CHRISTIAN ANARCHY AND CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
Although the authorities in this book were chosen for what they could tell us about Christian Anarchy, they have gone regularly to the Scriptures that address the issue of tax payment. We have collected a number of expert opinions but will now turn to a biblical-theological analysis of our own. From this biblical base, then, we can broaden the focus to a consideration of civil disobedience in general--of which, clearly, tax-withholding is but one (though perhaps the prototypical) example.
Now, at each point where Scripture advises against the withholding of taxes it includes a rationale to back up the advisory. That rationale is different in each case. It is most important for us to understand how each ties in directly to the concept of Christian Anarchy.
We have seen that, in Mark 12, the argument is that Caesar's image on the coin is proof enough that the stuff is his; that it came from him; that, in essence, it is nothing we even should want or value, being the godless mammon of the Evil One. Caesar's "money" was never anything that either did belong or even should have belonged to us--and God denies that it was ever anything of his, either. When Jesus says to give to God what belongs to God, he obviously is exempting the mammonish coinage which he already has specified belonging to the caesar who created it.
Our care and concern, then, dare not focus on this arky power-struggle over who gets to say how the filthy tax lucre is to be spent. How Caesar spends his money is his responsibility. There is no suggestion that God has appointed us Christians to try to take over as Caesar's comptroller--although, admittedly, Scripture never speaks about what responsibilities we may have as citizens of a democracy. (I would suggest as a rule of thumb that civic responsibility is a proper obligation only insofar as it does not threaten our prime responsibility of giving God what belongs to God.)
In any case, Jesus makes it plain that the arky involvement of fighting Caesar over money can only be a distraction from that prime responsibility. The battle of the arkys--whether it be the "good ones" or the "bad ones" who seem to be carrying the day--has absolutely nothing to do with the coming of the kingdom of God and his redemption of the world. So, Jesus tells us, rather than fighting him for it, let Caesar take his cut--so that you can continue to ignore him. The stance can be described as nothing but "unarkycal."
We will need to give more detailed attention to Romans 13--in that I have come to realize how firmly we are in the grip of the passage's traditional "legitimizing" interpretation. The support for this reading falls into a most interesting alignment. Of course, the Christian Right (along with conservative evangelicalism in general) welcomes this theological view of Romans 13 as confirmation of its own politically conservative commitment to political establishment as being God's chosen means for governing the world.
Yet curiously enough, the Christian Left also accepts, if not welcomes, the legitimizing interpretation--although under an entirely different rationale and for a totally different purpose. In some cases the argument runs: Mark 12 shows Jesus to be strongly illegitimizing of Caesar. Romans 13 has Paul coming out just the other way. In this showdown, Jesus obviously should take precedence over Paul; therefore, we aren't obligated to give particular weight to Paul's counsel about paying taxes and honoring the authorities. Alternatively, the argument runs: Yes, Paul does legitimize established government; yet certainly he must intend this regarding only "good" governments. Accordingly, his counsel about paying taxes must apply only to governments worthy of our tax dollars; when he says to pay taxes to those to whom they "are due," he must mean to those who, in our opinion, are morally deserving. Thus, it would follow that Paul had in mind paying them only to the "good" Roman Empire of his day and not the "Evil Empire" of ours.
As a way out of the political sophistries of both the Right and the Left, I propose an anarchical reading of Romans 13 that has Paul illegitimizing the political world as a whole--and thus entirely bypassing the dispute about his legitimizing anything, whether of the Left or the Right, whether judged to be politically good, bad, or indifferent. If I may, I will call mine: "A Reading of Romans 13 the Under the Premise that Its Author Was a Student of the Old Testament." (I disdain to argue this premise, because anyone undertaking to challenge it is manifestly belated, bewildered, and benighted.)
- If we respect Paul's context by examining the total passage of Romans 12:14-13:8, it is plain that his purpose in introducing governing authorities" is in no sense to argue their "legitimacy." His main topic is the Christian obligation to love any person whatever and live peaceably with all. Check it out; he opens this inning by placing his hit: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them" (Rom. 12:14). He extends that run to second base (13:1), at which point he introduces his "governing authorities" illustration. This he closes off neatly at third (13:7). He then proceeds to make his home-plate score by ending up where he started: "Owe no one anything except to love one another" (13:8). Pretty slick, I would say.
The "governing authorities," then, are brought in as Paul's example of those to whom it will be most difficult to make the obligation apply--but whom God nevertheless commands us to love, even when our natural propensity most strongly urges us to resist, and fight them. As he elsewhere states the offense even more pointedly, "Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?"--which, of course, is not the easiest thing in the world for human beings to do.
Thus--just as with Jesus' praying, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," and his teaching about "turning the other cheek," "going the second mile," and the like--Paul is using the governing authorities as a test case of our loving the enemy--when doing so is repugnant to our innate moral sensibilities (which sensibilities we ought never, never, never equate as being the very will of God; but which we regularly do go on to equate so anyhow). If this "indiscriminating love" reading be correct, then verse 7 (the final word of the "governing authorities" section) ought to agree with Paul's overall love theme.
This it most beautifully does if "pay all of them their dues--taxes, revenue, respect, honor" advises against our withholding any of these items from whatever governing authority claims them as due. If, however, the verse is taken to mean that we are to allow things only to nice governments who are known to be deserving of them--then we have gone from "indiscriminating love" to "highly discriminating love," and Paul has undercut his radically Christian argument merely to mouth the trivial and obvious ("for if you love those who love you, what reward have you?" [Mt. 5:46].)
Yet that absolutist interpretation is made as much as unimpeachable when Paul proceeds to wrap up his entire disquisition on "indiscriminating love" with verse 8. He drops the "governing authorities" illustration and universalizes the principle: "Not just the taxes and honors claimed by the governing authorities, we Christians ought not resist or try to withhold anything justly (or even unjustly) claimed from us. No, the only unpaid claim that dare be found outstanding against us is that we have not given anyone as much love as God would have us give."
- We ought not interpret Paul's Romans-13 words without also considering what he has to say about the Roman Empire elsewhere. Elsewhere, of course, he talks about principalities and powers, rulers of the present darkness, and things of that sort. I don't know that any of these is to be understood in direct reference to Rome; yet there is every reason to believe Paul would include Rome in that passel. And if you want the Old Testament angle, it would he this: As a well-educated rabbi, Paul would be entirely cognizant of the scriptural opinion regarding pagan oppressors of Israel from the slavemasters of Egypt through to the Seleucid tyrants of Syria. I can't imagine anything that would lead him to exempt the current Roman regime from that long-established judgment. This in itself should warn us against a too easily legitimizing reading of Romans 13.
- The history of Paul's own relationship to and knowledge of Rome should also warn us against that reading. In an earlier chapter we already suggested what Paul's previous experience must have taught him. He would have known that Rome's was a pagan domination and military occupation of the Jewish homeland. Under the likelihood that it was as a small child he had come to Jerusalem for rabbinical training (Acts 22:3), Paul would have been fully informed about the growing Jewish restiveness and Rome's cruel, mass deportation-enslavement-crucifixion suppression of the same. Along with the rest of the church, Paul's prime name for Rome would have been "Dealer of Death to the Author of Life" (Acts 3:15). He would have known that, only a few years earlier, the Christians of Rome (to whom he was writing), under the edict of Claudius, had had their congregations broken up and dispersed. Paul himself, of course, could point to a number of instances in which the empire had disrupted his ministry and abused his person. Thus, to read Romans 13 as a legitimizing of that government should be held off as our last possible alternative of interpretation rather than welcomed as our first.
- In the opening line of his "governing authorities" section (13:1a), Paul tells us to "be subject" to them. I found Barth most convincing (in our earlier chapter) that "be subject to" has absolutely no overtones of "recognize the legitimacy of," "own allegiance to," bow down before," or anything of the sort. It is a sheerly neutral and anarchical counsel of "not-doing"--not doing resistance, anger; assault, power play, or anything contrary to the "loving the enemy" which is, of course, Paul's main theme. Then, just as any good writer would do it, Paul's final reference to the authorities (v.7) becomes a simple repetition of his opening one: "Pay all of them their dues" says nothing different from "Be subject to them."
- Romans 13:1b-3 proceeds to speak about government's being "instituted of God." When it is a noted Old Testament scholar who is talking so, I consider the original institution of Israelite monarchy to be our best help in understanding him. In that paradigm (1 Samuel 8), it is made entirely clear, explicit, and axiomatic that the people's demand for worldly government amounts to a rejection of God and his government. (And if even an Israelite monarchy signified a rejection of God, how much more so a Roman one?) But did God therefore conclude: "That being so, Samuel, what you and I need to do is resist that government with everything we have in us. We should work at subverting Saul's government so that, in its collapse, we can convince the people to give up this crazy idea of worldly government and come back to the true government of my direct rule"?
That, surely, would pass as good human logic--and, I think, is the essential logic of today's Christian Left. However, it is not the divine logic. God and Samuel, of course, helped set up the very government they so strongly disapproved. No, the word is, rather: "Samuel, if these knuckleheads insist on having a worldly government--we had better get in there with whatever influence we have left and try to limit the amount of damage such an outfit can do, see whether there is anything at all worthwhile we can manage through it."
God and Samuel accept (and honor) Israel's (bad) decision as accomplished fact and proceed to live with it rather than try to reverse it. God accepts (I didn't say approves) worldly government--with its taxation and conscription and all the rest--as being absolutely necessary once humanity has rejected his government. If you won't have him, you are going to have it (and thus the sheer naivete of a recent proposal from the Christian Left that "now we should challenge worldly government to give up its evil taxation and conscription"). Although Scripture never ever gives an inch on government's essential illegitimacy before God, neither is the possibility ever raised that human piety might be capable of ridding itself of worldly government and returning to him. God never even hints at any move of the sort--and undoubtedly would find such to be just as serious a usurpation of his power as the original move to worldly government was. What God has accepted we would be wise not to try to reject.
So, is Paul correct in saying that the fact that a government exists shows that it has been instituted of God? Yes--if he be read dialectically, as with his Old Testament source. Paul knows that worldly government is an illegitimate usurpation of God's power--knows it as well as God and Samuel did. However, what his well-justified-in-hating-Rome readers need also to know is that God accepted his own rejection as accomplished fact and thus proceeded to accept (yet hardly "legitimate") worldly government as a "given," a human necessity through which he just might be able to prevent some damage and perhaps even gain a bit of good. So Paul is warning his Christians against thinking they can go God one better: if God has shown himself willing to put up with a monstrosity like Rome, your unwillingness to do so turns out to be, not moral heroism, but an arrogant bucking of what God has instituted (instituted by his accepting it, not approving it).
- In verse 4, then, Paul calls these governing authorities "servants of God." Within his dialectical framework, he can do this with the best sort of biblical precedent. In this regard, the prophet Isaiah has Yahweh say the following about the bloodthirsty Assyrian hordes poised to sack Israel:
I have given my warriors their orders and summoned my fighting men to launch my anger; they are eager for my triumph. Hark, a tumult in the mountains, the sound of a vast multitude; hark, the roar of kingdoms, of nations gathering! Yahweh of Hosts is mustering a host of war, men from a far country, from beyond the horizon. It is Yahweh with the weapons of his wrath coming to lay the whole land waste. (Isaiah 13:3-5) The Assyrian! He is the rod that I wield in my anger, and the staff of my wrath is in his hand. I send him against a godless nation, I bid him march against a people who rouse my wrath, To spoil and plunder at will and trample them down like mud in the streets. But this man's [i.e., the Assyrian's] purpose is lawless, lawless are the plans in his mind; for his thought is only to destroy and wipe out nation after nation. When Yahweh has finished all that he means to do on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, he will punish the king of Assyria for this fruit of his pride and for his arrogance and vainglory, because he said: By my own might I have acted and in my own wisdom I have laid my schemes. (Isaiah 10:5-7, 12-13)
Later, with Deutero-Isaiah and the pagan Persian conqueror Cyrus, the dialectic contradiction becomes even more extreme:
Tell me, who raised up that one from the east, one greeted by victory wherever he goes? [or for that matter, the one from the west that Paul knows] Who is it that puts nations into his power and makes kings go down before him? ... whose work is this, i ask, who has brought it to pass? ... It is I, Yahweh. (Isaiah 41:2-4) Thus says Yahweh to his anointed [that's the word "messiah," or "Christ"!] to Cyrus, ... For the sake of Jacob my servant and Israel my chosen I have called you by name< and given you your title, though you have not known me. I alone have roused this man in righteousness, and i will smooth his path before him; he shall rebuild my city and let my exiles go free--not for a price nor a bribe [but simply because I commanded my servant), says Yahweh of Hosts. (Isaiah 45:1, 4, 13)
- The Old Testament parallel holds throughout verses 2-5. About as much as Paul can see as a possible godly use for God's Roman "servants" is that (precisely as with the Assyrian warriors) they are quite adept in punishing bad people. (If this is Paul's "legitimizing" of Rome, it is a most backhanded compliment.) Just as with the Assyrians, the Romans always go overboard on the punishing bit--and God will have to take up that little matter with them, just as he did with the Assyrians. Yet this does not change the fact that God can use Roman punishment in the service of his own justifying of humanity.
Therefore, Christians of Rome, here is what all this means for you:
- You should take care not to be an evildoer whose governmental punishment represents the just anger of God you have brought upon yourself. That God's "servant of punishment" is himself "bad" is no evidence that you are "good" and your punishment therefore undeserved. That the U.S. Government is divinely illegitimate is no evidence at all that its punishment of the Berrigans' "civil disobedience" is wrong and outside the will of God. The expose of Assyrian evil does not amount to an argument for Israelite innocence. Rome does punish many innocent people (and God will hold it accountable for that: "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" [Rom. 12:19]). Yet this does not prohibit Rome from being used "in God's Service" to punish some who really need it for their good.
- Then consider verses 4-5 in particular. Just because you Christians can see that the Roman Empire is obviously godless and wicked, don't draw the simple, human-minded conclusion that it must be God's will for you to resist, contest, and fight it.
You could find yourself resisting the particular use God has in mind for that empire; at the very least, you definitely are trying to take over and do God's work for him, pulling up the tares he told you to leave for his harvesting. When God wants that empire overthrown, he is fully capable of doing it on his own.
And if, in your fighting the empire, you happen to get yourself killed, the fault is not necessarily that of the Evil Empire; it does not automatically follow that yours was a heroic martyr's death in the service of God. It could as likely represent God's righteous anger against those who are just as guilty of wanting to be "lord of history" as the Romans themselves are.
- So, in verses 5-8, Paul asks us again to "be subject"--always loving; never resisting, contesting, trying to impose our own wisdom and will. This is why you pay taxes (better: do not resist their being collected), so as not to have Jesus accuse you (as Paul got himself accused) of "kicking against the goads" (Acts 26:14)--i.e., trying to obstruct God's Roman servants as Paul had been trying to obstruct his Christian ones. Never owe anybody--anybody--anything except love.
No one ever said loving Assyrian warriors was going to be easy; but when you are obeying God by loving instead of resisting them, don't let any holy-joes try to make you feel guilty by telling you that you are actually approving and supporting Assyrian evil. There is not one word in Romans 13, or anywhere else in the New Testament, implying that to "not resist one who is evil" (Matt. 5:39) is tantamount to legitimizing him--this no more than Isaiah's nonresistance legitimized Assyrian militarism, Jeremiah's Babylonian, Deutero-Isaiah's Persian, Paul's Roman, or a modern Christian's American militarism.
Finally, notice that this interpretation of Romans 13 reads as anarchically as all get out. It carefully declines to legitimize either Rome or resistance against Rome. It will give neither recognition nor honor to any political entity whatever--nation, party, ideology, or cause group. There is only one Lord of history--and that is God. He shows no cognizance of our commonly accepted distinction between the holy arkys he supposedly sponsors and the unholy ones he opposes (though this is not to deny that he acknowledges a degree of relative difference between the moral performance of one arky and another). Yet, after the model of the Israelite original, every arky starts out under the sinful illegitimacy of messianic pretension, claiming for itself recognition as world savior and a true lord of history. Nevertheless, though the arkys all be under judgment (as all of us individuals are, too), God will use as servant whatever arky he chooses (when he chooses and how he chooses). He will also punish these servants the same way--even while loving each and every human individual involved the whole time. That's Christian Anarchy.
In Matthew 17, we find a third tax advisory--with a still different (and most powerful) rationale to back it up. In this instance the tax in question is named as "the double drachma." That rather clearly identifies it as the tax dedicated to the operation and upkeep of the Jews' own "temple of the Lord." However, there are three points to note.
- The Matthew author gives no attention at all to the tax's "temple" aspect, not so much as using the word in his argument. Indeed, he was writing for a post-temple, perhaps largely non-Palestinian, non-Jewish audience that would have no more inkling that he was talking about a particular "temple tax" than the rest of us would.
- He wrote this incident into his Gospel after the temple already had been wasted by the Romans. If, at the time Matthew's intended audience read this instructional passage there was in effect a "temple tax," it would have been going to the upkeep of pagan, Roman temples (F. F. Bruce tells us that the temple-tax--for at least some period in some areas--outlasted the temple itself in just this way).
Thus, what is totally incredible is that Matthew might explain: "I wrote this whole passage only to keep the record straight that Jesus, in his day, did himself pay the temple tax--which I am aware doesn't even exist for you folks. So I wasn't meaning to suggest that the incident has anything to say to us. Not at all; precisely because our tax situation is different, we might fairly conclude that he would teach us to withhold some of our taxes."
- Just as with Mark 12 and Romans 13, the Matthew 17 passage obviously is dealing with a general theological-ethical principle. The texts contain not the slightest hint that they are meant as contextualist, particularist case studies. Some argue that these texts teach only that first-century Christians were to pay particular taxes because they were comparatively benign--leaving us free to assume that Jesus would want us to withhold the vicious sort of taxes we face. However, if this method of turning Jesus' and Paul's words completely upside down is obedient "biblical scholarship," it is a much more reprehensible method than the fundamentalists' unscholarly, universally castigated "proof-texting."
In the Matthew-17 passage, the apodictic, completely open and unqualified question is put: "Does not your teacher pay the tax?" The answer is just as unqualified: NOT "Well, that's hard to say. Some he does and some he doesn't--it all depends. You'll have to be more specific." No, quite the contrary, Peter's answer is a totally unambiguous "Yes."
Well, that clear-cut, abrupt, and quite surprising an answer (as though tax payment poses no problem for Christians at all) certainly calls for a bit of explanation and rationale. So Jesus comes on the scene to give it: "What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from others?" And when he said, "From others," Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free."
Follow this thought carefully; it is the best-ever argument for tax-withholding--and straight from the mouth of Jesus. In Romans 13, Paul advises us to "pay taxes to whom taxes are due." The withholders regularly pounce on this phrase to mean "pay taxes only to those regimes you decide are good enough to deserve them"--and we already have argued that this is a misreading. However, the Matthew-17 Jesus cuts through all this relativistic contextualizing about which regime does or does not deserve what--and cuts through it in a word: "You and I, Peter, we have but one ruler, we recognize the claim of but one lord, know only one caesar as deserving anything of us--namely, the Lord God Almighty, our Dear Daddy (Abba). And He doesn't charge his own kids any taxes at all! As his children, Peter, we don't owe any taxes to anybody--least of all that bum Caesar. We are free!"
That Jesus is some anarchist! Revolutionary or establishment; left, right, or center; good, bad, or indifferent--name what arky you will--and Jesus says, "I belong to my Daddy. I am not bound to any arky, owe no allegiance (or anything else) to any of them, want nothing from them, recognize no claim by them, deny that they deserve anything of me. God's children are free!" In this, Jesus was way ahead of the withholders: If (as they would have it) tax payment is to be premised on the moral merit of the government presenting the bill, then they ought not be paying any taxes to anybody. How disobedient to Jesus to be paying taxes where he clearly decrees that they are not deserved--in effect to be denying that we children are indeed free.
What this means, of course, is that when, in his very next sentence, Jesus says that, nevertheless, he and Peter are going to pay the tax, he will be making payment for reasons entirely extraneous to the recognition of any arky, honoring its power, admitting its claim, affirming its rights, acknowledging its merit. Pay his taxes he will; but he is not in any sense legitimizing the arkys and their behavior in the process. Neither is he abrogating his freedom. He pays the tax not because he has to but because he wants to--for reasons that have to do entirely with his relationship to God and not the arkys.
What seems the case with all three tax passages is most clear and apparent in this one from Matthew 17. The argument is dialectical in nature--that is, it operates in the tension between two different ideas, neither of which dare be ignored, even though neither will neatly correlate with the other. Thus dialectical thinking is directly counter to any simplistic moralism in which the difference between right and wrong is as obvious as black and white. But catch the movement of Matthew 17:
- STEP ONE (Yes, he pays): "Does the Master pay the tax?" To which Peter responds with an unequivocal, "He does!" But that can't be the whole truth. Something more just has to be said; things simply are not that quick and easy! Peter's answer creates more of an ethical dilemma than it resolves.
- STEP TWO (No, he doesn't): So Jesus comes on to argue that, actually, he does NOT pay the tax (in the sense of recognizing himself as under obligation to the assessing party--which is what "pay" normally is taken to mean). No, given the essential illegitimacy of each and every caesar, Christians are under no constraint and, in effect, never owe and thus never pay a Caesar anything. The children are free!
- STEP THREE (Caesar gets his money; but Jesus is guilty neither of paying it nor of withholding it): Now Jesus says to Peter: "That we are free means we are free to let Caesar take his coin without it representing any 'paying' of him. We are free to love our enemy and practice what Barth called the 'not-doing' of NOT being angry, NOT assaulting, NOT demolishing, NOT causing offense. Be free then, Peter, to let the man have his tax money--without your being made feel guilty by those who accuse you of collaboration with evil. Be free to 'resist not one who is evil,' knowing that that is the very way of God."
The dialectic is indeed a strange one--the decree of God's judgment against the arkys being guilt worthy of death; and the action of his judgment for the arkys being justification toward life. But, in God's grace, it works. Throughout the biblical history, God never legitimizes Israel's monarchy; yet never does he fight against it or try to revolutionize it, either. He doesn't even make it his business always to be rubbing that arky's nose in its own illegitimacy, forever asserting his holiness in contrast to its unholiness. No, his is the wonderful patience and love of NOT being angry, NOT assaulting, NOT demolishing, NOT causing offense.
Consequently, this one must be seen to be believed! Doing things his way, God was able to use that God-rejecting, illegitimate arky of David to produce for us the one true son of David, the one legitimate King who (in his way, not ours; in his time, not ours) will take away all necessity for arky-government with all its taxation, conscription, and what all. Hallelujah! There's gonna be a great day.
The "strange work" of God's NO always is in the service of the "proper work" of his YES. Yet whenever we humans try to evade or deny that NO in our effort to go directly to the YES, the inevitable result is the blocking-out of the YES itself.
Whether, then, in the large with this overall dialectic or in the small with Matthew 17, we come out at the same place. We dare never be guilty of legitimizing the arkys God has illegitimized; neither dare we ever be guilty of resisting the arkys (the same arkys) God lovingly is trying to help. So no more than Jesus will pay taxes (in violation of Pole Negative), no more will he withhold them (in violation of Pole Positive). He is careful not to cause offense against God in the first instance--and not to cause offense against the arkys in the second.
We are still talking about Matthew 17 and why Jesus would have us pay taxes even to governments that manifestly do not deserve them. In Mark 12, the stated reason was "Let Caesar have his coin so he will get off your back and leave you alone to be giving to God all that belongs to him." In Romans 13, it was "Let Caesar have his coin so that you won't be drawn into the disobedience of failing to love him." Now, in Matthew 17, it is "Let Caesar have his coin so as not to be guilty of causing 'offense.'"
That's a funny one. Who is this Jesus who can tell us not to cause offense (thirteen times in seven different books of the New Testament such wording is found) when much more frequently the scriptural word "offense" is used to report the offense he himself causes--to the point that both Romans and 1 Peter name him as "the Rock of Offense"? Scripture must have in mind two different sorts of "offense," and I think the concept of Christian Anarchy can help us sort them out.
Our frame of reference will be this: CHRISTIAN TAX PAYMENT (by which we intend an allowing of Caesar to take his taxes--although doing that as a free action which in no way grants legitimacy to his claims) is the model of all the offense-causing actions of Jesus. Such payment is an entirely theological and anarchical action. It is theological in that it is purposed totally as obedience to God, having only him in view and nothing or no one else. Conversely, it is anarchical in its total disregard of the arkys. The action has no intention that relates to them. If they happen to be there and become offended at what Jesus does, that's their business. It was never any part of his purpose to get them offended. He had absolutely nothing in mind except to obey God.
CHRISTIAN TAX WITHHOLDING, on the other hand, is an entirely political and arky-faith action. It is political in that, without reference to any particular difference the presence of God makes, it would use offense as a tactic for influencing events within the public sphere of human possibility and probability. It is of arky faith in that it is a good-arky action directed specifically against the bad arkys in the confidence that they can be powered into improvement. The "offense," now, is deliberate and desired--is seen as the very means for achieving political gain.
Notice, then, an interesting asymmetry that is significant regarding the difference between these two ways of offense-causing. Even though, in Mark 12, Jesus winds up paying the tax (or at least recommending that it be given to Caesar), and although he is not trying to offend anyone, he does manage to offend every arky around, the Establishment on the right just as much as the Revolution on the left. And of course, all parties--including the disciple community itself--in one way or another became offended to the point of finally colluding in his crucifixion. Jesus' is an entirely accidental (he was not trying to offend anyone) yet entirely universal offensiveness. The arkys en bloc are offended that he gives all his attention to God and none to them--in fact, refuses to acknowledge them as even being "of God" (as each knows good and well it is). And the moral significance of the arkys' offendedness is this: it is a confirmation of Jesus' truth and a judgment of their wrongness in being offended by him. The judgment of the arky is that He came to the world and the world knew him not--choosing rather to be offended.
On the other side, the offense-causing of tax withholding is structured quite differently. In the first place, it is deliberate rather than accidental, a strategy designed precisely to get a bad arky offended. Secondly, it is strictly unilateral rather than universal in its effect. The idea is that the action be applauded by one's own and all other holy arkys and be offensive only to the bad ones. The offense-causing is actually a weapon (an instrument of force) in arky warfare. Yet apparently the conviction is that the moral significance is still of a kind with those offended by Jesus--i.e., the bad arky is self-condemned by its taking offense at the truth of the good arky.
Given, then, these two utterly different varieties of offense-causing, it should be plain that, when Jesus told Peter to pay the tax so as "not to give offense to them," it was nothing of his concern that the arkys be protected from becoming offended. They are going to be offended soon enough--and there is nothing at all wrong with that happening. Rather, Jesus is counseling Peter to remain "anarchical" and not enter the arky struggle that uses offense-causing as an instrument for establishing the righteousness of one's own arky and bringing judgment upon the opponent's. This distinction between, on the one hand, the offense-causing that must happen whenever God's truth encounters the arkys and, on the other, the offense-causing sought out by one arky to be used against another--this seems to be the key for making sense of all Scripture's "offense" talk. "For what credit is it, if when you do wrong [i.e., set out to cause offense] and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right [i.e., show no desire to offend anyone] and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval" (1 Pet. 2:20).
Although we are continuing our argument, it is at this point we need to open out the topic from "tax-withholding" to "civil disobedience in general" (the former being simply a particular case of the latter). By "civil disobedience" I now have in mind any deliberately illegal action (the breaking of a law) done in the service of the witness and protest the Christian feels called to make against a particular evil of the state or society. In due course, we will discover that there are other forms of Christian lawbreaking that do not fall under this definition; but, for now, our concern is solely with "civil disobedience" so defined.
"Witness and protest" constitutes the operative term here. The two words are not quite synonymous but are so closely related that we will always want both in saying what needs to be said. "Protest" (even though the etymology of the word signifies "testify-for") normally identifies the complaint against the perceived evil--while "witness" is the more positive affirmation of the good alternative being proposed. In itself of course, the action of disobedience inevitably communicates more of protest than of witness--though even here, there has to be some verbal, cognitive accompaniment if observers are to have any knowledge of what is being protested. Thus, when we find a sidewalk blocked with angry bodies, we can conclude that a protest is going on. Yet no real protest or witness is taking place until someone, somehow, tells us what it's all about. In any case, "witness" and "protest" are so closely related in "civil disobedience" that we ought not speak of either without thinking of both.
Let us proceed, then, to analyze and explore "political offense-causing" (civil disobedience)--particularly when that is used as a means of Christian social witness and protest. What is its economy? What is it meant to accomplish? What is its moral significance and effectiveness?
Would it be correct to say that the goal of Christian social witness and protest is "to force people to face up to the truth about themselves in the hope they will repent and change their ways"? Let's use that as our talking point--although a stricter wording would have it stated: "to force supporters of a particular arky [say, "peace through nuclear strength"] to face up to the evil of that arky and so repent and change their ways [to those of the arkys of disarmament, nuclear freeze, or whatever]." Is that a fair enough statement of the matter?
Let us postpone for a bit our consideration of the phrase "force people to face up to the truth" and for now have it read "present to people the truth." Clearly, ahead of our witness and protest's "forcefulness and compellingness," the top priority is that its content be "of the truth." And if it is indeed "of the truth," the witness and protest should concentrate upon presenting that truth so as to be as clear, reasoned, and intellectually convincing as possible. "Persuasion" is the goal of any true witness and protest. And for the presentation of persuasive content, the best media, I suggest, are those that allow room for much information, full exposition, and extended argument. Thus, the best sort of witness and protest will take the forms of informal conversation, formal discussion, phone calls, letters, letters-to-the-editor, articles, pamphlets, speeches, sermons, books, films--whatever is most appropriate to "thoughtful content." If our content is "the truth" (which we ought never simply take for granted, just because it is "ours"), and if our target-audience does truly become offended over that content, then that offendedness fairly may be taken as a judgment against those who heard the truth and rejected it.
But what do you do when, even if your audience is offended, it fails to convert? This is the hard one. I propose that the only thing to do is to admit you do not yet have the votes and (hardest of all) admit that, even when you know for a certainty that what the voters are doing is bad or wrong, it still is right that the majority rule. If the national majority of this country (i.e., majorities in the citizenry, legislature, and administration) feel that increased defense expenditure is what is needed, then--hard as it is to agree--that is what ought to happen. Undoubtedly (undoubtedly?) we would be better off if (say) the board and staff of the National Council of Churches were to take over and run things in their Christian wisdom--yet it would be bad or wrong for that gang (or any other communion of the saints) to take office against the will of the majority. No matter how frustrated they may be at having their truth rejected, Christians dare never pursue their political objectives by trying to subvert or bypass the democratic process. Obviously, that process is in no way infallible--but anything else is worse. Or, as Barth put it, "The acknowledged shortcomings of democracy are not improved by its abolition."
No, "persuasion" is the only power truth has, the only power consonant with it. So if persuasion isn't working, there is no alternative but to go on being persuasive--there is nothing else to do. (It is at this point, by the way, where it is most helpful to have a faith that God is the ruler yet, that it is the Father's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Then we can know that the salvation of the world, the triumph of right, doesn't hinge upon our persuasiveness in any case.)
We have proposed what should happen when our best efforts at rational persuasion fail to win the votes; but what does regularly happen at that point? Well, particularly if we are convinced that it is only the truth of our witness and protest that stands between the world's life and its nuclear death, then we have real trouble accepting that there is nothing to do but keep on being rationally persuasive until, if and when, we might possibly win the vote. There may not even be enough time for that. We find it morally unthinkable to stand powerlessly by and watch evil take its course. We have to try something that might work.
The most common move at this point is to try to strengthen our witness and protest by turning up its volume. As we move from rational persuasion into anger, stridency, accusation, denunciation, abusive language, what Ellul called "dramatization," propaganda, demand, placard (I consider it manifestly impossible to get a persuasive argument about anything into a five-word slogan), demonstration--whatever lies outside "speaking the truth in love"--any and all of this is what I mean by "turning up the volume."
This brings us back to our earlier phrase, "forcing people to the truth about themselves." Rational persuasion," of course, does not come under that head, in that it is always careful of--even protective of--the opponent's right to disagree and not change his mind until he freely chooses to do so. It could be argued that a certain "forcing of people to face the truth" is the prerogative of God, Christ, and those prophets who have been licensed to use the phrase, "thus says the Lord." But I have grave doubts whether Scripture ever suggests that any Christian body has the moral authority to force people to face up to what we take to be the truth--or to make "thus say we" the equivalent of "thus says the Lord." Our "truth"--particularly our political counsel--dare never be authoritarianly forced upon people but always tentatively advanced ("This what seems right to us in the situation, though we could be wrong").
Notice that "turning up the volume" does not in any way serve the content of our Christian witness and protest. The chances of that content being right and true are maximized at the stage of "rational persuasion," where the emphasis is upon thought and dialogue. Making the witness and protest "loud" only makes it the more difficult to hear, sort out, and think through.
Neither does turning up the volume serve the interests of the persuasiveness of our witness and protest. Getting loud marks an effort to overpower the hearer, not persuade him. And the world has every right to tell us, "I'm not going to listen to you until you stop screaming." "For the anger of man [or even his righteous indignation] does not work the righteousness of God" (James 1.20).
Why, then, this turning up of the volume? What purpose of Christian witness and protest does it serve? The answer is "offense-causing." It irritates people. Causing offense is one of the most effective ways of getting attention, of goading a bad arky into making some response. And, as already noted, we take a bad arky's becoming offended as an indication of its refusal to face the truth about itself and thus as a judgment upon its wrongness.
The problem with this answer, of course, is that the offense caused by turning up the volume does not call attention to the truth content of the witness and protest but to the offensive behavior of the witness-protester. The persuasive content of the witness and protest has been completely drowned out by the noise of the behavior and so is no longer even a factor. And if the issue is now the offensive behavior of the witness-protester, then the bad arky's offendedness is not a moral judgment against the arky but against the witness protester. "For what credit is it, if when you do wrong [deliberately set out to offend someone] and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But when you do right [make a Christian witness and protest by speaking the truth in love] and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval" (1 Pet. 2:20, again).
With this we come to the high end of the volume control, namely, the making of one's Christian witness and protest through the vehicle of "civil disobedience"--"illegal activity," "a deliberate breaking of the law," or whatever. Questions about the Christian economy of civil disobedience have puzzled me for a long time: What is the aspect of illegality supposed to add to Christian witness and protest? Why is it assumed that one's witness and protest is truer and more Christianly faithful for including illegality? What is it about illegality that presumably makes the witness and protest more effective? The only answers I can find have to do with offense-causing.
I have been particularly puzzled about this move into law-breaking upon realizing that, in almost every case, the law that is actually broken is an innocent one which all parties would agree is perfectly just and which no one could claim reasons of conscience for violating. The peace movement's tax resisters are not questioning the state's right to legislate and collect an income tax. What they are protesting is the use to which a great deal of that money is put--regarding which, obviously, the IRS carries no responsibility or influence at all. Actually, the quarrel is not with any "law" (unless it be that of majority rule) but with the mind of Congress, the Administration, and ultimately the civil majority of the nation as a whole. Yet the lawbreaking and the witness and protest are lodged with an agency that isn't even in that line of command.
Similarly, of course, the justice of the law against breaking and entering is not what is being challenged by those who invade draft offices; or the law against trespassing or obstructing traffic or blocking access to a place of business by those whose demonstrations make them guilty of such infringements. The law that is broken has nothing to do with the issue being contended--nor does the breaking of that law have any bearing on the truth or falsehood of the witness and protest that supposedly is being made. What, possibly, could be the end and goal of such action except being offensive for the sake of causing offense?
And let's look for a moment at the why and wherefore of the offendedness that comes in response to civil disobedience. Our democratic process does include the rule that the majority shall call the shots--yet this is not its only rule. Along with it goes the rule that, before the vote (and for that matter, after the vote, in preparation for the next one) anybody, no matter what the cause he finds important, shall be given every opportunity to get his witness and protest heard and his hearers rationally persuaded. "Libel" and "the fomenting of armed rebellion" may be the only limits. Perhaps no nation in history has done better at this freedom of expression, of dissent--at giving a hearing to every possible point of view, at making the media and all levels of government accessible to the citizens and their various opinions. Neither the Christian peace movement nor any other cause-group can complain that it has been denied the opportunity of exercising its witness and protest to win whatever voters it can persuade.
Yet, within this freedom, there is a limit set by our social contract, a gentleman's agreement if you will: "I agree to exercise my witness and protest within these bounds and restrain myself from going further, if you will agree to do the same." In the present case, "these bounds" is the understanding that illegal activity shall not be used as a means of amplifying one's witness and protest. And, I contend, the essential offendedness that meets any exercise of civil disobedience (whether the content be good, bad, or indifferent) is: "No fair! You are claiming for your witness and protest a special privilege which we would never think to use in pursuit of our own political objectives. Why, if we were to grant the legitimacy of civil disobedience to every witness and protest that thinks itself important, lawbreaking would become the order of the day and our whole democratic society fall apart. And for sure, we aren't about to grant you exemption on the grounds that your witness and protest is Christian."
It is as if, during a convention debate, with delegates lined up at a mike awaiting their turns to speak, some guy were to come barging in to take the floor with the excuse, "But what I have to say is important. I will be speaking the Christian truth--not playing around with trivialities like you jackasses." You think that might not result in a bit of offendedness? It was this fellow's deliberate strategy to break the law of "wait your turn" in order to get special attention for his witness and protest. How different is that from grabbing the P.A. system ("public address system," recall) of civil disobedience out of the conviction that my pet cause is so important that the rules of fair play can be suspended?
If this is not the rationale that legitimates Christian civil disobedience, what rationale does? The suggestion that, within our democratic tradition, civil disobedience is an honored means of doing politics is indefensible. In that case, is the name of the game now to be "Grab the Mike Free-for-All"? Who has the privilege of taking over the microphone and who not?
I read the newspaper account of a Quaker lady who said that she had tried writing to government officials and doing everything she could think of in the way of a peace testimony--but, because nobody had listened to her, she was now ready to move to the civil disobedience of tax-withholding (as though the failure of other people to accept her truth somehow justified her recourse to questionable methods). I don't think she quite understands the democratic process. She is, of course, guaranteed the right freely to make her witness and protest--which right she had freely exercised. Yet nowhere was it ever guaranteed her that, because she knows her witness and protest to be true, other people (and the government as a whole) are under obligation to agree with her. There had been a fair vote, and her side lost. She is guaranteed only the right to go out again and win whatever votes she can for the next round.
Neither in the Bible, in the Constitution, nor anywhere else do I find the rule that, just because a team knows itself to be "the best" and yet is losing the ballgame, it has the right to ignore the regulations and resort to unfair tactics--simply to ensure the triumph of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The offendedness with which civil disobedience invariably is met would seem to be wholly justified--and without implying anything one way or another about the moral status of those who became offended.
Granted, the evil arky of government (Congress, Administration, and public majority) is very good at simply ignoring any minority witness and protest with which it happens to disagree. Yet, like it or not, that is its democratic right. I suppose legislators and administrators--and perhaps even the populace--have some obligation to read the letters and listen to the speeches of the peace people (particularly if those be respectfully addressed); but they are under no obligation to agree with them.
Granted, too, an act of civil disobedience can often serve as a "punch in the nose" to get the arky offended enough to give the witness-protester some attention. Yet consider that the punch in the nose, the act of lawbreaking in itself, carries no content of its own, sends no message of rational persuasion. No, it is only after the brute has come awake that the witness-protester has opportunity--in the courtroom or to the press--to explain the message of peace, goodwill to men the dastardly poke in the nose was meant to communicate. "It was an act of love--for their own good, to force people to face up to the truth about themselves--you must understand."
However, through his chosen tactic, the witness-protester has not created the best possible climate for the gentle persuasions of reason and love but actually the very worst. It isn't easy to get the ear of a brute you've just given a throbbing nose. For some reason, he tends to see the figure before him as a cheat and a rascal rather than hear him as the messenger of peace he actually is. The situation has degenerated into a political brawl with any and all moral significances totally confused.
There is now absolutely no way of sorting out how much of the brute's offendedness is actually the responsibility of the witness-protester, the brute's justified reaction to the offensively intended action of subverting fair play and the democratic process--and how much is the truly judgmental offendedness of the brute's refusing to face the truth. So, for example, to my mind a trial of the Berrigans is of no moral significance, no revelational/evil-exposing value at all--certainly nothing akin to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus in which the world clearly proclaimed its own judgment and condemnation. Quite the contrary, in the politics of civil disobedience I can see only two worldly arkys condemning each other. "A plague on both your houses," as Christian anarchists would inevitably say.
The above is my own honest and best effort to understand the economy of and rationale behind strategic civil disobedience. I am not happy about the results. If anyone can instruct me and propose a more accurate interpretation of the phenomenon, I would be eager to hear it. I am quick to grant that most Christian tax-resisters are conscientiously convinced they are acting solely out of the desire to be obedient to God. However, I can't see that they have much in the way of biblical or theological support for that conviction. And when they do undertake to explain and defend their action, it most often is done in the political terms of a forceful witness and protest against the arkys of evil.
My guess is that their logic runs something like this: Very correctly, they believe that Christians dare not be guilty of granting legitimacy to establishment evil. But they take this to mean, then, that anything less than joining the revolutionary opposition does amount to such legitimization. They can't see the third option of Christian Anarchy, because they don't really believe there is a kingdom truly "not of this world" which God is perfectly capable of establishing in his own time and in his own way. Thus, they have no alternative except to join and support those holy arkys which, to their minds, show the greatest potential as vehicles of God's kingdom. Their fundamental error, of course, is in assuming that humanity's social destiny is limited to the politically possible rather than being controlled by a theology of unlimited (even "resurrection") possibility.
Yet with this, does it not make sense that the Rock of Offense--whose kingdom is indeed "not of this world"--would say to Peter: "It is true that we do not owe either tax money or anything else to any earthly ruler. The Real Ruler's children are free. Nevertheless, Peter, let the collector have the tax he asks and don't try to withhold it. That would be a deliberate 'seeking to offend' and would only suck us into the political, offense-trading brawl of the arkys. At the same time, it would lose us all the moral, revelational, judgment-bringing power of Evil's true offendedness at Innocent Truth."
You don't suppose Peter was remembering that conversation when he wrote, "For what credit is it when you do wrong [by intentionally breaking tax laws or other just laws] and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right [by going out of your way not to cause offense, even to the point of paying taxes that aren't actually owed] and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval" (1 Pet. 2:20, one last time).
NOTE: We need to be clear about the varieties of "Christian lawbreaking" that have NOT come into consideration here. The theological action of obeying God even when that must involve disobeying an unjust law--such as Paul's refusing to stop preaching the gospel when there was a court order for him to do so--this is entirely different from using lawbreaking as a political power-play. Such belongs on the "Jesus" side of our distinction between the two forms of offense causing. Paul's action wouldn't even have been addressed to the government, as an effort to expose and condemn it. In fact, he would have had no concern about whether the government became offended or not, he being arkycally disinterested. This sort of Christian lawbreaking ought not even be called "civil disobedience." Obedience to God is the only end in view, with any disobedience to the state being entirely accidental.
In fact, let me offer one litmus test for making the distinction: If an action of lawbreaking is done solely as obedience to God, then, plainly, whatever media exposure occurs is entirely incidental to the purpose. If, however, media exposure is sought and valued, the action must have a political, arky motivation that goes far beyond simple obedience to God.
Although the evidence is that Jesus disapproved the tax-withholding civil disobedience of the Zealots, it is not even cases of this sort that we have been considering above. The Zealots were oppressed and subjugated people who, except for illegal actions, had absolutely no means of witness and protest open to them ("protest" against the Empire that was crushing them or "witness" to the Messiah they expected to come save them). Their "civil disobedience" was the spontaneous cry of faith out of the midst of their pain.
As the One who himself uncomplainingly suffered the greatest injustice ever perpetrated, Jesus, of course, has the authority to judge the actions of even these desperate sufferers. I don't. I certainly am not in position to give a moral opinion regarding situations of this sort, and the foregoing has not presumed to do so. We have here been speaking only of those civilly disobedient Christians who already enjoy the world's greatest freedom of witness and protest but who can't be content with that. No, out of frustration in not being able to persuade the world that they're "right," they have seen fit to go further and claim for their cause the special privilege and exemption that even worldly politicians deny to themselves.
Copyright (c) 1987