bible contains some classic passages on civil obedience (Mt 22:21; Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-25). Conversely, the Bible contains some classic passages on civil disobedience (Exod 1:15-22; Acts 5:29). Likewise, the Book of Revelation is politically seditious. 

That raises the question where to draw the line. One answer I've heard is that civil disobedience is justified when the state commands us to do what God forbids or forbids us to do what God commands. But although that's a good answer, those are very narrow grounds for civil disobedience. Are those the limits of permissible disobedience?

Mt 22:21 offers no concrete guidance. Beyond the issue at hand, it doesn't list our duties to Caesar in contrast to our duties to God. In that respect it's an empty norm.

Moreover, this may well be a trick answer to a trick question. Jesus' enemies try to box him into a dilemma, but he traps them in their own ruse. 

Rom 13 is framed in ethical categories of justice and moral wrongdoing. As such, it doesn't address civic duties in reference to laws and regulations that fall outside that purview. I will mention a few examples:

i) Many years ago I went into a cutlery shop and asked about switchblades. The owner told me they were illegal. 

I suppose that goes back to the 50s (or so), when switchblades were the weapon of choice for gangbangers; likewise, they were used in knifefights at inner city schools. Of course, the law is dumb, since that law has no deterrent effect on the criminal class. 

ii) I had relatives who used to own a view property. Had a commanding, scenic view of a lake. But trees on the property were beginning to encroach on the view. Problem is, fanatical environmentalists made it illegal for homeowners to cut down trees on their property. Yet much of the resale value of the property lay in the fact that it was a view property, which was threatened by the growing trees. My relative considered poisoning the trees. 

iii) Pundit David French has proudly admitted that he defied trash sorting regulations where he used to live.

Are Christians obligated to submit to every law and regulation unless it conflicts with moral and religious duties? I doubt it. The Bible is not an encyclopedia. It doesn't give detailed answers to every conceivable question. In this case, the Bible sets certain outer boundaries on the limits of civil obedience, but it doesn't say how far in those extend. Where Scripture is silent, we must fall back on reason. General principles. 

The question is whether the state has the right to micromanage the details of our lives. Is that the proper role of the state? This can eat up a lot of our time. Does the state have that totalitarian claim on our time? Likewise, it erodes personal responsibility. Life becomes increasingly constricted as we must navigate a minefield of petty, intrusive, onerous laws and regulations. Moreover, it's becoming impossible not to break some arbitrary law, given the unabridged scope of the regulatory state.

I doubt that Christians have a moral or religious obligation to submit to every law and regulation, even if those don't conflict with our moral and religious duties. Of course, civil disobedience carries a risk. So you need to take that into account. But it's important to resist the suffocating restrictions of the regulatory state. Allowed to go unchecked, that will become totalitarian. 

The state exists for the benefit of the public; the public doesn't exist for the benefit of the state. Our purpose in life is not to be wind-up toy soldiers for bureaucrats. For the most part, adults are entitled to decide what to do with their lives–with their time, means, and opportunities. We are creatures of God, not creatures of government. Servants of God, not chattel of the state. 


  1. Many expositors of Romans 13 assume that compliance to every government demand (that does not require us to violate God's law) is required, and that non-compliance is therefore sinful. But I suspect few of them would hesitate to drive 66 mph or more when the posted limit is 65.

    Even law enforcement doesn't enforce the speed laws to the letter, normally. There is sort of a tacit agreement that speed laws are anachronistic, silly, and burdensome. When they do enforce speed laws, much of the time they are simply operating as revenue collectors for the state. They are the modern equivalent of the 1st century tax collectors of Jesus' day. They earn their salary by meeting unspoken quotas, hiding behind the cloak of the letter of the law. Plus it's much easier to pull over the middle-aged lady in a Camry for a citation rather than engage in the difficult work of stopping real crime perpetrated by dangerous drug-addled thugs.

  2. Steve, would you care to comment on the ethics of smuggling (vs human trafficking)? ISTM the State creates make-work by imposing confiscatory taxes and duties, encouraging smuggling which inturn encourages the state to increase its vigilance etc; smuggling both resists tyranny and calls down more. How should a Christian regard the enterprise?

    1. One distinction is the difference between smuggling and turning a blind eye to those who do.

    2. I'm all for that, but what about buying smuggled goods from the source?

    3. I don't think that's intrinsically wrong. Take a needed drug that the FDA refuses to approve (due to red tape). If you or a loved one needs the drug to survive, a black market source is morally permissible.

    4. Kirk Skeptic

      "I'm all for that, but what about buying smuggled goods from the source?"

      I'm afraid to report that over the last year or so I've been sorely disappointed over the smuggled goods I've purchased from "the source." (Ahem, *wink* *wink* *nod* *nod* - I won't mention his name but I know precisely the person to whom you're referring.)

      I mean, sure, "the source" has had a fairly decent track record over the years of catering smuggled goods to my mad scientist operation. If we're talking several years back, or maybe even a couple of years ago, then I'd definitely rate "the source" at least a 4 but likely even 5 stars out of 5. No question.

      However, ever since the IPO launch, things just haven't been quite the same. For one thing, I feel as if "the source" has become too commercialized now. He's lost the ma and pa shop feel. It's not the same beloved family friendly outfit I once knew.

      For example, "the source" used to have my uranium-235 as well as plutonium-241 hand delivered to me in lovely little hand-crafted heavy metallic storage containers, which in turn were even shaped to look like their own miniaturized nuclear reactor units, complete with control rods and cute external digital displays that would flash funny stuff like "Critical mass has been reached" or "Supernova or bust"! But now I'd be lucky to get such quality service and packaging. Let alone if the entire amalgamation didn't experience a catastrophic meltdown before it arrived in my barriered underground supervillain lair.

      On another occasion, I ordered a wormhole portal gun from "the source." I knew something was wrong the second I fired it up. The tachyon particle levels instantly skyrocketed to above what I'd normally expect to see, the anti-gravity machine went on the fritz, and causality reversed direction. But it was when Stephen Hawking walked through the wormhole with Schrodinger's cat on a leash that I had had enough. After all, this isn't rocket science 101! I'm familiar enough to know there is no parallel universe in the multiverse in which Hawking can walk! So I put Hawking, the cat, and the wormhole portal gun in a big enough box along with a small flask of hydrocyanic acid, and returned to sender, posthaste.

      Anyway, 1/5 I'll not use "the source" for my smuggled goods ever again. I'm going to go with Han Solo instead.