THE LIMITS OF LEGAL OBLIGATION:
THE CHRISTIAN AND SOCRATIC
2-1. The following passage appears in one of the most widely used textbooks in
The rise of the Christian church, as a distinct institution entitled to govern
the spiritual concerns of mankind in independence of the state, may not
unreasonably be described as the most revolutionary event in the history
of western Europe, in respect both to politics and political philosophy.
It by no means follows, however, that the political conceptions of the
early Christians were in any way distinctive of them or specifically
different from those of other men. The interests that went to the making
of Christians were religious, and Christianity was a doctrine of salvation,
not a philosophy or political theory. The ideas of Christians upon the
latter subjects were not very different from those of pagans.1 (Italics
One wants to challenge such a view in the strongest possible terms: what is
admittedly true for modern nominal Christianity was surely not true for the earliest
Christians, and especially not for Jesus of Nazareth.
2-2. How radical were the views of Jesus of Nazareth on the classical problems
of political theory? For both his age and ours, they were radical indeed.
One can compare his views either to the Jewish tradition out of which he arose, or
to classical Greek political theory as espoused by Socrates (and found in the writings
of Plato). Either comparison would demonstrate just how radical his thought was and
Even so, the radical political and legal implications of his thought can best be seen
by comparing his views to the Greek view, which is responsible for the dominant
secular (and typically contractualist) tradition of Western political philosophy--and
responsible in part for the secularization of Christianity through its accommodation
with the violent, coercive state.
2-3. A serious and honest comparison of the views of Jesus and Socrates directs
one first of all to a striking difference in attitudes about the moral status of the state--
and thus about legal obligation. Specifically, there is no independent obligation to
obey the law on the original view of Jesus of Nazareth, whereas there is indeed such
an obligation on the Socratic view, at least as expounded in the arguments of
Socrates in Plato's Crito.2
In other words, if one has an excessive reverence for the violent, coercive state,
then one will also have a correspondingly great reverence for the laws of the state.
If one does not have such reverence for the state, one's respect for its laws will also
be less. Since the peaceful teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were very much at odds
with the violent and coercive state, his views on legal obligation reflect this philosophi-
2-4. The problem of legal obligation on the Christian view admits of a very simple
solution: when the will of "Caesar" (the state) and the will of God come into conflict,
one is to obey God, since only the law of God, not that of the state, is seen to have
binding force in and of itself.
Jesus' teachings cannot in any sense be construed as an endorsement of the state
or its laws, as Paul seems to suggest in Romans 13. What we glibly call "the law" is
simply one more anthropological fact to be taken into account when making moral
2-5. Although the obligation on the early Christian view to do what the law
requires can be quite stringent under the appropriate circumstances, such obligation
is always derivative of some other ethical foundation quite independent of legal
obligation per se. That is, although there is no moral obligation to obey the law per
se, it is certainly the case that in many instances there is an obligation to do what the
law requires: yet, the legal and the moral are only contingently, not necessarily, con-
gruent in Christian thought.
2-6. Why does the Socratic view accord a vastly greater degree of respect for the
state qua state (and for law qua law) than does the view of Jesus of Nazareth?
Perhaps it is because there was a virtual inability on the part of the Greeks to make
a distinction between society and the state.
Yet, we must look even deeper: why should a statist conception of society have
emerged in the first place?
2-7. The failure to make a distinction between society and the state resulted in a
legalism which not even the enormous critical intellect of Socrates was entirely able
to overcome. As for Jesus and his attitudes toward the state, it is paradoxical but not
necessarily false to say that Jesus saw loyalty to the state as competing with loyalty
to God, even as he encouraged obeyal of the law under routine circumstances--that
is, when nothing moral was at stake.
Thus could he recommend that Christians pay taxes: money had absolutely no
value for him. (Indeed, it was less than worthless: the love of money was seen by him
to be the root of all evil.) Christians are thus indeed "obligated" to render unto Caesar
that which is Caesar's: they are to give that which is worthless to the violent, coercive
state, which is equally worthless.
I repeat: contra Paul and nominal Christianity after him, Jesus most definitely did
not endorse the state or its laws. He was, shall we say, very disrespectful of
"authority" in the secular sense, in part because he saw secular authority as inherently
violent, and in part because he saw secular authority as challenging and usurping the
inviolate authority of God: the right to judge.
Jesus conceived of a society in which all persons serve one another, and no
person rules over another--except God, through his control of creation and through
his indwelling Spirit in the conscience of each person.
The secular view of the Greeks, by contrast, assumed that someone has the right
and the obligation to rule over someone else.
2-8. Problems of interpreting the teachings of both Socrates and Jesus are
enormously complicated by much more than the time which has passed since both
men lived. The underlying problem for any scholar attempting to address the views
of either is that neither wrote down any of his ethical or religio-metaphysical views.
Socrates had his Plato, and Jesus in turn had the original compilers of the first four
books of the New Testament, compilers who cannot necessarily be assumed to have
been first-hand witnesses (especially in the case of Luke, who admits as much in the
introduction in Luke 1:1 of his account of Jesus' life).
In Christianity there is of course the additional complication introduced by the
personage of Paul and other writers of the letters, whose belated attempts to
systematize the Christian teachings force the reader to decide whether or not their
views were fundamentally in harmony with the earliest views attributed to Jesus of
Nazareth, or whether instead they can justly be called the first "Christian revisionists."
An even more formidable difficulty is that even those portions of the New
Testament dealing with the life and teachings of Jesus (the first four books: the
"gospels" of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) have been compiled from fragments of
widely varying degrees of reliability and authenticity. Even so, there appears to be
sufficient coherence in the teachings attributed to Jesus that some kind of reconstruc-
tion is possible--but not so much by empirical verification as by logical inference.
The impact of Jesus' thought on subsequent civilizations justifies the attempt to
reconstruct his views, even though the possibility of error is very great.
2-9. The essential point of similarity between Jesus and Socrates with regard to
the absence of a first-hand written historical record finds other well-known parallels
in their lives and teachings. Both men welcomed a final confrontation with the secular
and religious authorities of their times, and both chose death over and above the
recanting of any of their views.
Both were also found guilty (through trumped-up charges) of violating both
secular and sacred law and of making certain blasphemous or sacrilegious remarks.
Yet, there are also very great differences. Jesus offered absolutely nothing that could
be construed as a legal defense, although he did admit and affirm that he had indeed
made claims as to his own divinity. ("You have said so." Matthew 27:11 [RSV]
"Thou sayest" in the King James Version.") The same admission had already been
made before the ecclesiastical council, in the Matthew account. (Matthew 26:64)
There is absolutely no evidence that Jesus thought that the state could possibly
justify him, nor is there evidence that he thought that it would be appropriate for him
to make an appeal to the secular or ecclesiastical authorities for the sake of justifica-
tion. In other words, he did not seem to expect justice from the state (or its
theocratic variant: the ecclesiastical hierarchy). Socrates, by contrast, made a lengthy
and well-reasoned defense to the jury, recorded in Plato's Apology.3 Although he
denied the validity of the charges against him, he went out of his way to affirm the
legitimacy of the regime's right to judge and punish. Thus did he submit to the
punishment that followed solely out of a clearly stated respect for the legal system.
It is true that Socrates claims to have defended himself before the jury not for his own
sake, but for the sake of those who would try him: "So far from pleading on my own
behalf, as might be supposed, I am really pleading on yours, to save you from
misusing the gift of God by condemning me. . . ."4
One might even argue that he used this one last opportunity to engage others in
philosophical discussion in a public forum. He even went so far as to say to the
members of the jury that "I owe a greater obedience to God than to you."5 This
would seem to minimize the force of legal obligation alone in Socrates' arguments,
and to show considerable congruence with the Christian view. Nonetheless, he also
says that it is "wrong to disobey my superior, whether God or man."6 (Emphasis
supplied.) Such a statement implies a general and categorical obligation to obey those
in official state positions.
The real difference between the Socratic and the Christian views, however, is to
be found at the very beginning of Socrates' defense: "I must obey the law and make
my defense."7 Jesus clearly recognized no such general obligation, for he did not
defend himself. In addition, he did not try to dissuade his accusers from condemning
him to death, although surely he, like Socrates, recognized that their killing him would
be a misuse of their power.
2-10. Socrates and Jesus also differed in their expectations of finding justice
through a legal proceeding. Socrates makes an implicit claim about the role of the
state in dispensing justice: "The jury does not sit to dispense justice, but to decide
where justice lies."8 Although Jesus was not tried before a jury of peers, there is
nothing in the account of Jesus' trials (before Herod, the High Priest and his council,
or Pilate) which recognizes any comparable duty or expectation from the state or the
people. That is, he could not have expected either the rulers or the people to tell him
"where justice lies," whether in his own individual case or more generally.
Other moral comments in the Apology indicate similarities which are worthy of
note: the reference by Socrates to "so-called justice," implying a disparagement of the
"justice" of the state,9 as well as the remarks at the end of the dialog to the effect "I
bear no grudge,"10 which is similar to the Christian "Father, forgive them, for they
know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)
In no case, however, do these similarities negate my central point--that Socrates
seems to have recognized a much stronger moral claim to obey the law than did Jesus,
and he seems as well to have recognized a legal and moral obligation to defend
himself at his trial, which Jesus did not.
Jesus' views were thoroughly pacifistic, and Socrates' were not. This essential
difference could not but affect the way that they looked at the general question of the
legitimacy of the state--and of its laws.
2-11. Another point of difference between Jesus and Socrates is Jesus' agony over
the impending confrontation with the authorities and the likelihood of death. There
is every evidence that he would have preferred to have lived if he could have done so
without forsaking his mission: "Father, if it is thy will, let this cup pass from me.
Nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt." (Matthew 26:39) Socrates, by contrast,
seems almost to have wanted to die, and Plato's account of his death in the Phaedo
paints a picture of a man going a bit too serenely to his death, even to the point of
taunting his friends a little for their expressions of grief.11
There is nothing in the Platonic dialogs comparable to the midnight scene in
Gethsemane, where Jesus gently chides his followers for taking their ease amidst his
agony. (Matthew 26:45)
2-12. If Plato's historical record is accurate, then Socrates could have conducted
his defense very differently or even recommended his own exile. There thus remained
the very real possibility that he could have expected to have continued his life as a
philosophical gadfly without compromising any of his views, if only he had agreed to
have done so in another land.12 This he refused to do, not only rejecting exile but
admitting to his friend Crito later that he could not have expected to have found a
friendly audience anywhere else, either. One almost gets the feeling that he thought
that traveling to another land to continue his teachings was not only undesirable but
unworthy: better, it seems, to have been prepared to die in Athens than to be forced
to leave and carry his pursuit of truth to other lands.13
On the purely human level, one might surmise that Jesus would have welcomed a
similar opportunity to emigrate to another land, at least if it could have been seen to
have been compatible with his larger mission. The authorities, of course, gave him
no options whatsoever. The point, however, is that Jesus' entire life can be seen as
an attempt to extend the boundaries of moral and religious teaching beyond the
boundaries of the Jewish nation.14 There is overall in the story of Jesus' life not only
a greater affirmation of the value of life beyond the narrow confines of his own
culture; there is also a virtual glorification of a truly transnational community, albeit
spoken of (and now typically trivialized) as "church." In this larger transnational
community there is to be no distinction in social status between Jews and various
Gentile groups--no nationalism comparable to the ethnocentrism either of the
Athenians or of the Jews.
2-13. While it may be true that transnational themes surface from time to time in
the Platonic dialogs, the arguments in the Crito do not exhibit any trace whatsoever
of the transnational ideal. Again, Socrates, for all his brilliance, does not seem in the
end to have been able to transcend his culture and its ethnocentric bias sufficiently to
realize the potential which is everywhere to be found in his teachings. Socrates'
retreat to arguments about Athenian citizenship in the Crito vitiate the force of any
claim to universality in his perspective.
Jesus' last acts, by contrast, indicated a willingness to die if so doing was the only
way to spread his redeeming message of peace and forgiveness to all persons, and he
sent his disciples to all lands to spread that message. For Jesus, all persons were
children of God and entitled to the same degree of loyalty and compassion.
Jesus' transnational perspective, combined with his belief in the infinite worth of
all persons (even violators of the law: "sinners"), impelled him to universalize the
messages of peace and forgiveness. Thus did these ethical themes become overt
tenets of a political philosophy of non-violence, non-judgment, and universality of
loyalty to all persons in all lands. They also led him to disparage loyalty to the violent,
coercive state, which would use evil means--and then only in the service of one small
segment of humanity against all others.
This stance in turn led him to rely solely upon the rule of God and personal
conscience as the basic mortar of society and the means of achieving and maintaining
Or, at least, one might so surmise in trying to reconstruct the evolution of his
2-14. Socrates' unwillingness to choose exile and the opportunity to continue his
philosophical enterprise in another land was linked to his acceptance of the death
penalty. (This theme surfaces in numerous places in the Apology, the Crito, and the
Phaedo.) After being sentenced and imprisoned, he turned down an offer of escape
recommended to him by his friend Crito. The significance of Socrates' refusal to
escape or to accept exile should not be ignored. There seems to be no reason why
accepting exile as punishment should necessarily have been seen to imply renunciation
of his beliefs, much less admission of guilt: he certainly could have left under protest
of his innocence.
In any case, the Christians who were followers of Christ seem--like so many other
exiles--to have accepted the reality of inequalities of power in accepting exile. And,
in accepting exile, they accepted it not only as personal sacrifice but also as
opportunity to take their "philosophizing" to other lands. The blessing by Jesus for
doing so can hardly be taken to imply that exile was dishonorable; it expanded his
followers' opportunities to reach new audiences. In most cases, the de facto exile to
teach in other lands often led to their deaths there--they did not typically flee for the
sake of their personal safety.
There is no reason given by Socrates in the Platonic dialogs as to why the option
of voluntary exile would not have been a most honorable way to die, even for an old
2-15. Rather than looking like the heroic soul for accepting a punishment that he
did not deserve, Socrates at times looks like the self-made martyr--or even the
suicide. The same charge has been made many times over the centuries against Jesus
Jesus did indeed come back to Jerusalem, either when it might be argued that he
did not have to, or when the results could be seen to be predictable. Yet, the nature
of his teachings apparently made the offering of a choice to his own people essential:
either God or Caesar was sovereign, but not both.
His own decision to return to Jerusalem seems thus to have been based on a sense
of obligation to make explicit an ethical dilemma, the question of ultimate sovereignty.
Whereas Socrates concedes the supremacy of God but also affirms the legitimacy of
the violent state, Jesus seems to have felt compelled to confront his people with an
absolutely dilemmatic choice: the way of "Caesar" or the way of God. The point
seems to be that the two ways are fundamentally incompatible.
2-16. In the Crito, Socrates offered the arguments with respect to legal obligation
which have generated controversy for centuries. The dialog opens in Socrates' prison
cell, where his friend Crito has come to try to persuade Socrates to escape. Bribery
of the jailers can be arranged, says Crito, and Socrates can escape to another land.
Socrates, rejecting the offer, emphasizes that he had the option of suggesting exile
during the course of his own defense at his trial. He goes on to make a number of
arguments, including the argument that one should never render evil for evil.
In this regard, Socrates seems to offer an early version of the golden rule, at least
in its negative corollary never to retaliate against those who have injured us: "And tell
me, is it right to do an injury in retaliation, as most people believe, or not?" Crito:
"No, never." Socrates: "So one ought not to return a wrong or an injury to any
person, whatever the provocation is."15 Socrates goes on to say that this implies that
one ought always to keep one's promises (implying in this context that the foundation
for the state is some kind of promise or contract). He does not say that the injunction
against injuring others implies that one should never punish or go to war, even though
these also involve injury.
It is interesting that what Socrates is arguing for is that one should never injure the
state by violating its laws, even though one may do violence in war to foreign
individuals in the name of the state, or to one's fellow citizens through punishment for
violating the law.
Is this not the foundation of a justification of war and punishment? That is, is this
not the beginnings of a formulation of a double standard between "public and private
morality" which is the foundation of the "just war" doctrine, as well as a prop for the
horrors of all secular systems of "justice"?
2-17. Socrates' sole point in establishing the idea that one should never render evil
for evil seems to have been for the sake of undergirding an extremely legalistic per-
spective in his reply to Crito: to escape from prison without official permission would
be to violate the laws of Athens and thus to harm Athens. Although he blames in-
dividuals and not the laws of Athens for his false imprisonment and death sentence,
he nonetheless says that "warding off evil for evil is [not] ever right."16 Jesus
seems by contrast to have used his injunction against requiting injury for injury (the
"golden rule") in conjunction with arguments that not only abjure the institutions of
war and punishment, but which direct moral attention to the worth and welfare of
In any case, what appears to be something like the golden rule is never exemplified
by Socrates with corollaries of a non-retributive nature such as appear in the Sermon
on the Mount: injunctions not to judge (Matthew 7:1), not to retaliate (Matthew
5:38), to do good when we do not have to (Matthew 5:42), to lend or give without
expecting a return (Luke 6:35), and to love one's enemies (Matthew 5:44).
2-18. The crux of the "dialog" between Socrates and Crito is actually a monolog
by the personified Laws of Athens on the evils of disobeying the law. Socrates asks
Crito to imagine that he, Socrates, is indeed about to escape from prison in order to
avoid the death sentence. The personified Laws of Athens confront him and ask him
whether or not any state can survive if its laws have no power, "but are set aside and
trampled upon by individuals."17 In this imaginary exchange, Socrates considers the
objection that the state has injured Socrates and given an unjust sentence. The Laws
reply, "And was that our agreement with you? Or were you to abide by the sentence
of the state?"18 (Italics supplied.)
The personified Laws continue their objection to Socrates' possible right to escape,
even though he has been unjustly convicted and sentenced: "What complaint have you
to make about us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the state? In the
first place, did we not bring you into existence?" And, "[s]ince you were brought into
the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you
are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And, if this is true, then you
are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us
what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any
other evil to your father or your master, if you had one, because you have been struck
or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?"19
The Laws continue: "Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country
is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father. . . ? also to be
soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father,
and either to be persuaded, or if not persuaded, to be obeyed? And when we are
punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be
endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow
as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle
or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country
order him; or he must change their view of what is just: and if he may do no violence
to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country."20 (Italics
Following this extended monolog by the personified Laws of Athens on what
appears to be a virtually absolute obligation to obey the laws (qualified by the now
traditional doctrine of civil disobedience), the Laws then offer an argument of the
form "Athens--love it or leave it": "[W]e further proclaim to any Athenian by the
liberty which we allow him, that if he does not like us when he has become of age and
has seen the ways of the city, and made our acquaintance, he may go where he
pleases and take his goods with him. None of us laws will forbid him or interfere
with him. Any one who does not like us and the city, and who wants to emigrate to
a colony or to any other city, may go where he likes, retaining his property. But he
who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the State,
and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we
The Laws go on to emphasize repeatedly that, in escaping without permission,
Socrates would be violating an agreement. (The exact language varies from
translation to translation, but the meaning is consistent with the language of modern
contractual arguments against "free riders.") It seems clear that the very foundation
of the Socratic view of the state is just such an implicit contractual agreement.
2-19. There are perhaps no more reactionary--nor more influential--passages in
all of philosophy.
For Socrates, the laws of the state have the status of "Father" and are claimed to
be the source of all that is good: in the passages quoted above, the state has become
2-20. The strong statement of legal obligation quoted above from the Crito does
not find any parallel in the teachings of Jesus, although Paul's statements in the
thirteenth chapter of Romans are much more problematic.
What one can say with assurance is that no sayings attributed strictly to Jesus of
Nazareth involve any stated obligation to punish or to imprison, nor any endorsement
of war or of the state in general. Indeed, all of his teachings against judgment and
violence, as well as those passages which do refer to his temptations to resort to the
usual methods of political power (Matthew 4:8-10) and to his reference to secular
rulers "who like to Lord it over their subjects. . . . " (Matthew 20:25) imply that he
saw himself as offering a radical alternative to the usual statist, violent way of
dealing with the problem of evil in the world.
2-21. The early Christian view seems to be based upon the assumption that there
is no essential difference between public and private morality: that is, it allows for the
possibility that an officer of the state can and must somehow find a way to express his
or her personal ethical ideals not only in his actions as a private citizen but in his
actions as a nominal officer of the state. There is absolutely no basis in the early
Christian teachings for the now commonly held view that persons acting in public and
private capacities can invoke widely differing ethical principles governing their actions
in the two realms.
It is quite possible, of course, that Jesus abjured the holding of all positions of
authority because of inevitable conflicts between private ethics and the supposed
"duties" of office. After all, he did not himself hold any office, either ecclesiastical or
secular. Yet, if this was his position, it is not obvious.
2-22. The Christian view precludes any obligation to wage war or to administer
punishment, either in one's private capacity or in one's capacity as an officer of the
state. If that sounds entirely too radical, it is well to ask the Christian establishment
what relevance Christianity is to have if it is not to offer a genuine alternative to every
previous and every subsequent system of thought when it comes to how the individu-
al, whether in public or private capacity, is to respond to evil in the world.
If the Christian's response to evil is to be no different from the response of the
unbeliever, then Christianity is not only irrelevant: it is a monstrous hoax.
2-23. Contrary to the Socratic view set forth in the Crito, there is no stated
obligation in the New Testament to fight or kill for the state, whereas there are many
passages which can be construed as implying a virtually opposite obligation.
If the obligation to fight and to be prepared to kill for the state is so central to
Christian ethics, then surely it would have been mentioned somewhere. One has to
strain mightily to read an endorsement of the institutions of war and punishment into
the early Christian teachings. Paficism and voluntarism are the literal reading of
these teachings. Their antitheses require much rationalization, which nominal
Christian theorists--and much of organized religion--have been quick to provide.
Orthodox Christianity, that is, typically distorts the more radical teachings of its
founder in order to correspond to the civil religion, which is the true driving force of
most of modern Christianity, especially in its more dangerous and anti-intellectual
2-24. Many of the ethical issues addressed by the early Christian teachings point
to issues beyond simple pacifism to the larger question as to how social order is to be
promoted and maintained on the Christian view, and this problem points to the larger
issue of punishment. Throughout the dialogs Socrates never questions the necessity
for courts and judgment.
Jesus' only teaching is to visit those who are in prison: there is no teaching
attributable to Jesus which obliges anyone to put anyone there.
2-25. In the account given in the Crito, violation of the law is seen to be an act of
violence or injury against the state. Jesus' life and the lives of his parents were (on the
biblical account) a story of continuing disobedience to secular authorities. Even the
Wise Men are said to have been warned in a dream (presumably by God, thus
endorsing the message) to return directly to the East without telling Herod where the
Christ child was to be found (Matthew 2:12): they were in effect being told to disobey
the secular sovereign. Jesus' parents are said to have fled their country to go to Egypt
in order to save their infant son, in a direct violation of Herod's will. (Matthew 2:13)
The arguments of the Crito would almost seem to suggest that Mary and Joseph
should have stayed in Israel to obey Herod, even if it meant the death of the infant
2-26. Would the parents of Jesus have stayed if the entire community--and not just
one jealous, insecure, and egotistical puppet king--had wanted to kill the young Christ
child? The answer seems too obvious: the will of the people would have been as
irrelevant as the will of one tyrant.
Jesus himself is said to have deliberately disobeyed the priesthood, which had a
great measure of support from the people. (Numerous references to his healing the
sick or allowing his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath come to mind.) He also
kept a good bit of his ministry secret until the time came that he decided to go public.
It was Jesus' practice for some time to urge those whom he had helped not to tell from
whence their aid had come. He seems to have had a rather pragmatic sense of timing
rather than some kind of sense of categorical obligation to go public with every kind
of disobeyal or challenge to authority. Thus, far from getting permission to pursue
his subversive ministry, he deliberately concealed it at times.
In no sense could Jesus be said to have gone "through channels" or "asked
permission" to disobey the secular authorities. Nor did he even engage always in
simple "civil disobedience," for his refusal was at times private and secretive.
2-27. It is significant that Jesus finally did decide to go public with his claims of
divinity in the biggest possible way, organizing an entry into Jerusalem in such a way
that could not have escaped the notice of the Roman and Jewish rulers. He rode into
Jerusalem on "the foal of a beast of burden" (a donkey), but in such a way that the
demonstration attracted attention: palm fronds waving, a caravan (albeit an incongru-
ous one for a conqueror), and an obvious attempt in general to publicize his claim of
divinity, which he had kept hidden for many years (a continuation of the prudence
exhibited by his parents in disobeying Herod). (Matthew 21:1-16.)
The irony of this deliberate withholding of the fact of his divinity until the time was
judged to be right is not only that it might be seen to involve disobeyal of the law
(whether as the will of Herod or the will of the priesthood), but also that it seemed
to involve something like secrecy bordering upon deception at times by his parents
and later by himself in keeping his identity secret. Up until that moment of public
confrontation, however, he seems to have kept his own counsel and at no point
requested permission from the authorities regarding any aspect of his ministry, from
its inception to its culmination.
2-28. It is perhaps most significant that when Jesus did decide to make a full
public proclamation of his divinity in Jerusalem, he did so by riding into the city not
on the white horse of the violent conqueror (the Davidic conception of the Messiah),
but on a donkey, "the foal of a beast of burden." His challenge to secular authority
was direct: your way of kingship, he seemed to be saying, is to rule--my way is to
serve. My way, he also seemed to say by his gentleness, will show the inferiority of
rule by force.
Never in his teachings did he invoke hierarchy, telling the disciples that "The rulers
of this world like to lord it over their subjects, but I tell you that he who would be
greatest must be your servant." (Matthew 20:27) In another context, when asked
before his crucifixion whether or not he was claiming to be "King of the Jews," he
prefaced his affirmation of his divinity by saying "King is your word. . . ." (John
18:37) This translation from the New English Bible is not literal, but it conveys the
point better than the other translations: my way is an alternative to the way of kings.
The other well-known translations say merely that "You say that I am a king" or
"Thou sayest that I am a king."
The alternative to kingship offered in the passage in John is that he came to "bear
witness to the truth." This suggests that, in some sense, truth, ideas, will be the
means of his rule: the power of ideas, of true ideas, will order the world. All the way
back to the early passages of Matthew, when Jesus was first being tempted, his
response to the temptation to rule over all the countries of the earth was to say,
"Thou shalt worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve." (Matthew
4:10) There is no room for compromise or ambiguity in that quote: "Him only shall
you serve." The state thus had no hold over Jesus of Nazareth. I think that he would
consider it the height of absurdity to take seriously any suggestion that one has an
"obligation" to obey the secular authorities: that or those who are called "the law."
2-29. The most radical statement of obligation espoused by Jesus was to do good
to one's enemies (Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:35) and to work for good until such time
as the forces of secular domination are no more. This seems to be the
eschatology of the Christ: the final end state is not only the resurrection and the end
of sin and death, but the end of those institutions which use evil to check evil. To say
this and only this, however, implies a possible endorsement of the state during the
present age. The point should not be, however, merely to look forward to the end of
the state when evil is no more, nor to look at the state as God's way of checking evil
with evil--such would seem to be akin to a house divided. Rather, the point is that
Christian ethics offers an alternative to statist methods in the checking of evil in the
world in its present condition.
2-30. The accounts in the book of Acts (admittedly of extremely dubious reliabil-
ity) of the deeds of Jesus' followers are characterized by repeated accounts of escapes
from prison, in obvious counterpoint to Socrates' refusal to escape. In at least one
passage in Acts, God himself is claimed to have intervened in order to help some of
Jesus' followers escape from jail.
Overall, then, the biblical account is lacking in concern for permission from state
authorities, as well as in concern for breaking the secular law in and of itself. In this
regard the entire account of the New Testament differs markedly and undeniably from
that of the Crito in its degree of avowed respect for the secular laws.
If this is not an earthshaking conclusion, it may yet be significant in understanding
the political philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.
2-31. There is more to the differences between Jesus and Socrates than their
differing views on legal obligation. What one really seeks is a most fundamental
theoretical reason for their differing attitudes toward the state and its laws.
Perhaps one may say that the differing views on legal obligation derive from
differences with respect to the ultimate foundations of moral obligation: the perfectly
non-retributive and unconditional altruism of Jesus versus a default contractualism for
Perhaps Socrates, in spite of his own quest to know the divine will, was yet
trapped in the essentially secular and contractual conception of society which was
pervasive in ancient Greek culture, as well as in western, secularized culture in
2-32. One might speculate that the very idea of a polis is a contractualist
conception, and thus that the idea of society as contract was deeply embedded in
Greek culture. Even in the Greek version of the Christian New Testament, there are
etymological hints that the term polis (city) might at one time have meant merely
contract. I refer to the term apolusai, the term for "divorce," in the Koiné‚ (the
common Greek) of the New Testament. Given a contractual view of marriage, it
would make sense to say of divorce that it was a negation of a contract. Thus does
one see the prefix "a" followed by something that resembled polis: the root -polusai.
The usual translation emphasizes, to the contrary, "to loose from" [apo + lusai].
All that I am suggesting is that the ultimate origins of such usages might merit further
enquiry by those who are capable of it.
2-33. If Christianity is a radical alternative to every other ethical tradition
imaginable, then what is the very crux of that alternative?
It is not the claim of divinity, for other traditions have claimed divinity for this or
that person. Nor is it the claim of a resurrection or of eternal life, since other
traditions have made those claims as well.
Surely the crux of the difference is to be found in the agápe idea of unconditional
goodness or commitment, a conception of moral obligation which we try to encapsu-
late as the golden rule. While it is true that the golden rule or something like it has
surfaced in a number of cultures, its full meaning can only be seen in the fuller context
of what it supplants: the conditional commitment exemplified in the very idea of "con-
tract." Contracts also entail a retributive conception (a "payback"), which in turn is
linked to egoism--and a concomitant adversarial legalism.
That is, the conditional commitment of a contract means that one is disposed to
withhold one's benevolent action contingent upon a reciprocated benevolence from
others. Any limitations upon one's benevolence are thus in the direction away from
altruism, in the direction of egoism. And, to the extent that one might be disposed to
use the withholding of goods to enforce such contracts, one may even be seen to be
acting retributively, even where one does not resort to overt punishment.
2-34. The secular law, nomos or convention, is typically (though not always)
founded upon the conditional commitment of the contract, whether as a multitude of
small contracts or as some (mythical) contract encompassing virtually an entire cul-
ture: the "social contract." In such a system, both the individual and the community
recognize limits of moral obligation.
By "limits" here I simply mean the idea that, on the contractualist perspective, we
are not obligated to keep acting with good will indefinitely: at some point we may
either renege or retaliate (which may be to say the same thing), whether privately or
publicly. I am so far from holding to such a view that it now seems to me to be quite
barbaric, even though I recognize that most people see such behavior as the basis for
civilization. "What," they say, "would happen if we always treated all persons with
good, including criminals and invading armies?"
What, indeed? To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, the perfectly altruistic,
perfectly non-retributive option has never been tried--at least not on a significant
2-35. On a contractualist view (which most persons still affirm as being more or
less self-evident), I am obligated to do good unto others only to the extent that they
do good unto me. If they do evil, then I may reciprocate in kind, whether privately
or through the invoking of state authority, or else I may do so by withholding my own
The fact that appeal to the law for the enforcement of contracts is rationalized
vengeance seems self-evidently true. It is a shame that we insist upon calling it
"justice," and that most persons can conceive of no higher conception or basis for
It is also a shame that Socrates, in saying that it was never right for individuals to
retaliate against someone who had injured them personally, did not extend that insight
to apply to groups and even entire societies.
2-36. In the words of John Rawls, a modern contract theorist, the conditional
nature of moral obligation is manifested in the idea of "reciprocity," implying that
agreements entered into in the name of "justice" are to be mutually advantageous.22
In another passage, Rawls goes even further and says that "The basic idea is one
of reciprocity, a tendency to answer in kind."23 In other passages, the retributivist
connotations and implications of a principle of reciprocity are generally more muted.24
No one, on Rawls' view, is seen to be obligated to commit himself to an enduring
sacrifice for the sake of others. Rawls' remarks, although directed at the utilitarians,
can be directly as easily (and perhaps more appropriately) at the fullest expression of
Jesus' view concerning obligation: "There must be no limit to your goodness, as your
heavenly Father's goodness knows no bounds." (Italics supplied.)
As part of a general social theory, this seemingly extreme Christian teaching does
not imply that we are merely to turn the other cheek in the face of a trivial insult or
injury, whereas if someone really wrongs us, we are permitted to destroy him (or at
least sue or press charges against him). The early Christian version of the golden rule,
as exemplified in its corollaries in the Sermon on the Mount, urges us instead to be
altruistic not only with regard to small injustices but with regard to large ones as well.
We are to endure not only small sacrifices without retaliation or retribution, but
major, earth-shattering ones as well.
It is quite possible that the ethic being espoused represented a denial of the
distinction between public and private morality in a much stronger sense than did that
of the Greeks, especially if some of the more radical teachings of the Sermon on the
Mount are taken at face value as applying to the foregoing of legal appeals: "If a man
takes what is yours, do not demand it back." (Luke 6:30) If this sort of teaching is
taken seriously, then its implications are revolutionary for (and threatening toward)
an ethic built around a presumption of state authority. A refusal on the part of
citizens to judge or accuse other citizens also threatens the legal system as we know
it, by making it obsolete: no one would appeal to it, and its priesthood of lawyers
would have to find honest work.
2-37. It might be argued that Socrates' version of the social contract did not rely
upon the norm of reciprocity or mutual advantage and obligation. The obligation to
obey or to keep one's agreements might be seen to rely on unconditional commitment
for Socrates, just as it did for Jesus, since he seems to have posited something like the
golden rule.25 There is a sense in which this might be true, but it is the sense only of
an enforced virtue through the judgmental and punitive hand of the state.
It is instructive that the golden rule argument dies on the vine in the Crito, being
put to the purpose of propping up obedience to the laws of Athens, including those
that require violence.
2-38. The modern legal tradition which is a central defining characteristic of
secular thought is almost always derivative of contractualist assumptions. The
essential non-legalism of early Christian thought, by contrast, derives from the
repudiation of contractualist rationales and their concomitant foundation in the
principle of reciprocity, with its norms of conditional commitment and "mutual
advantage," both of which are founded in egoistic concerns.
The agápe concept in Christian ethics, that is, emphasizes unconditional
commitment derived from an unconditional altruism. At least two important
corollaries, that is, follow from the agápe concept: first, a principle of unconditional
altruism transcends the conditional commitment of contractualist conceptions of
obligation; second, a principle of unconditional altruism precludes violence, since
violence is based in egoistic concerns, as demonstrated by the propensity in all violent
acts to transfer risk to another party besides oneself or those with whom one identifies
(such as members of one's family or nation).
Agápe as unconditional altruism also precludes retributivism, since retributivism
as a psychological and theoretical propensity also typically rests upon egoistic
concerns--specifically the egoistic norm of reciprocity inhering in contract theory.
That is, since reciprocity implies only a conditional commitment, it is not completely
altruistic. In addition, to the extent that there is a link between retributivism and the
norm of reciprocity in much contract theory, and to the extent that this linkage is
derivative of a common foundation in a very primitive egoistic psychological and
ethical orientation, the consistent altruism of agápe implies the rejection of both
retributivism and contractualism.
In any case, it is no accident that the same ethic which said that "One must lose the
self in order to gain it" (a statement of altruism and a repudiation of egoism) also said
that one must "Turn the other cheek" (a statement of non-violence). That is, altruism
and non-retributivism are linked in the strongest possible way, and both inhere in the
By contrast, egoistic tendencies surface as insistent claims that one's own shares
and one's own protection be guaranteed. This insistence upon delineation and
protection of what is "mine" ultimately comes to its fullest theoretical fruition in legal
orders: the modern secular state.
2-39. It is surely true that living in a society in some sense implies the obligation
not only to honor one's explicit agreements within that society, but also to act and live
in good faith in general.
Whatever respect we must have for the law is only as an expression of the need to
respect the wishes, expectations, and opinions of individuals, whether we disagree or
not, and whether we believe that their wishes require us to abrogate our own desires
and moral imperatives.
Such obligation to respect others' opinions, however, most definitely does not
translate into some presumed categorical obligation to obey the law, regardless of its
content, until such time as one should succeed in changing the law.
2-40. Yet another fallacy of contract theory as the foundation of obligation--and
of a just social order--is that there is no way that the contract of the individual with
the whole society or with the legal system can be seen to be based upon that equality
of power which is necessary for the ideal contractual agreement.
Contracts become instruments of extortion in settings of inequality, and in settings
of absolute equality tend to wither away, since only prudence (on the best scenario)
would impel one to enter into a contract when other, more fully altruistic forms of
commitment and social relationship are available. On the worst scenario, persons
might enter into contracts because they expect to use economic advantage to exploit
other persons, those who have little choice but to accept the terms of the contract, no
matter how exploitative. If the state can be characterized as contract, then the
withering of the state, in whatever ideology or theology (in this world or the next),
would see the withering of smaller contracts as well, as well as a concomitant
withering of egoistic behaviors and rationales which define the culture of domination.
2-41. In a perfect world, one might still have promises to keep, but whether one
would still have contracts is another question: a contract is not most fundamentally
a promise, as Charles Fried and others have claimed.26
A contract is best viewed not as a promise, but as a threat: if you do not do your
share, I will not do mine!
2-42. When an officer of the state commands one to act, she or he threatens one
with physical or economic violence in order to ensure compliance. Such violence or
threat of violence never comes from God, for God is the author of no evil.
God, that is, is not the author of the state.
2-43. Since the state is not a person, it has no will. Thus there is no "group mind,"
no "general will," nor even any "will of the people." Only individuals, persons, have
minds or wills. Since there is not even such a thing as the "will of the people," the
idea of a "democratic state" is nonsensical. The only true democracy would be one
in which individuals ruled themselves by appeal to divine guidance.
Democratic theory is still in the eighteenth century.
2-44. Implicit in Aquinas' claim that the prince but not private individuals can
legitimately declare war is the presumption that the prince (the earthly monarch or
ruler) is ordained of God. This view is not only a rationalization for domination, of
course, but a rationalization for the most indefensible kind of domination--domination
by a monarch or dictator.
Believers in democracy might, of course, justifiably want to challenge the idea that
absolute monarchs are a form of "competent" or "legitimate authority." I should like
to go much further and challenge as well the view that coercive democracies are a
form of "legitimate authority": there is no justification possible for any kind of
institutionalized domination, whether by monarchs, dictators, or even by democra-
2-45. To say that democratic authority has no right to declare war is indeed to
make a strong claim, but it is the foundation of a critique of war in the modern age--
the age of democracies. This age shows ever so clearly that democracies have at least
as great a propensity to wage war as do other regimes.
If one wants to challenge war, domination, and mass incarceration, then one is
going to have to appeal to some higher authority than "We, the people. . . ."
2-46. "Authority" can be defined as Robert Paul Wolff defined it as the "right to
command. . . [and] the right to be obeyed."27 All that this means is some presumed
"right" to compel compliance with one's directives: a euphemism for rule by force.
But authority can also be defined in non-coercive language as "right judgment."
The two usages should never be conflated: one has to choose sides as to which
concept of authority one would prefer to wield. One of them, authority as the "right"
to command, sounds strong but is the embodiment of impotence. Authority as "right
judgment," by contrast, sounds weak, but is the foundation of a stable and enduring
The conflation of both usages in some concept of "might for right" is the most
impotent of all: it has given us not only militaries, but all political and ecclesiastical
hierarchies, including coercive democracies. "Authority," that is, as "force in the
service of justice" presupposes that the just order is compatible with violence and
The just order transcends the use of judgment, violence, and the threat of violence:
in the just order, persons use rational suasion based on "right judgment" in order to
get others to cooperate and work for common ends.
2-47. Orthodox Christianity often uses Paul's statements in Romans 13:1-7 as a
common justification of state authority:
1 Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power
but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of
God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou
then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good and thou shalt have
praise of the same.
4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that
which is evil, be afraid, for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute
wrath upon him that doeth evil.
5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for
6 For this cause pay ye tribute also, for they are God's ministers,
attending continually upon this very thing.
7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due;
custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. (King
Some--but not all--of the problems of interpreting the passage can be alleviated by
substituting the word "authority" for "power"--a substitution supported by the original
Greek (eksousia rather than dynamei). The New English Bible does use the word
"authority" in place of "power," thus avoiding the absurdity of claiming that anyone
in power, including a Hitler, is a minister of God.
Yet, even the substitution of "authority" (the word used in the original Greek) for
"power" does not seem to me to solve all of the problems with this passage. Besides,
which conception of authority should be used?
I would suggest that the passage can only be made palatable for the consistent
pacifist if a definition of authority is substituted which is based solely upon the
concept of "right judgment" (and the rule of conscience) rather than some presumed
"right to command" (and the rule of force):
Let every person be subject to right judgment. For there is no right
judgment except from God, and that right judgment which does exist is
instituted of God. Therefore he who resists right judgment resists that
which is of God, and he who resists will be judged by that right judgment.
For right judgment is not a terror to good behavior but to bad. Would you
have no fear of right judgment? Then do what is good, and right judgment
will approve. For right judgment is of God, for your own good. But, if you
do wrong, be afraid, for right judgment does not bear the sword [of
conscience] in vain: it is the minister of God executing judgment on the
wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject to right judgment, not only to
avoid the judgment of God but for the sake of good conscience. For the
same reason you also pay taxes, for those of right judgment are the minister
of God, attending to your good. Pay to all of those who are of right
judgment their due, taxes to those to whom taxes are due, revenue to those
to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom
honor is due.
That is, to Caesar pay taxes and revenue, and submit on other things when nothing
of moral value is at stake. But when that which is of moral value is at stake, submit
to God, the author of right judgment.
But did Paul mean all of this in Romans 13? I think not, even though it was
probably a deliberate choice on his part to use the Greek word for authority
(eksousia) rather than power (dynamei)--Paul was, after all, a master of the common
Although I am not a consistent admirer of Paul's point of view on all points (given
the evolution of his thinking even after his conversion), there is absolutely no question
as to the authenticity of his letters. Since this is not true on scientific grounds for any
other book in the Bible (including the book of Acts which supposedly recounts his
biography), Paul's writings deserve to be taken very seriously indeed. In any
case, in the above, I have substituted the phrase "right judgment" not only for every
reference to "power" (in the King James Version), but also for every reference to
"rulers." I have also softened other references to "vengeance" and "fear," harsh terms
which are in Paul's original Greek. And, of course, I have softened the reference to
"the sword" by referring to the "sword of conscience" for the sake of congruence.
The harshness of Paul's statement cannot, however, be so easily rationalized
away. Paul apparently meant exactly what he said about the "sword," and what he
said is surely the first significant revision of the gentle ethic of the original Christian
teachings. In Paul's defense, however, one must emphasize that at the time of the
writing of the letter to the Romans, Paul was probably much more nearly under the
influence of his training in the Mosaic tradition of divine wrath and an ethic of retribu-
tion than he would be in his later letters.
While it is true that the Greek word (eksousia) which Paul used did not mean raw
"power" at all, but "authority," there is little evidence that Paul meant authority only
as "right judgment." The overall thrust of the passage--in any respected translation
of the Bible--connotes a somewhat too great respect for state authority. Combined
with other examples of Paul's authoritarianism, exemplified throughout his letters in
such commands as "Wives, obey your husbands" and "Slaves, obey your masters," the
message is clear enough: we cannot accept the Pauline passage in Romans 13 as a
reliable guide to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul, that is, was inadvertently the first Christian revisionist. Augustine and
Aquinas--and after them Luther and Calvin--would follow his lead.
2-48. "Authority" and "author" come from the Latin roots, auctoritas and auctor,
respectively. If one believes in God, one must believe that God is the sole author and
sovereign of all that is good in creation, as well as the author and sovereign of all right
reason and right judgment. (The roots of "authority" and "author" in Latin are yet
morally neutral: one may be the author or initiator of either good or evil. On
etymological grounds, it makes perfect sense to speak of immoral authority, although
I shall use the term "authority" to refer to moral authority unless otherwise noted.)
If God is the ultimate author of all that is good, however, then one must conclude
that one's moral accountability is finally to God, the only ultimate moral "authority."
Otherwise one recognizes someone else as supreme author and sovereign, and by the
definition of sovereign ("supreme power") there can be only one.
2-49. The fact that true authority (right judgment) is not at all a function of having
the sheer coercive power to enforce compliance is self-evident, and yet one is amazed
at how often this simple insight is forgotten by those occupying positions of power.
Even the moral authority of God does not derive from his omnipotence, but from
his omniscience and especially his omnibenevolence: God does not rule by the
principle that "might makes right," that "justice is the will of the stronger." If the
authority of God derived from his omnipotence, then any being who had more power
than another would be entitled ipso facto to more respect. Authority would indeed
come to resemble Thrasymachus' definition of justice in Plato's Republic: "Justice is
the will of the stronger." But, as justice is not the will of the stronger, neither is
authority. Authority, as true moral authority, is the valid moral judgment which lies
behind the just act.
2-50. Authority in the moral sense does not inhere in any office, and no
officeholder is entitled to respect merely by virtue of the fact of holding office, for the
holding of office is synonymous with the holding of power, and power is not synony-
mous with moral authority.
Those who hold institutional positions of power not only seem to want to believe
that authority inheres in the office, but to believe as well that authority, once
established, is sufficient to command indefinite respect. Insofar as any claim to
authority is automatically suspect, however, each action and each decision must be
assessed on a continuing basis for the worthiness of the judgment behind it.
In the strict sense, then, no person qua person is authoritative or "an authority,"
since authority inheres in the decision or judgment and not in the person. Least of all
does it inhere in the office, as those in military and statist bureaucracies would have
2-51. Institutionalized applause and obeisance, as in salutes or protocols in a
variety of institutional settings, are intended to give a sense of moral authority to
judgments that may or may not be worthy of respect. The demand for such
obeisance, where required, may be honored, but not out of true moral respect. It may
be honored in the same way that one "honors" the insane, by humoring them.
It is not typically deceitful to humor those in authority, for there is an understand-
ing between those in power and those beneath them that compliance will suffice where
actual respect is lacking.
2-52. The respect for the U.S. Constitution found in many persons is a form of
scriptural inerrantism, except in this case the holy writ is not the Bible but an even
more obviously man-made document.
This fundamentalist constitutionalism is as obviously idolatrous as Bible worship,
but in this case the point of the "faithful" is not to find out what God willed or wills
but what the state wills: to find out when violence or coercion may be "legitimately"
2-53. Even some of the "procedural safeguards" founded in the Bill of Rights are
of dubious value. What is the greatness of a right to "trial by jury"? Why not affirm
instead a right to be free from trial? Trial by jury was certainly an enormous step
forward from "trial by fire" and other barbaric practices, but a trial by jury is still a
trial and thus still a barbaric practice: in this culture, trial is punishment.
As for some presumed "right" to bear arms. . . .
2-54. The problem with trials is, of course, with judgment itself. Our moral
horizons are too small. If we can only justify current practices by comparing them
with past barbarisms, then we are in trouble indeed. I envision a world in which
persons are free from judging and being judged by others, and I can try to live by that
ideal whether the world is ready to accept it or not. I cannot, it is true, stop others
from judging me, but I do not have to become a part of this nonsensical barbarism by
responding in kind with reciprocated judgment.
2-55. What is this hoopla surrounding the right to be free from "cruel and
unusual" punishment? Why not posit a right to be free from all punishment? Indeed,
to say that we have a right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment
suggests that we have a right to other kinds, a point made poignantly by the title of
Jessica Mitford's excellent book, Kind and Usual Punishment.28
2-56. Challenge the institution of punishment in general and be prepared for looks
of astonishment and indignation.
Yet, the day will come when those who tell of an ancient era of war and
punishment will be looked at with the same astonishment.
2-57. There are no more revered institutions in human cultures, even in the
"civilized" West, than judgment, war, and punishment--these three, but the greatest
evil of these is judgment, for it is the foundation of the others.
2-58. The conventional morality of "civil disobedience" typically exhibits far too
much respect for the secular law, and not enough for the moral law or the sovereignty
of God. While it is true that respect for the moral order often impels one to go public
with one's disobeyal, there is no absolute or categorical obligation in this regard:
nowhere is the injunction against "casting pearls before swine" more compelling than
with regard to one's "obligations" before the secular law.
2-59. The "buck" stops with each individual who is trying to do the will of God.
Responsibility cannot be referred or remanded to any other human being, nor to the
mythical "rule of law."
There is no intermediary in the chain of command between God and the individual:
the bureaucratic ethos and its hierarchy of moral responsibility is the ultimate
2-60. Allowing the moral judgments of others to be exercised in place of one's
own in the name of the "rule of law" or the "legal-rational model of organization"
(bureaucracy) is never authorized of God, and there is no circumstance under which
a person may morally cede his or her moral sovereignty.
Indeed, one may go so far as to say that the most immoral act of which one is
capable is to cede his moral sovereignty to another. Unfortunately, it is also the most
common act of immorality, and the most difficult to overcome because of the
pervasiveness of the legalistic, bureaucratic mindset in all organizational life.
2-61. Lincoln Allison in Right Principles defines authority as the "right to
command."29 This is a statist natural law premise, not unlike Aristotle's natural law
assumption that some must rule and others be ruled. It is the foundation of all statist
natural law, even (perhaps especially) that which is called "conservative."
Non-statist natural law (such as that set forth in this work) posits an opposing
premise: that the law of nature and of nature's God is that no one should command
or dominate another. This is perhaps only a limiting ideal, but it is one worth keeping
in mind. In the scriptural context, it finds its expression in the sayings attributed to
Jesus: "The gentiles like to lord it over one another, but it shall not be so among you.
He who would be greatest among you would be your servant."
These two opposing natural law premises, going to the very heart of political
philosophy, may be stated as the "command premise," on the one hand, and the
"service premise," on the other. The two premises are mutually exclusive, although
committed individuals might well be able to occupy positions of power without
succumbing to the statist role.
2-62. One owes respect to rulers as human beings: one owes them almost as much
respect as one owes to the janitor, the machinist, the plumber, or others who perform
One should always treat one's boss as an equal--whether he or she is or not.
2-63. Contra Paul in Romans 13, let us give God, not our rulers, the honor for all
2-64. Let us never give the impression to any person that we respect or honor
them for their power or position, or for the advantage which they might have over us.
We thereby do them, as well as ourselves, a disservice.
2-65. Although one wants to demythologize the human institutions of "authority,"
one wants to offer a serious moral caveat: the respect to be accorded to rulers as
members of the human race is not to be disparaged. In all worthy things that they ask
or command us to do, they should be assisted. If they ask or command us to do that
which is immoral or unjust, then we should not, of course, comply. We should not
presume, however, that in assuming the right not to comply with unjust commands
that we are granted thereby the right to commit injustice against such perpetrators of
injustice. While we do not have any obligation to comply with an unjust command,
neither does the commission of an injustice by a ruler grant us any title to commit the
same kind of injustice that he or she would commit by presuming the right to rule and
command other human beings.
Since the fundamental injustice of rulers is that they tend to assume that they have
the right to rule others, there is no good accomplished by teaching them the
wrongness of such an assumption by trying to wrest rule from them and to take such
rule onto ourselves, for we become in the process like them in their injustice. This is
true for both individuals and collectivities. Any individual or group which presumes
that to have the right to rule over others is guilty of an injustice. This includes
democracies, where they operate by the appeal to violence or the threat of violence,
both physical and economic, rather than by appeal to a consensus of valid ideas.
2-66. Most persons attempt to resolve conflict by starting with an appeal to those
It is far better, from a pacifist point of view, to confront the offender or the person
with whom one disagrees directly. There is some risk in this, but there is also
opportunity to learn how to resolve conflict without the use of threat or coercion.
The appeal to those in power often serves merely to transfer the risk to the other
party, as well as to forego such opportunities on the part of both parties to grow in
their ability to resolve conflict.
Where resolution is not possible, and where risk is disproportionate to what could
be gained as a result of a possible settlement, there is nothing dishonorable about
either silently enduring injustices or else fleeing the situation.
2-67. There are those who say that I should respect the President, and that, if I
cannot respect the person who is the President, I should respect the office of the
2-68. A deceitful humoring of irrational or powerful persons is a good survival
device, but such action reinforces their rationalizations and thus transfers the risks to
others who might later fall under their power. Therefore, one is obligated to confront
one's abusers with truth, even at substantial risk to oneself. Please note, however, the
2-69. Although one does want in general to enjoin young persons to avoid
working in the military if other options are available to them, and, although one
certainly wants to enjoin them to refuse to do that which, in the military or out of it,
is patently immoral, one does not want to put too much of a burden on those who
now have the option, in this country at least, of being conscientious objectors or of
otherwise legally pursuing non-combative roles. When such legal avenues of moral
action are available to them, one does not want to make them feel that their only
moral course of action is imprisonment or some other form of predictable persecution,
especially where such a course of action is unnecessary.
The burdens of resistance to war, and the attendant hazards, are great enough for
the young persons who feel the awesome power of the state and its military draft,
without making them feel unnecessarily guilty for doing those things which are in
themselves harmless or even good, such as serving as a medical corpsman. The moral
road while in the military can be a very narrow one, however, and anyone who thinks
that it will be easy to do the right thing in the military, without the expectation of
further persecution and abuse, should know that this is hazardous terrain indeed.
There is, in any case, no obligation to accept the status of conscientious objector
within the military if one's conscience tells one that the only conscientious course is
to stay out of the military entirely: the courts cannot tell a man or woman that it is
right that they should "serve" in the military simply because "the law" provides only
certain options, especially when a divinely-guided conscience tells them otherwise.
2-70. To be subpoenaed to testify against someone in a courtroom proceeding is,
for the consistent pacifist, akin to being drafted to fight in a war. He is not being
asked to use the sword directly, it is true, but he is being used to make accusations
and to promote punishment. Although the issue may seem trivial compared to that
involved in being drafted to fight or kill, the basic issue is very much the same: one
is being asked to participate in a process which is coercive and potentially violent in
its impact upon those who are accused.
Even to participate in such a process seems to violate the divine injunction not to
judge other persons.
2-71. Strategies for avoiding being "drafted" into the legal wars are even more
complex than those for the moral avoidance of the military draft. The most adamant
refusal to testify against another will at the very least get one a contempt citation from
the courts, and, if this kind of "protest" became commonplace, the state could
probably get rough enough to convince most persons that they should testify.
Clearly, the best and most consistent (as well as most honest) course of action
would be to refuse to testify in the first place. This fact reminds one that one
requirement of pacifism is the obligation to define one's loyalties in universal or
transnational terms. Clearly, once one puts on a uniform or takes the stand, one is
being asked to stand with one segment of humanity against another segment of
humanity. For the pacifist, such a stance is a denial of the brotherhood and sisterhood
of all persons, and thus the pacifist does well to stay out of uniform and off of witness
2-72. Surely a true right of the free exercise of religion would involve not only
a right not to go to war, but a right not to have to take sides or to judge, evaluate, or
testify against others in any kind of adversarial proceeding.
The state will perhaps never interpret religious freedom so broadly, of course, for
the state could not survive if it could not convince other persons that it is a just and
patriotic thing to betray or judge one another.
2-73. But what if one is the accused, and the only way to acquit oneself is to make
counteraccusations against another?
The ideal is to refrain from making those counteraccusations. But make no
mistake: this is not a situation in which one wants to be.
2-74. Let it not be forgotten: the state claims the "right" to compel some to accuse
and to testify against others. Jesus of Nazareth, by contrast, enjoins us not to judge
each other at all. Only by universal adherence to this command could war and all
oppressive social orders be defeated once and for all. In the meantime, we may as
individuals unilaterally retire from the judgmental fray without fear that we have
damaged society in the least.
2-75. What is "state authority" and the secular law such that there is a moral
obligation to clear our actions through them? To the extent that the state can
persuade persons to accept the lie of the moral authority of the state and its laws,
however, the enslavement of the populace becomes a voluntary matter: the people
become sheep in the worst possible sense of the word: their shepherd has become the
2-76. Would God have endorsed or ordained an entity which crucified the Christ?
Make no mistake: the state is evil, for it is conceived in deceit and survives through
violence. It does not come from, nor is it ordained of, God. The locus of moral
obligation does not lie in its laws.