Libyan Hypocrisies

Has anyone else noticed the odd double-standard that has characterized the media’s reporting on Libya, and even more so the politicians’ spin on events there?  

When the rebels tell chilling stories about how Gaddafi is mercilessly killing civilians, they are presented as hard fact–or rather soft, stretchy fact, that can be inflated like a balloon from “scores” to “hundreds” to “thousands.”  But when the Libyan government alleges that coalition bombs are killing civilians, these are immediately qualified with “these reports cannot be verified”; the media then hastens to raise doubts about these “allegations,” and ends by dismissing them as propaganda.

When people rose up and demonstrated against Gaddafi, no doubts were raised about their sincerity or their motives, or their numbers.  We were encouraged to believe that they were merely the tip of the iceberg, a few of untold masses who were ready to rise up and be rid of him.  But when people have taken to the streets demonstrating in favor of Gaddafi, we are first encouraged to think that they have merely been bribed, and when this argument stops working, we are reminded that there are hundreds of thousands more that did not take to the streets, and we can only assume that it is because they hate Gaddafi and are too afraid to say so.  

When the Arab League calls for a no-fly zone and invites the UN to intervene, we are told that this is absolutely crucial, that the Arab League is very important and lends legitimacy to the whole operation, that without the Arab League’s request for action, action would probably not be taken.  But as soon as the Arab League says, “Whoa, wait a minute!” and calls for a halt of coalition attacks, everyone is hastening to explain why the Arab League is unimportant, can’t be taken seriously, and can be safely ignored.

When Gaddafi makes absurd speeches and accusations, as he is wont to do, we are told that he is a lunatic and should not be listened to or believed.  But when he makes a fiery speech about how the rebels will be shown “no mercy,” but will be hunted “house to house,” then immediately these words are trumpeted far and wide, and we are urged to take them literally and with absolute seriousness, as proof that hundreds of thousands will die if we don’t intervene right away.  Worst of all, in almost every report, speech, and opinion column, a crucial caveat of Gaddafi’ threat is left out–those who continue to resist will be shown no mercy; those who surrender will be shown amnesty.  

In other words, it was precisely not civilians that he was threatening to kill, but armed rebels who continued to resist by arms.  And this is a very different matter.  Most countries reserve the right to kill armed rebels within their borders seeking to overthrow the government–that doesn’t make it right, of course, but we cannot simply call it “genocide,” as some of the more sensationalist attacks on Gaddafi have.  Indeed, many countries reserve the right to kill armed rebels within their borders who are seeking merely to secede and mind their own affairs, leaving the main government entirely alone.  Pat Buchanan pointed out the hypocrisy quite brilliantly in an editorial yesterday, 


Indeed, Gadhafi has asked of Obama, “If you found them taking over American cities by force of arms, what would you do?”

Well, when the South fired on Fort Sumter, killing no one, Abraham Lincoln blockaded every Southern port, sent Gen. Sherman to burn Atlanta and pillage Georgia and South Carolina, and Gen. Sheridan to ravage the Shenandoah. He locked up editors and shut down legislatures and fought a four-year war of reconquest that killed 620,000 Americans — a few more than have died in Gadhafi’s four-week war.

Good thing we didn’t have an “international community” back then.

The Royal Navy would have been bombarding Lincoln’s America.

Of course, it may well be that Gaddafi would’ve killed civilians anyway…certainly such an assault would have entailed many civilian deaths, intended or not.  Quite possibly, his promises of amnesty could not be trusted. Perhaps he was not merely out to vanquish rebels, but to indulge in a bloodthirsty taste for massacre.  Perhaps peace negotiations were not an option, because he was hell-bent on wanton destruction.  But if so, this should be argued for, not merely assumed.  One of the Western media’s favorite tactics is to demonize our enemies–to paint them as irrational, bestial, possessed of no shred of human feeling.  This tactic obviates any need for dialogue or diplomacy–any calls for such can be dismissed as absurd, because, “Such people simply cannot be reasoned with.”  We know a priori that they are bestial, and so are entitled to treat them as such, and to assume the worst of all their actions.  


As Christians, however, we are called to believe that love is stronger than hate, that no one is past redemption; rather than making our enemy sub-human, separated from us by an unbridgeable chasm, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of the murderer and the oppressor, because Christ made himself one of us when we were murderers and oppressors.


And this, by the way, is why I am so distressed at what is happening.  I have been a bit taken aback in the last couple days to find that my vociferous opposition to the intervention is shared by many of the arch-conservatives back home that I almost never see eye-to-eye with.  But while they may rant against the war because Obama started it, and everything he does is evil, or because it was “unconstitutional” or, worst of all (but most frequent of all), because it is not clear to them how it “serves American interests,” that is not why we must oppose it.  I’m all for helping the oppressed, not American interests.  But will this help the oppressed?  Not if it is founded on deception, as it seems to be.  Not if it shows no love of enemy, no interest in reconciliation.  Not if it is has no clear objectives or victory strategy.  In short, we must oppose it because it has given no clear evidence of being in any way a just war.  I hope in a post this weekend to analyze the conflict rigorously in terms of traditional just war criteria, to show just how seriously it falls short.


(Thanks to Nick Needham for the Buchanan link; and here are a few more for thought-provoking further reading:



Secular Resistance Theorists?

Anyone who read this blog last summer probably feels that I owe David VanDrunen a break, after my exhaustive vivisection of his Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.  Of course, to that I might reply that I have given him a break of several months, and as the crucial chapters of his book overlap with my Ph.D research so much, I find myself forced to continue to use him as a foil as I study the relationship of Scripture and “natural law” in late Reformation political theology.

In chapter four of his book, focusing on the use of natural law in the Reformed resistance theorists, VanDrunen sought to show that in the largest body of sixteenth-century Reformed political writings, it was natural law, rather than Scripture, that played the decisive role.  In the context of VanDrunen’s project as a whole, this claim serves to help undergird a narrative in which it was the use of natural law and two kingdoms doctrines in the Reformed tradition that helped open up a separate “secularized” civil sphere, insulated against the sacred concerns of the spiritual realm.  In other words, it was Reformed thinkers who helped create the notion of a political science that was for the first time not “political theology,” the notion of a state that existed to serve civil ends, not to foster religion.  

This narrative, of course, is hardly new with VanDrunen, even if his use of it to endorse a certain theological agenda is somewhat idiosyncratic.  A similar story was told by Quentin Skinner in his magisterial Foundations of Modern Political Thought, although Skinner was at pains to make the point that the contributions of the “Calvinist resistance theorists” were not uniquely “Calvinist” at all, but were in fact borrowed from the Lutherans or the Catholics.  The effect, however, was to develop, at least among the Huguenot resistance theorists, a general foundation of the people’s political rights against unjust political rule, a model of political justice and rights that did not depend on any theological agenda or program for church/state relations.  These theorists, believes Skinner, succeeded for the first time in isolating “political science” as an independent discipline that could leave theology on the sidelines; and of course, Skinner is very happy about this development. 

Skinner’s account is of course open to a whole slew of objections, whether the Cavanaughian argument that the early modern politics did not involve a desacralization of politics, but rather the transfer of sacredness from church to state, or the Eric Nelson argument (in The Hebrew Republic; similar themes are sounded by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age), that traces an actual increase of religiosity in early modern statecraft.  Indeed, I think Skinner’s portrait rests on a rather selective reading of the texts on which he builds his case. But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.  My interest here is to explore the questions that Skinner’s account raises about VanDrunen’s.  

In my review of VanDrunen’s chapter on the resistance theorists, I complained that his approach appeared to consist of little more than culling references to “nature” and the “natural” from the pages of various resistance theorists, and using this as proof that the foundation of natural law undergirded their political doctrines.  In my mind, the quotations he brings forward do not even succeed even in demonstrating that natural law as such serves as a legitimate foundation for politics in most of these thinkers, much less that it supplants Scripture as the chief foundation for politics, which is of course what VanDrunen wants to argue in his larger project.  If we accepted Skinner’s account, we might grant that something of the sort is underway (though still incomplete) in the Huguenot resistance theorists (Hotman, Beza, Mornay), but is most definitely not in the Marian writers (Knox, Ponet, Goodman).  

Indeed, Skinner argues emphatically (and, based on my reading of three of the six sources thus far, compellingly), for a fairly crucial divide between these two, which he categorizes as the difference between a “duty to resist” and a “right to resist.”  In the former group of writers, he argues, the emphasis is on the duty of the people, in particular the inferior magistrates, to resist a ruler who, by his ungodliness, has ceased to legitimately claim divine ordination and has become a destroyer of the Church and promoter of idolatry.  Sacred motives prevail over “secular” in this construction;  it is the imperative to create and protect a godly commonwealth that calls for revolution.  No one is arguing for religious toleration, since the Protestants intend to be every bit as intolerant once their rebellion has succeeded.  However, for the theorists of a “right to resist,” the issue is much less theologically charged.  The Huguenot theorists argue that based on a combination of history, Scripture, natural law, etc., we can see that rulers are created to serve their people, not vice versa, and so if the ruler becomes an enemy to his people, they have the right to resist in defence of their liberty–of their liberty, mind you, not in defence of the purity of the Church or the godliness of the commonwealth.  wNow, this is certainly a very one-sided narrative, and it is unquestionably true that the Huguenot theorists do share with the English and Scottish Calvinists a concern for a fully Reformed commonwealth, and make much of the religious dimensions of the conflict in their tracts.  However, they certainly do not do so nearly as much as the Marian exiles.

And this raises an interesting question for VanDrunen’s narrative.  If the Reformed as a whole were characterized by the theological concern to establish politics on the basis of natural law, rather than Scripture, to separate the civil kingdom of politics from the spiritual kingdom of the Church, then why should this impetus appear in only one group of Reformed political thinkers?  Because, let’s face it, even if Knox and his company are willing to speak of female rule as “a monster in nature” they aren’t about to concede that political rule as such is a matter of nature rather than religion; the most VanDrunen can seriously hope for is to enlist the Huguenots as allies.   But why does their approach differ so much? 

The answer, suggests Skinner, lies in that feature of history which VanDrunen chooses to largely ignore–concrete circumstances.  When Knox, Ponet, and Goodman wrote to address the English situation in the 1550s, they were dealing with countries that had already been substantially reformed, where the rulers had already embraced the Protestant faith and made the notion of a godly commonwealth, free of idolatry, seem like a genuine possibility.  The reassertion of Catholic rule was thus conceivably a temporary aberration, one which could be corrected with a resolute enough populace, prepared to resist and rebel.  In France, however, it was another story.  Here, the Huguenots were a bare 2-5% of the population, facing a powerful and determined Catholic monarchy.  Toleration and liberty were first on their agenda; imposing the new uniformity of a reformed commonwealth, while perhaps desirable in theory, was simply not on the radar.  Fortunately, they were not so outnumbered as it might seem, due to the presence of a widespread Catholic resentment against the Valois monarchs, particularly among the nobility.  Could these be persuaded to rebel, liberty might be achievable.  In such a milieu, it was clearly impractical to argue for the overthrow of the monarchy in the name of purging France of idolatry and making her into a Reformed nation.  If resistance was to be advocated, it would have to be on wider, religiously-neutral terms, a strictly political theory that could command wide assent among Catholic and Protestant discontents alike.  And it was such a theory that was so ingeniously crafted in the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, laying the groundwork for seventeenth-century constitutionalism, and ultimately John Locke and his ilk.  But if Skinner’s plausible narrative is to be believed, this occurred not because of some particular theological insight of Calvinism (indeed, there was nothing distinctively Calvinist in the Vindiciae, he claims), but almost as a historical accident–by the awkward position of the Huguenots that left them needing to argue against religiously-motivated tyranny on (largely) religiously-neutral grounds.

This example thus serves to expose again the failure of VanDrunen’s rather abstract, history-of-ideas approach, in which theological theory is considered in isolation from concrete historical application.  No theology is done in a vacuum, least of all political theology, and if we want to understand a theologian who tries to bring his convictions to bear on the body politic, we’d best pay attention to which body politic before we draw too many conclusions.

The Reformation’s Revolution of Romans 13

When the Reformers argued that Romans 13 established God as the direct efficient cause of civil magistracy, they put themselves into a bit of a pickle.  For of course, no one wants to make God the author of evil, and it was quite clear then as now that civil magistrates often do a heck of a lot of evil.  Of course, Calvinists are used to rebutting the charge that predestination makes God the author of evil; we distinguish between his direct providence and his indirect providence, or between what he actively ordains and what he passively permits, etc.  But this wouldn’t quite do for civil magistracy, because the Reformers were clear that Romans 13 wasn’t just about God’s providential control over rulers, but his very direct ruling in, with, and under them (if we may borrow sacramental language).  A solution (but one that was to prove treacherous) was to be found in their additional conviction that Romans 13 intended to provide a blueprint for the rationale and proper function of civil authority.  

Vermigli provides a great illustration when he faces up to the problem in his De Magistratu and in his commentary on Romans 13.  What if someone objects, “if every magistrate is divinely given, then each should always rule without fault”?  He counters that “this reason does not move us, nor should it.  The office must be distinguished from the individual.”  Evil individuals may occupy a divinely sanctioned office.  “The testimony of Daniel makes it plain that magistrates are divinely ordained, for God gives and transfers kingdoms at His own discretion.”  The office of magistrate, you see, proceeds from God in a very direct and unqualified sense.  But the particular person who occupies it does so only by the general providence of God, who oversees the rise and fall of men and kingdoms in the course of his governance over all creation–this is the point made in Daniel.  This would seem to undermine any argument for obedience, for how is any particular citizen under a particular ungodly king supposed to know that he’s supposed to submit to this particular providence, and not rather to be the providential means of the fall of this particular king?  If you want to discourage rebellion, it does little good to say that God has directly authorized the kingdom, but not necessarily the king.

So Vermigli does not mean that God merely permits tyrants to rule, rather, he directly raises them up, even if they are not acting according to the ordained function that is a proper manifestation of his will.  We see this when he turns to considers the objection from Hosea 8:4: “They have reigned but not by me”:

“They thus beastly behave themselves, have not a respect to the will of God, which is revealed unto us either by the law of nature, or in the holy scriptures.  For by that will of God their doings and endeavors are manifestly reproved.  And in this manner they are said not to reign by God, for that they apply not themselves to the written and revealed will of God.  Howbeit it cannot be denied but that God by his hidden and effectual will would have them to reign to that end which we have now declared.  For, that is not enough which some answer, that God doth not these things, but only permitteth them.  For the holy Scriptures manifestly testify, that he called the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and other nations, to vex and afflict the Israelites: and that against Solomon and other kings, he raised up enemies and adversaries, to keep them under and to chastise them.  And forasmuch as these men being thus raised up have no regard at all to the will of God, but only apply themselves to ambition, and to their own lust they grievously sin against God.  Howbeit God by them though they be never so unjust and wicked executeth his most just judgment: and therein committeth no offence.”

Vermigli can still preserve a very direct divine ordination of the wicked magistrate because, although such a magistrate does not necessarily any longer fulfill the original good office of magistracy that God has ordained (of which Rom. 13 is taken to be a blueprint), he fulfills another office–a chastisement for the sins of the people.  This is a theme that Vermigli and many of the other Reformers return to frequently–if a tyrant is in office, we must recognize it as chastisement for our sins.  In fact, this can be subsumed back under the Rom. 13 blueprint of civil authority, since one task of the magistrate there is to be a “terror to the evildoer.”  So Vermigli, despite having to separate the authorization of the office from that of the person, is able to find a way to argue that, whatever his faults, the person ends up fulfilling the authorization of the office one way or another, and hence must be accepted and obeyed.  Of course, one key caveat remains: if he commands contrary to God.  Since we are only to be subject to him as touching his function and office, “when he goes beyond, and commands any thing that is repugnant unto piety, and unto the law of God, we ought to obey God rather than men.”


It wasn’t long, though, before many Reformers were finding a reading such as this an uncomfortable constraint when faced with actual, rather than merely theoretical “tyrants”–or at least monarchs unfriendly to the Reformation.  One popular way of getting around the problem was to emphasize, as the Huguenot monarchomachs did, that the lesser magistrates were powers ordained by God too, who were also entrusted with the task of guarding the commonwealth, punishing evildoers, etc.  And this meant that in fulfillment of their tasks, they might have to restrain the chief ruler.  Another route, though, and one with even more revolutionary implications, was to press hard the distinction of office and person.  


Unsurprisingly, this was the route taken by John Knox, not one prone to half-measures.  In his famous debate with Lethington at the 1564 General Assembly, Knox was taken to task for his recent sermon on Romans 13.  Lethington summarized, “Ye made difference betwixt the ordinance of God and persons that were placed in authority, and ye affirmed that men might refuse the persons and yet not to offend against God’s ordinance.”  Knox replied that Lethington had heard him aright, and proceeded to expound further:

“First, the Apostle affirms that the powers are ordained of God [for the preservation of quiet and peaceable men, and for the punishment of malefactors; whereof it is plain that the ordinance of God] and the power given unto man is one thing, and the person clad with the power or with the authority is another; for God’s ordinance is the conservation of mankind, the punishment of vice, the maintaining of virtue, which is in itself holy, just, constant, stable, and perpetual.  But men clad with the authority are commonly profane and unjust; yea, they are mutable and transitory, and subject to corruption, as God threateneth them by His Prophet David, saying: ‘I have said ye are gods, and every one of you the sons of the Most Highest; but ye shall die as men, and the princes shall fall like others.’  Here I am assured that persons, the soul and body of wicked princes, are threatened with death.  I think that so ye will not affirm is the authority, the ordinance and the power, wherewith God endued such persons; for as I have said, as it is holy, so it is the permanent will of God.  And now, my Lord, that the prince may be resisted and yet the ordinance of God not violated, it is evident; for the people resisted Saul when he had sworn by the living God that Jonathan should die….

“And now, my Lord, to answer to the place of the Apostle who affirms ‘that such as resists the power, resists the ordinance of God,’ I say that the power in that place is not to be understood of the unjust commandment of men, but of the just power wherewith God has armed His magistrates and lieutenants to punish sin and maintain virtue.  As if any man should enterprise to take fromt he hands of a lawful judge a murderer, an adulterer or any malefactor that by God’s law deserved death, this same man resisted God’s ordinance, and procured to himself vengeance and damnation because that he stayed God’s sword to strike.  But so it is not if that men in the fear of God oppone themselves to the fury and blind rage of princes; for so they resist not God, but the devil, who abuses the sword and authority of God.”

Office and person have now become completely separable.  Sure, God ordains the office of magistrate, but he ordains it for a particular good purpose, described in Rom. 13.  If any particular magistrate fails to fulfill this ordained purpose, then he is no lieutenant of God, but of the devil, and is to unwaveringly opposed as such.  Romans 13, then, is suddenly transformed from a text chiefly calculated to instill obedience to a text authorizing and providing a litmus test for armed rebellion.


This line of argument is taken up and taken further in Knox’s ally, the opportunistic Scottish humanist George Buchanan, who in his deeply subversive dialogue, De Iure Regni Apud Scotos, despite seeking to argue from classical authorities and reason rather than Scripture, feels the need to confront Romans 13 head-on.   He too quickly succeeds in knocking out of the hands of his opponents and using it as a weapon against them.

The key again lies in reading it as a definition of the proper task of magistracy: “In his Epistle to the Romans [Paul] defines a king with almost dialectical precision: he says that the king is an officer to whom the sword has been given by God to punish the evil and to encourage and sustain the good.”  He then, citing the same passage from Chrysostom that Vermigli cites at one point in his commentary, says that these things are not written about a tyrant, “but of a true and lawful magistrate, who is the earthly representatie of the true God.”

 He strengthens this point by appealing to what he takes to be the original rhetorical context.  Here he is considerably ahead of his time, which was generally happy to apply the text first and ask questions about its original purpose later (if at all), and he pre-empts by four centuriesthe arguments of many recent interpreters of the passage–Paul was writing to combat libertines and enthusiasts: “But if you also consider what induced Paul to write these words, note that this passage may count strongly against you.  For Paul wrote it in order to censure the rashness of certain men who denied that the commands of magistrates were necessary for Christians.”  

Therefore, we are to understand that

“Paul, then, is not concerned here with those who act as magistrates but with magistracy itself, that is, with the function and duty of those who are set over others; and he is not concerned with any particular type of magistracy, but with the form of every lawful magistracy.  His argument is not with those who think that bad magistrates ought to be restrained, but with those who reject the authority of all magistrates….In order to refute their error Paul showed that magistracy is not only good but also sacred, the ordinance of God, indeed, expressly established to hold groups and communities of men together in such a way that the would recognise the blessings of God towards them and refrain from injuring one another.”

 So, by appealing to the rhetorical context, he manages to turn the passage into a discourse on civil authority in the abstract, rather than any kind of concrete command to submission.  Paul has no intention of authorizing tyrants, only magistracy in general: “You will find nothing in Paul to show why they [tyrants] should not be punished for violating the laws of God and of man.  For he discusses the power of magistrates as such, not how evil men evilly wield that power.  Indeed, if you measure tyrants of that kind against Paul’s rule, they will not be magistrates at all.”  He recognizes God’s  providential use of such rulers, but is not willing to give them any direct divine authorization, since that would make God the author of evil: “God sometimes appoints an evil man to punish evil men, but no one in his right mind will dare to assert that God is the author of human malice, just as everyone knows that He is responsible for punishing evildoers.”

So we may justly conclude that “the definition of a power laid down by Paul does not apply to tyrants at all, since they devote the strength of their authority to the fulfilment of their own desires, not to the benefit of the people.”  Romans 13, by defining the right use of authority, thus serves as a basis for identifying improper authorities, and by implication, absolving people from any duty to obey this.  

Buchanan, though, is a bit shrewder than Knox, for he realizes that he will have to do a bit more to get around a potential objection–after all, wasn’t Romans 13 written to people under Nero?  Weren’t rulers like Caligula and Nero precisely the sort of people that, on Buchanan’s reading, Paul should have been encouraging Christians to resist.  His next move serves to historically relativise the passage (a revolutionary move among his contemporaries)–it was a pragmatic command to Christians in a particular circumstance, but not one that should apply in all times and all places.  

“Paul wrote this in the very infancy of the church, when it was necessary not only to be above reproach, but also to avoid giving any opportunity for criticism to those looking even for unjust grounds for making accusations.  Next, he wrote to men brought together into a single community from different races and indeed from the whole body of the Roman Empire.”  

These were mostly lower class people, who had no powers in the government.  

“If such people had tried to take any part in government, they would inevitably have been thought not only foolish but quite out of their minds; still more so if they had come out of their hiding-places and made trouble for those who controlled the government.” 

In other words, these were people who simply weren’t in a position to rebel successfully.  Their only option was patient submission, and so that’s what Paul counselled.  No doubt he would say the same in the sixteenth century, Buchanan says, to Christians living under the Turks–as they are in a position of impotence, quietism is the only option. 

Needless to say, this last development is one that would’ve deeply unnerved Knox, who was determined to make every political declaration in Scripture a direct command to his own day; to suggest that certain key passages might have had force only in a particular situation, and our own situation is to be addressed, as Buchanan thought, simply by reason, flew completely in the face of Knox’s biblicist agenda.  However, the Scottish Reformation made very strange bedfellows, of whom Knox and Buchanan are perhaps two of the strangest.