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St. Paul’s Romans 13: The Ruler and the Sword

by Tony M.

There is a tendency in some circles to want to interpret a biblical passage in a way that is novel, or at least in a way “hidden” from casual view. There is something fine and delightful in noticing a meaning, on your own, that others had not told you already. There is something tempting in being able to report that meaning to others as “your own” discovery, for then you can show yourself to be wise, learned, and to be respected. That temptation leads some to fall, because wanting to be considered wise, learned, and to be respected is sometimes NOT from God, but from the other direction.

In quite the opposite direction, though, reliance on the commentary and explanations of our fathers in the faith, namely, the Apostles and after them the Fathers of the Church, and the successors of the Apostles the bishops, is a high and worthy attitude. Faith comes through hearing, and we hear the teaching of the Bible when we hear the people through whom the Bible, together with its meaning, were transmitted down the centuries, those who identified for us which books were the inspired word of God, and who taught us to reverence them properly as inspired, inerrant, and is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Today I brush off for discussion Romans 13:1-7.

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

The “reading” of this passage by some modern commentators is that it is “all about taxes”: pay your taxes so you don’t create problems for the Christian community.

A comment by E. Christian Brugger is as follows:

Following a common interpretation of biblical scholars, the passage does not affirm a universal principle about the state’s right to kill criminals. Since the verse “if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain” is in the wider context of an exhortation to Christians in Rome to be obedient to civil authority, especially by paying their taxes (see verse 6)—which some were disinclined to do because of their newfound “liberty” in Christ—these scholars argue that it refers to the general policing authority of the Romans to enforce tax collection. In this case, the metaphor of the sword, a likely reference to the use of lethal force, does not refer to the state’s penal authority (and so a fortiori not to its right to inflict capital punishment), but to the sword’s use in policing, which does not necessitate intentional killing, but rather unintentional killing in the pursuit of rendering aggressors incapable of causing harm in the enforcement of the law.

Here is another quote cited in a blog (which also cites the quote above), taking the quote from a book Christian Ethics: The Issues of Life and Death (edited by Larry Chouinard, David Fiensy, George F. Pickens, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003)

More recent lexical work has emphasized that: 1) the word for sword in Romans 13:4, macaira, denoted a short sword or dagger, thus unsuitable for beheading someone in execution. . . . 3) When macaira was used in official contexts it referred not to executions but to the police force. Thus, Paul is referring to the civil government’s power to force compliance in paying taxes. . . .

Romans 13:1-7 cannot bear the weight that proponents of capital punishment have put on it. Once again, one of the main supports for the Christian belief in the death penalty is weakened, if not destroyed, when we attend to the historical situation and the context. A text instructing Christians to pay their taxes can hardly be appropriated to defend maintenance of the death penalty. And if the two main props for capital punishment (Gen 9:6 and Rom 13:1-7) are removed, why would one want to advocate the death penalty any further? (p. 246)

Let’s ignore the fact that both of these sources WANT the passage to be about something other than the licit “power of the sword” in the sense of intentionally lethal force, and so they search for some other meaning (any other will do): they have an axe to grind. To be fair, I am dealing with this passage precisely because I think it offers support for the state’s licit power of lethal force. Let us (for the moment) allow that these cancel each other out, and bypass the ad hominem matter of the exegete’s intention in searching for the meaning.

What I want to do, rather, is to get at more serious and weighty arguments, and even more about how to go about considering a passage from Scripture (and how not to).

For we have not just many modern interpretations to look at: we have the authority of the Fathers of the Church to aid us. For all Christians, but especially for Catholics, if the Fathers weigh in on a Scripture passage, and have the same understanding of it, that understanding is authoritative. These are the very same men from whose teaching and preaching the early generations (after the time of the Apostles) of Christians received their faith, for “faith comes through hearing”, and while these Christians, especially in the years 100 through 300, had the writings of the gospels and epistles, they had no confirmed, universally agreed canon of the Scriptures to rely on, and they necessarily relied on those who received their faith from listening to the Apostles directly. We can do the same, and rely on them.

And when we turn to the Fathers, what do we find? St. John Crysostom:

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.”

Of this subject he makes much account in other epistles also, setting subjects under their rulers as household servants are under their masters. And this he does to show that it was not for the subversion of the commonwealth that Christ introduced His laws, but for the better ordering of it, and to teach men not to be taking up unnecessary and unprofitable wars. For the plots that are formed against us for the truth's sake are sufficient and we have no need to be adding temptations superfluous and unprofitable. And observe too how well-timed his entering upon this subject is. For when he had demanded that great spirit of heroism, and made men fit to deal either with friends or foes, and rendered them serviceable alike to the prosperous and those in adversity and need, and in fact to all, and had planted a conversation worthy of angels, and had discharged anger, and taken down recklessness, and had in every way made their mind even, he then introduces his exhortation upon these matters also. For if it be right to requite those that injure us with the opposite, much more is it our duty to obey those that are benefactors to us. But this he states toward the end of his exhortation, and hitherto does not enter on these reasonings which I mention, but those only that enjoin one to do this as a matter of debt. And to show that these regulations are for all, even for priests, and monks, and not for men of secular occupations only, he has made this plan at the outset, by saying as follows: let every soul be subject unto the higher powers, if you be an Apostle even, or an Evangelist, or a Prophet, or anything whatsoever, inasmuch as this subjection is not subversive of religion. And he does not say merely obey, but be subject. And the first claim such an enactment has upon us, and the reasoning that suits the faithful, is, that all this is of God's appointment.

For there is no power, he says, but of God. What say you? It may be said; is every ruler then elected by God? This I do not say, he answers. Nor am I now speaking about individual rulers, but about the thing in itself. For that there should be rulers, and some rule and others be ruled, and that all things should not just be carried on in one confusion, the people swaying like waves in this direction and that; this, I say, is the work of God's wisdom. Hence he does not say, for there is no ruler but of God; but it is the thing he speaks of, and says, there is no power but of God. And the powers that be, are ordained of God. …

“For he bears not the sword in vain.” You see how he has furnished him with arms, and set him on guard like a soldier, for a terror to those that commit sin. “For he is the minister of God to execute wrath, a revenger upon him that does evil.” Now lest you should start off at hearing again of punishment, and vengeance, and a sword, he says again that it is God's law he is carrying out. For what if he does not know it himself? Yet it is God that has so shaped things (οὕτως ἐτύπωσεν). If then, whether in punishing, or in honoring, he be a Minister, in avenging virtue's cause, in driving vice away, as God wills, why be captious against him, when he is the cause of so many good doings, and paves the way for yours too? Since there are many who first practised virtue through the fear of God. For there are a duller sort, whom things to come have not such a hold upon as things present. He then who by fear and rewards gives the soul of the majority a preparatory turn towards its becoming more suited for the word of doctrine, is with good reason called the “Minister of God.” [Homily on Romans 23]

Theodoret of Cyr

Even priests, bishops, and monks must obey the commands of secular rulers. Of course, they must do so insofar as obedience is consistent with godliness. … The holy apostle teaches that both the authorities and obedience depend entirely on God’s providence, but he does not say that God has specifically appointed on person or another to exercise that authority. For it is not the wickedness of individual rulers which comes from God but the establishment of the ruling power itself…. Since God wants sinners to be punished, he is prepared to tolerate even bad rulers. [Interpretation of the Letter to the Romans.]


It is right to submit to authority whenever a command of God is not violated thereby. [Exegetic Homilies 15-9.] [Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Volume VI - Romans. Most of the following are found in this google book.]


This is an argument against those who thought that they were obliged to use their Christian Freedom in such a way that they gave honor or paid taxes to nobody. Paul wants to humble such people in any way he can, so that they will not suffer reproach on account of their pride instead of on account of God. It seems that Paul is speaking of secular authorities, not all of whom will be just, even if they received their authority from God…The ruler is set up by God to judge with righteousness, so that sinners might have reason to be afraid should they sin. ...

The wicked should be afraid of the authorities, but the god have no reason to fear, for they come into glory if they are killed unjustly. Paul says: “Take my advice and you will never be afraid.” Condemnation of the wicked is in itself commendation of the good. [Pelagius’s Commentary on Romans]


"Judas the Galilean revolted in the days of the census”, says Gamaliel in the Acts of the Apostles, “and drew away some of the people after him”, refusing to obey the order of the Romans and register their goods, for which reason Quirinius had been sent to Syria. … But as Judas’s decision was the cause of domestic murders and of a rebellion against the authorities which did much harm to the people, it seems to me that the apostle is condemning any attempt to imitate him based on the illusion that it is a godly thing to disobey rulers. He has a good deal to say about this, condemning it as a mistaken way of thinking. [Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church]


The book of Proverbs teaches us that kings do not come to rule apart from the dispensation and will of God: Through me kings reign and princes decree justice. [same]


As Paul has already ordered that the law of heavenly righteousness be followed, he now commends the earthly law as well, so as not to appear to be slighting it. For if the earthly law is not kept, the heavenly law will not be kept either. The earthly law is a kind of tutor, who helps little children along so that they can tackle a stronger degree of righteousness. For mercy cannot be imputed to anyone who does not seek righteousness.

Therefore, in order to back up the authority and fear of the natural law, Paul bears witness to the fact that God is the author of both and that the ministers of the earthly law have God’s permission to act, so that no one should despise it as a merely human construction. In effect, Paul sees the divine law as being delegated to human authorities. ...

Since God has ordained that there will be a future judgment and he does not want anyone to perish, he has ordained rulers in this world who, by causing people to be afraid of them, act as tutors to mankind, teaching them what to do in order to avoid future punishment. [my emphasis] [Commentary on Paul’s Epistles]


In what sense is a judge in this world the servant of God?... It seems to me that this questions is answered by that passage in the Acts of the Apostles where the decision was taken to impose only certain ritual obligations on Gentile believers. They were told to abstain what had been sacrificed to idols, from blood and from fornication, but nothing was said about murder, adultery, theft, homosexuality or other crimes which are punished by both divine and human laws. Now if what was explicitly forbidden to the Gentiles was all they had to do, then it would seem as if these other things were all right. But look at how the Holy Spirit has organized everything. Because these other crimes are already punished by secular law, it seemed superfluous to add a divine prohibition as well. All that he decreed concernin g matters which seemed right from the divine point of view but which were not covered by human laws. It is in this way that a human judge acts as a servant of God. For God wants these crimes to be punished by human judges and not by representatives of the church. [Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans]

St. Augustine:

This is helpful for understanding that because of this life we must be subject and not offer resistance if anyone wants to take something from us, if it is in his power to do so, because authority has been given to him over temporal things, which will pass away. We are not to be subject in those good things which remain forever, but only in the needs of this age.

But when he says one must be subject. lest anyone submit to the authorities halfheardely and not from pure love, Paul adds: not only to avoid…wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. that is to say, you should not submit simply to avoid the authority’s anger, which can be done by pretense, but so that you might be assured in your conscience that you are doing this out of love for him. For you submit at your Lord’s command. [On Romans 74]

So what are we to make of the treatment that says that the passage is “[a] text instructing Christians to pay their taxes”? Does that directly contradict the Fathers?

Well, not quite. For one thing, we have the quote from Pelagius that mentions Christians who thought they were able to use the faith to get out of paying taxes. Here is another text:


Paul is saying here that we bear witness to the benefits which the ruler gives us by paying him a salary. The taxation system may seem to be burdensome and annoying, but Paul turns it into proof that rulers care for their people. Why, after all, do we pay taxes to the emperor? Is it not because he provides for us?

But can it be said that the inclusion of the tax issue here may be understood – in the minds of the Fathers – as consistent with the position that Paul is NOT supporting the claim of the state to penal authority, even to the extent of lethal means?

No. It cannot.

To say so would contradict the meaning of the Fathers. If you follow the threads of each of them, and all of them together, taxes is merely one instance of the particulars to which the principle applies. Chrysostom makes this point explicitly: Hence he does not say, for there is no ruler but of God; but it is the thing he speaks of, and says, there is no power but of God. Paul is talking about ruling authority in general, not about this or that ruler, nor (merely) about this or that use of it. He is saying that authority IN GENERAL is from God and to be obeyed. Taxes only come into it at verse 6, and in verse 7 it is matched up as just one element of a list of others, so it is JUST ONE EXAMPLE. That’s all it is, not the core, central facet of the passage.

Let’s examine a few of the details of the people who claim a different reading than that of the classical patristic teaching. They say that Jesus said to “turn the other cheek” and “do good to those who harm you”. Therefore, Romans cannot be used to support the general power of the state to penalize wrongdoing. Does this work?

By no means. Chapter 13 is not set in a vacuum, it comes immediately after – you guessed It (you may go to the head of the line) - chapter 12. Now chapter 12 has Paul telling Christians what it will look like to be transformed, and urge them to conform to that. The highest and most difficult, perhaps, are the injunctions to “bless those who persecute you”, and “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Let’s take a look at an explanation:

The quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35 (which follows the Palestinian Targum reading more closely than it does the Hebrew) is often misunderstood because of the frequent use of the translation "vengeance." Linguistically this is unfortunate. The Hebrew here has nqm, the Aramaic of the Targum nqmta. It has a special meaning of the executive intervention in action by the supreme authority to make things right -- whether that requires favorable or unfavorable action. There are two very different things. One is to seek revenge, which is morally wrong, and God of course does not do it. It is to will evil to another so it may be evil to him -- the opposite of love, which wills good to another for the other's sake. A very different thing is to will that the moral order, disturbed by sin, be righted. God Himself does that. But He wants us to leave it to Him, for it is so easy to slide over the line between a desire for the rebalancing of the objective order, and immoral vengeance. [The MOST Theological Collection: Commentary on the Pauline Epistles]

But just 4 verses later, Paul says that “He is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” There can be no possible doubt that Paul is placing private vengeance out of bounds and NOT doing so for the ruler, on behalf of the state (which is for God). The comment above explains this: in Dueteronomy, God is referring to the executive authority to “make things right”. And Ambrosiaster said “In effect, Paul sees the divine law as being delegated to human authorities.” Thus Paul more or less explicitly says God puts that authority of nqm into civil rulers’ hands, for the ruler “is the servant of God” specifically for the execution of “his wrath on the wrongdoer”. And this is a GENERAL proposition, not something that pertains specifically to taxes alone. Nobody would suppose that the passage in chapter 12 about taking revenge is about taxes and nothing else. So it makes no sense to argue that Paul, in talking about the ruler and his authority to execute God’s wrath is “is merely about taxes.” It would be using an artillery round to hit a fly. [See this link for examination of why imposing penal “evils” is good.]

Here's another: They say, for example, that the term “sword” is really a “dagger” and is meant for police, not meant for capital punishment, and thus Paul is saying beware of upsetting order such as causing riots or committing crime because the police will get you. Does this work?

By no means. The word in Greek is (as indicated above) macaira, μαχαίρα, a word which is used in a lot of varying contexts. Here is a commentary on Ephesians about the word, (used in the context of “sword of the Spirit” so it has absolutely no connection with the debate about the DP):

Καί την μαχαίρα τον πνενμτος, “and the sword of the Spirit.” With the connective conjunction Καί, “and”, Paul mentions the second item to be grabbed just before the attacks of the devil and his armies. It is the μαχαίρα, “sword”. It is a common term for a large knife that was used for many purposes, including carving and sacrifice. As a weapon, it was a short sword or dagger, later a sabre as opposed to the straight sword. In the LXX it occurs 188 times (175 times in the canonical books) and translates four Hebrew words, but translates around 160 times for XXX, a common word for sword [I cannot reproduce the Hebrew]. In the LXX, μαχαίρα denotes a flint knife used for circumcision (Josh 5:2-3), a barber’s razor (Ezek 5:2 but 5:1 uses ρομφαία for the barber’s razor), but primarily a sword, a weapon of war (Exod. 15:9; Judg 3:16; 2 Sam 20:8; Job 1:15; Jer 12:12; 47:6). In the NT the word is used twenty-nine times, only three times by Paul (Rom 8:35; 13:4; Eph 6:17). It is used as a military sword in all instances but two, once referring to believers who are persecuted or slain with a sword (Rom 8:35), and once referring to a surgeon’s knife (Heb 4:12). The other word for sword (ρομφαία) us used only seven times in the NT, and is the large and broad Thracian sword. Although in the LXX both terms translate primarily the same [Hebrew] word XXX, somewhat blurring the distinction, it is generally thought that ρομφαία does refer to a large, broad sword whereas μαχαίρα is used of a relatively short sword (or dagger). This latter is in keeping with the Roman’ soldier’s sword (gladius), known as the Spanish sword. Its double-edged blade was “two inches (5 centimeters} wide and two feet long {60 centimeters) and was admirably suited…

“[I]s in keeping with the Roman soldier’s sword (gladius), known as the Spanish sword.” Known also the world over as the “Roman short sword”. Used by the legions for over 200 years to conquer the known world.

They call it “a dagger”, [Stop. Go back to that phrase and recall Gimli in Moria when he says "and they call it a mine, a mine.] as if meant “only for police work”, so as to quell a fighting or fleeing criminal. The weapon used to conquer a continent. Let’s not grant over-much weight to THIS particular objection. (I.E. relegate it to the junk—bin it deserves.)

Now, maybe a Roman executioner would often use a different instrument for death. I don’t know. Probably, there was a fair amount of variation between cities and provinces, frankly, because gladiators (there’s that root word again) used all sorts of weapons, and death was doled out by people involved in the whole officialdom of violence. Of which there was a lot. Sure, some people were beheaded, but many were not. And in earlier times, an axe was used for beheading, though it seems the sword was considered more honorable by Paul's time. But then it might be limited to citizens. All in all, there is little room to conclude that by referencing "the sword" Paul positively did not mean to include capital punishments - even if he DID mean the Roman short sword.

Which raises another important point: let’s not fall into an anachronism about “separation of powers” here. Maybe in Rome city, strictly, the “police” powers were separated from the military – after all, (at least before Julius Caesar, some 70 years earlier) the legions were not supposed to traipse around Rome itself – but in the provinces, the military WAS the police. The local provincial ruler used the army for police work. To send out the police was to send out soldiers. This is what instilled fear into the subject populations. (Only the LOCAL potentates (to the extent Rome allowed them) would have had guards and ‘police’ that were different from the Roman soldiers).

And Paul had never been to Rome at this point when he was writing his epistle. He was anticipating going to Rome, which he dearly longed to do. Of what he had seen all around the Roman provinces of Galilee, Judea, Syria, Achaia, etc., what he had seen was Roman rulers using soldiers as police. Presumably, with the Roman short sword a great deal of the time. A reference to the macaira would not be meant to single out a “police” power meant solely to stop a crime that is occurring right now, as if the police were a separate body from those who waged war or from those who punished crime.

And given that when Paul uses macaira he uses it to refer to the general authority to enforce God’s wrath, by using the sword most commonly found in the possession of ALL soldiers (all men ordained to enforce Roman rule in the provinces) it would mean to pull in the FULL extent of punishment available to the ruler, not just “non-lethal” punishments. Besides, nobody would bother to use “dagger” to mean “non-lethal punishments” anyway. They might use the club, or the whip, or chains, but not any kind of cutting blade - certainly not one for which their training was to stab to kill.

So what we have here is that the objections to the patristic interpretation fall flat on their faces. They were weak to begin with, and when you carefully pull at them a little they are not supportable, they are entirely without merit.

What is the proper interpretation of the passage, then? Does it entail the use of penal authority? Well, we don’t really even have to resort to authors as “late” as the early Fathers, because we have Peter say explicitly the same thing:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 1 Pt 2:13-15.

As a bit of additional explanation, I picked out this section from St. Thomas’s commentary on the passage in Romans:

Fourthly, he assigns the reason, saying: For he is God’s minister for your good. This is clear in regard to the proper order of rulers. For they are under the authority of God, the supreme ruler, as His ministers: "Because as ministers of his kingdom, you did not rule rightly" (Wis 6:4). But the ruler and the ministers work for the same end: "Like the magistrate of the people, so are his officials" (Sir 10:2). Therefore, just as God works for the good of those who do good, so also do rulers, if they perform their office properly. Furthermore, even wicked rulers are God’s ministers for inflicting punishments according to God’s plan; although this is not their intention: "Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger, the staff of my fury" (Is 10:5) "But he does not so intend" (v. 7). And also because such wicked rulers sometimes afflict good men, God permitting who profit thereby; for "we know that in everything God works for the good with those who love him" (Rom 8:28). Then when he says, But if you do wrong, he shows the necessity of this teaching. For it has been stated that if you do right, you will not fear authority; but if you do wrong, be afraid, because you have reason to fear: "Destruction to evildoers" (Pr 10:29); "Wickedness is a cowardly thing, condemned by its own testimony" (Wis 17:11). Secondly, he assigns the reason, saying: for he does not bear the sword in vain. He uses language in keeping with the practice of rulers who carried the instruments of punishment as signs of their power; for example, a bundle of rods for whipping, and axes or swords for killing: "Be afraid of the sword, for wrath brings the punishment of the sword" (Jb 19:29). Thirdly, he explains the reason, saying: He carries the sword, because he is God’s minister to execute his wrath, i.e., God’s wrath, i.e., His just judgment, on the wrongdoers: "Those who do evil are an abomination to kings, for the throne is established by righteousness" (Pr 16:12). From this it is clear that it is not only lawful but meritorious for rulers to execute vengeance on the wicked, when it is done out of zeal for justice.

You should really read the whole passage, not just this section, because Aquinas lays out the logic of the whole text as well as the meaning of the parts: “After showing how man should behave toward God by using the gifts of His grace [n. 953], the Apostle now shows how man could comport himself toward his neighbor. First, in regard to superiors; secondly, toward all...”

In particular, what Pelagius says ("the good have no reason to fear, for they come into glory if they are killed unjustly") and what Chrysostom says ("You see how he has furnished him with arms, and set him on guard like a soldier, for a terror to those that commit sin") indicate that death is specifically in their minds as the punishments doled out. Origen is even more complete, though implicit: the civil authority punished many crimes with death, and "because these other crimes are already punished by secular law, it seemed superfluous to add a divine prohibition as well" implies consent that the death penalty is used at God's will.

So, when you read the interpretations of the Fathers, and the way Peter supports that in his own epistle as intending PENAL authority, and the way Aquinas connects the dots with Wisdom, Proverbs, Isaiah, and Job, including LETHAL punishment, there is no reason at all to give way to modern interpretations which cavil at such penal claims, and on such weak and watery grounds.

Which gets me to the final point here: what is the motivation of seeking out “what modern Scripture scholars are saying” about a biblical passage, when those are (a) read without testing and critical thinking; (b) when they contradict the entire body of patristic authors who speak to the issue (and who do so, notably, without any good reason); and (c) (for a Catholic, anyway) when they are primarily taken from non-Catholic authors and exegetes who CLEARLY have an axe to grind with some tenet of Catholic teaching? Doing ANY of these is poor work. Doing all of them is execrable.

Lydia McGrew spent the better part of a year teaching us all to look more carefully at claims of modern biblical scholars, because a pretty large share of them are junk. There is a LOT of bad methodology as well as bad theory behind modern biblical scholarship, and just pointing at 5 or 10 or 50 current authors who think Romans 13:1-7 cannot be used to support a Pauline teaching for the use of the death penalty, does not mean that even a single one of them is worth the spit it takes to spit on them. For a Catholic, he has an even stronger reason to avoid such a mistake: when the Fathers agree on a passage, that agreement is authoritative. NOTHING in the Fathers’ interpretations leaves room in the least for a thesis that the text is not meant to support the civil penal authority as a whole. The intent behind "the sword", that the penal authority extends even to death, is also clear from what the Fathers say, although they are more indirect about it. Certainly no reading of the passage that intentionally limits the penal authority to non-lethal means can be consistent with what the Fathers actually say, much less with what they imply.

Comments (5)

This seems to complement your argument, Tony: Suppose that someone refuses to pay his taxes and then tries to run away when he is arrested for refusing to pay his taxes. Presumably he will be threatened with force for doing so, up to and including (if he is incorrigible, attacks guards, etc.) lethal force. There is no way to have a "police power" for anything, including enforcing taxes, without at least in theory the possibility of using deliberately lethal force. The separation between a "policing" and an "executing" use of force is ultimately fairly artificial.

It's true, Lydia. And in my book, the police power (as we understand it) is inherently tied up in the state's writ to use intentionally lethal force anyway.

But E. Christian Brugger views it differently. As a proponent of the New Natural Law theory, he holds that intentionally killing anyone is immoral always and everywhere. To allow for self-defense, he accounts for the death as being "not intentional" because what you intend is to stop the attack, not the death of the aggressor. The literature is somewhat reasonably read to admit this.

He maintains, however, that the DP does amount to intentionally causing death, and that it is immoral for this reason. In his view, then, the police power to apprehend criminals - even at the cost of lethal force - is to be accounted like self-defense: not "intentional" death, but intentionally stopping the flight or aggression with force.

I consider the NNL theory on this point (DP) to be either flat out heretical, or so nearly so as effectively makes no difference, but I understand that not everyone who disputes NNL thinks the same. In any case, there is at least one flavor of NNL that attempts to give a possibility of a licit death penalty, by arguing that the state intends not the DEATH, but intends to take away all other goods of life: the good of breathing, the good of blood flowing through your veins, the good of thinking, the good of having a brain not turn to septic mush, ... I think it's a pretty funny idea, but I am willing to hold it up to the (now) "standard" NNL theory on the DP as being a reproach of their whole construct.

It would be helpful, I think, if a distinction were made between force and violence. Those whose theology condemns the lawful use of the death penalty and the fighting of defensive and just wars generally employ the latter term as if all lethal uses of the former on the part of the state fall under its umbrella.

It sounds like an attempt to make absolute pacifism compatible with some measure of common sense. But since absolute pacifism is *not* compatible with common sense...

I recently read a novel by Michael D. O'Brien, whom I admire a lot as a novelist. But he is pretty clearly a pacifist, and occasionally this becomes obtrusive. This novel is his only attempt at science fiction--moderately successful. But there is one scene where a bad guy is trying to take over the spaceship and (spoiler alert)...

kills the captain. The main character happens to have a gun. (This is rather unusual in the circumstances, but he has one.) He's one of the good guys, though not a Christian believer. He pulls out his gun and tries to kill the bad guy who has just killed the captain and is in the middle of hijacking the ship. And, wouldn't you know, a nearby priest jumps in and yells, "No" to him and jumps in between and gets himself accidentally killed. *Then* the main character shoots again and kills the bad guy.

And the author clearly wants us to think that it was wrong of the main character to try to kill the bad guy and that it's right (and ultimately redemptive) for him to feel horribly guilty about having accidentally killed the priest, who was his friend, recognizing the darkness in his own heart, etc., etc.

Whereas I'm reading it thinking, "Darn it! Why didn't the priest just *stay out of the way* while he was stopping the hijacking by killing the bad guy?"

Gerry, there are those who like to imagine that when Christ said to turn the other cheek, and forgive your enemy of the wrongs he does you, that this applies always and everywhere to all wrongdoing of any kind, and that "forgiveness" implies "no punishment at all".. To them, "force" against a person just is violence. They are wrong, but the concept does have a sort of internal consistency.

Mind you, I don't know of any human being who actually carries this off 100%. For one thing, I think that all parents of little kids use force on them at some time or other. If only to keep them from wandering into the street. Toddlers to 5 year olds just plain NEED force from time to time, even when you aren't trying to punish them. You sometimes have to use force to make them take their medicine. I suppose that if an adult doesn't have kids, they might possibly manage to live by absolute pacifism 100%, but even that's only plausible because we live in a society that has spent the last 50 years creating lawsuits against every sort of violence you can imagine. They would have had a heck of a lot harder time of it 70 years ago, not to mention 170 years ago.

As for those who want to allow force for self-defense, I don't know what to say. They want there to be some hard fire-wall between using force to defend a person at the very instant of attack, and violence, but they want police to be able to use force to arrest someone, and to use force to quell a resister, or to capture an escaped convict... And to force someone to remain in a prison. And on and on and on... but not to use force to punish someone? When keeping them in prison IS BY FORCE?

All in all, I think most of the "self-defense only" crowd simply do not understand even the concept of retributive justice, and they think that prison is fundamentally for restraint, not for penalty. You run into this regularly: what "good" is punishing someone? "It just repeats the cycle of violence." Gaaah!

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