The Sermon on the Mount and Caesar’s Sword


The Sermon On the Mount and Caesar’s Sword
Brian Zahnd

As I call Christians to the practices of radical forgiveness and nonviolent peacemaking that Jesus embodied and most clearly sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount, I often encounter Christians using Romans 13:1–7 as a kind of rebuttal. (Though whom they’re rebutting — me or Jesus — isn’t always clear.) Their argument goes something like this:

“God has ordained the government and has given it the sword to execute vengeance; therefore we cannot be opposed to war because Romans 13 sanctions ‘Just War.’”

Usually this argument is given to me in the context of advocating that the United States government should wage total war on ISIS and other enemies of America, and that the church should celebrate this.

But this is an egregious misinterpretation and misapplication of what Paul is talking about. Let me explain.

First of all, are we really comfortable with using Paul to trump Jesus? That is what’s being done! Why is it that we are so prone to interpret Jesus in the light of a particular reading of Paul? (A reading of Paul that I — and many others — would argue is a conditioned misreading of Paul.) Why not take the Sermon on the Mount at face value and insist that any interpretation of Paul must line up with Jesus? Why not center our reading of Scripture with Jesus? I’m quite sure Paul would be entirely happy with this approach!

So let’s start with this: Romans 13 is not the place to start! You cannot divorce Romans 13 from the clear context of Romans 12. (The arbitrary choice for the chapter break was most unfortunate and has contributed to the problem.)

In Romans 12 Paul is obviously drawing upon the Sermon on the Mount as he calls Christians in Rome to bless those who persecute them, to refuse retaliation, to act charitably toward enemies, and to overcome evil with good.

In Romans 12 Paul is speaking directly to the believers in Rome, using the pronoun “you.” But when Paul talks about Caesar in Romans 13 the pronoun changes to “he.” To put it crudely, Romans 13 isn’t about you. Romans 12 is about you! Regardless of what Caesar might do with the sword of vengeance, and however we might envision God accomplishing sovereign purposes through a pagan government, followers of Jesus are called to renounce revenge and love their enemies. Always. This is the Jesus way.

What Paul is doing in Romans 13 is calling Christians living in the Roman Empire to obey civil laws and not be drawn into violent revolutionary movements. Paul understands that the kingdom of Christ is never established by violence and the Roman Empire cannot be converted to Christ by violence. What Paul seems to be commending in Romans 13 is police function. The empire as night watchman. Though I can’t develop the argument fully here, I draw an important distinction between police function and the waging of war. And even though I realize that at times the line of distinction can be blurred, there really is an enormous difference between the two. There is a difference between the constable arresting a burglar and the bombing of Hiroshima!

I’m not an anarchist. I view police function as necessary to maintain a civil society. But no matter what I think about it, it’s clear that Paul does not envision Christians possessing Caesar’s sword. From Paul’s perspective this was simply impossible. When Paul talks about the government in Romans 13, he is talking about a pagan government in rebellion to the Lordship of the resurrected and ascended Christ. But the pagan government still serves a useful purpose in maintaining a civil society. What Paul is not thinking is that he’s giving us a way to ignore Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount!

If we had asked Paul, “Yeah, but what happens when the emperor becomes a Christian?” — I think Paul would have been incredulous, saying, “That could never happen.” But it did happen. Sort of. And that’s where the mess really begins — with a quasi-Christian emperor. I say, “quasi-Christian,” because even Constantine himself apparently understood that he could not be a Christian and be emperor at the same time. Which is the most likely explanation for why he delayed being baptized for twenty-four years until he was on his deathbed.

In any case, after Constantine Romans 13 does begin to be employed by theologians as a way to call Christians to support the various war efforts of their Christian kingdoms and nations.

Until the Nazis.

Then what do we say? Should Christians in Nazi Germany have dutifully supported Hitler and his blitzkriegs by citing Romans 13? (By the way, most did.)

No, obviously something has gone wrong. Sure, the idea of government operated police function can be part of God’s purposes to maintain a civil society where criminals — whether they are pagans or Christians — are apprehended and punished. But when we reach the point where Romans 13 is used to teach German Christians that supporting Hitler is their Christian duty, we know that this interpretation of Romans 13 has gone off its Christian rails!

But it’s not simply a matter of determining when Caesar has stepped over the line. That would be endlessly debated. Rather, it’s a matter of understanding that though Caesar may serve a beneficial role as the town constable, Christians will never join with Caesar in waging war. In other words, the problem wasn’t that the Third Reich arrested shoplifters, but that in the name of national destiny and self-defense it waged war on its European neighbors and tried to exterminate all of European Jewry.

So this is my question to American Christians who are fond of using Romans 13 to call for endless military buildup and waging what can only be an endless “war on terror.” Why are the American Revolutionaries of 1776 exempt from Romans 13? Is your use of Romans 13 to call for Christian support of American war-waging principled and consistent or is it self-serving and inconsistent? Are you using Romans 13 to help clarify how Christians should live as “exiles” within an empire, or are you using Romans 13 to endorse the militarism of your favorite empire?

Finally, we should never pretend that Romans 13 is the only passage in Scripture that alludes to government. Far from it! Throughout Scripture the principalities and powers that govern the nations are more often cast in a very dark light. Whether it’s Pharaoh in Exodus, Nebuchadnezzar in Jeremiah, the beastly empires in Daniel, or the Roman Empire in Revelation — these governments are not blithely commended but prophetically critiqued. And we should never forget that the man who wrote Romans 13 was executed by the government for not submitting to the governing authorities out of fidelity to Christ!

So, yes, Paul calls us to be “subject to the governing authorities.” But let’s not read into that more than we should. Jesus was subject to the governing authority of Pontius Pilate, but that doesn’t mean the Roman governor was acting justly! On Good Friday the Roman government wasn’t the servant of God — the Roman government was the servant of the satan! At his trial Jesus explained to Pilate that his kingdom was such that it forbade his followers to fight (see John 18:36). Jesus was subject to Rome in that he did not violently resist it — as Peter was so eager to do. But in being “subject to the governing authorities,” Jesus shamed the principalities and powers in his crucifixion and was vindicated by God in his resurrection. This is the posture toward evil that followers of Jesus are called to imitate.

To pit Paul and Romans 13 against Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount is bad hermeneutics…and even worse Christianity.

This brief essay is not an attempt to produce a comprehensive political theology. The attempt to do that was, I believe, best done by John Howard Yoder in his classic work, The Politics of Jesus. Chapter 10 of The Politics of Jesus is on Romans 13 and I recommend it. The chapter ends like this:

“Romans 12–13 and Matthew 5–7 are not in contradiction or in tension. They both instruct Christians to be nonresistant* in all their relationships, including the social. They both call on disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in the interplay of egotisms which this world calls ‘vengeance’ or ‘justice.’ They both call Christians to respect and be subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be wielded and to bring about a kind of order under fire, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry.” –The Politics of Jesus, p. 210

* In an earlier footnote Yoder says: “‘Nonresistant’ does not mean compliance or acquiescence to evil, but what Paul means in Romans 12:7 and Jesus in Matthew 5:39, the suffering renunciation of retaliation in kind. It does not exclude other kinds of opposition to evil.”

So Caesar will do his thing, and when Caesar as constable keeps the criminals off the streets it’s a service well rendered. But we are not followers of Caesar, we are followers of Christ. And even if the Beast can bring about a kind of “order under fire” with his sword, for us it doesn’t matter — we are followers of the slaughtered and victorious Lamb and we are called to “overcome evil with good.”


(The photo is of the statue of the Emperor Constantine at York Minster.)