Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and other Republicans are making a show of defying a federal plan to resettle Mideast refugees in Tennessee. But the resistance is not anywhere near close to espousing the doctrine of the lesser magistrate. That doctrine is a lawful resistance to the lawless use of power, and requires a sense of antithesis and a recognition that human authority in the exercise of the sword of justice is delegated by God. God has created two ministries, the ministry of grace (the church) and the ministry of the sword (the judge, or in modern days the state). Each has a duty to secure Christian civilization, prosperity and justice. — DJT
By Bojidar Marinov
I’m sorry I need to burst this bubble, but the Republican governors’ “rebellion” against Obama’s refugee resettlement plan is not an application of the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate.
Yes, I know, the temptation to ascribe such noble motives to them, and to see the seeds of righteous resistance against tyranny in our country growing steadily is great. The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate has been gaining momentum among quite a few Christians, and among some government officials and political representatives as well. It seems the perfect political solution to the growth of tyranny in America to all of us who desire a political U-turn but want to avoid the bloodshed and chaos that have historically accompanied such U-turns. So, yes, it’s normal to expect to see it applied in our government – especially given that the U.S. does traditionally have a layered form of government which is decentralized and therefore gives enough liberty to local officials to resist.
I need to offer this caveat, though: The same doctrine would be completely useless outside the US, where local “magistrates” are simply employees of the central government. In the UK, for example, the resistance of local officials to tyranny would be nothing less than rebellion no different than the rebellion of private individuals; a lesser magistrate is simply not a magistrate anymore if he fails to obey the will of his sovereign, the centralized state. Thus, in its pure form, the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate works as a deterrent to tyranny only where tyranny has already been pushed back and thus room for independent action has been legally secured; and in our modern world, this means only a few polities in the world, limited to the U.S., Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and may be South Africa – and these polities trace their liberties back not to bloodless reforms but to violent revolutions which forced the central government to agree to limit its powers.
For all the other countries in the world, another Biblical solution to tyranny must be sought; or, the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate must be modified to an extent which may nullify its very name. The Bible does give examples of righteous resistance of lesser magistrates, but also gives examples of righteous resistance of private individuals of no government authority whatsoever. We need to be careful to not offer as “the Biblical solution” something that is specifically applicable only to the U.S. today, and ignores the historical context that brought us so far, which most nations in the world are still lacking.
Fake uses of righteous doctrine
But we also need to be careful to not lend the name of a legitimate Biblical principle to actions and policies that are by motivation, design, and ethical nature anti-Biblical and anti-Christian. Once we start doing this, we will be justly accused of misusing the Bible to serve pagan agendas, and thus we will destroy our own credibility and harm the reputation of the Gospel. Such actions and policies – especially when used by agents of the civil government – may ostensibly resemble Biblical actions and policies but in reality be opposed to them: the obvious example being government welfare which ostensibly “helps the poor” but in purpose and reality is designed to be institutional theft and therefore a violation of the Eighth Commandment.
Thus, not every conflict between a higher and lower layer of the civil government is by default an example of the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate. In fact, we should expect that given the anti-Christian character and motivation of modern civil government institutions, most such conflicts to be simply an ungodly contest for power between two power-hungry institutions. And before we declare it to be an example of righteous resistance, we need to examine the motives and the nature of the “resisting” lesser magistrate. The words of Mather Byles – a nephew of Cotton Mather – should always be before our eyes before we rush to support a local official who is allegedly putting up resistance to higher authorities:
Which is better – to be ruled by one tyrant three thousands miles away, or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?
Therefore, before we decide that a local magistrate’s resistance is an application of the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate, we need to ask ourselves two questions:
First, is the local magistrate motivated by a Biblical principle, or by the same pagan philosophy of power as the central magistrate? Obviously, if he is motivated by the same pagan philosophy of power, then he is not really a Biblical lesser magistrate, and we shouldn’t support him – or at least, support him only conditionally, but openly reject his philosophy of power.
Second, is the local magistrate really interceding on behalf of the people, or is he simply trying to appropriate for himself the tyrannical power that the greater magistrate wields? Obviously, it would be an abuse of the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate to use it for imposing a greater tyranny on the people.
When we apply these two questions to the “rebellion” of the Republican governors, it is clear that it has nothing to do with the Biblical doctrine of resistance. The “rebellion” rather seems to be an act of calculated political opportunism which has no Biblical goals in mind, and certainly doesn’t have liberty in mind.
Of course, even before we move to the issue of ethical or Biblical principles, from a practical standpoint it is fairly obvious that refusing to accept Syrian refugees “for safety reasons” is a useless exercise. No matter what beliefs one has about immigration and open or closed borders, the borders within the U.S. are open. It is sufficient for one state to accept the refugees, and after they are cleared to stay, they can move to any state they want.
Since these governors can’t control the decisions of the other governors – who would accept refugees – their “decision” is nothing more than a theatrical act full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Safety is not protected; the only thing gained is political score for the governors, for playing a nonsensical game.
It would only make sense if the borders between the states were closed in one way or another – which is always the inevitable logical conclusion of any argument for closed national borders. And since direct closing of the borders between the states is impossible in the current legal context, the “closed borders” would be in a more refined form: like the total surveillance of the population through “security” agencies or even the introduction of a national ID. (I have already shown how the Republican position on immigration logically leads to a national ID system.)
Thus, by their irrelevant game, the Republican governors are – unwittingly, or may be not so unwittingly – preparing their political constituencies to accept more intrusion into their private lives, and more centralization of power and control. Support for the governors, therefore, can’t have anything to do with liberty; and it can hardly be qualified as “the lesser magistrate’s resistance.” At best, it is “the lesser magistrate’s cluelessness,” or more realistic, “the lesser magistrate’s collaboration with tyranny.”
Safety not a governmental function
When we look at the issue of the Biblical view of government, quite a few Christians – and some self-professed theonomists – have justified the actions of the governors with the claim that the Biblical function of civil government is to ensure the safety or security of its citizens. Now, while rhetorically and intuitively this sounds like a nice idea, in reality, it is a false claim.
Safety or security are not a Biblical function of government, and are not mentioned as a Biblical function of government. The Biblical function of government is justice, that is, resolution of conflicts and punishment of crime. Safety and security are left to God, and to the families themselves, not to the government.
Why is this difference important? Because from a covenantal – that is, ethical/judicial – perspective, the two functions, justice and safety, have completely different starting points, and involve completely different modes of action. It is true that indirectly, safety is a secondary product of righteous justice. But what is often missed by many Christians is that when safety is made the primary purpose of the state, it destroys justice and establishes tyranny.
In the Bible, civil government is primarily a negative institution; that is, it doesn’t have any function of providing a positive product to the society. For the most part, the state is supposed to be inactive except when a crime is committed, or a dispute arises between private persons which can’t be resolved by private conflict resolution. The power of the state is enormous compared to the power of the other institutions, but it is limited and reactive: for the task of justice requires reaction only to real, already committed crimes.
Contrary to this, the task of safety and security is a proactive task, and it requires preventive justice, a concept that is completely anti-Christian and idolatrous. For the state to be able to provide safety and security, it must have an active government apparatus with executive functions which can read people’s minds and predict who might be prone to commit a crime, in order to be able to exclude them from society before they have committed it.
That is, the task of safety and security, when carried out by the state, requires government control over non-criminal individuals. Such control is inevitable, and there is no way to limit it to criminals only; after all, if a person is a known criminal, the crime would have been already committed, so the action needed would be justice, not safety. Only God has the prerogative to see the heart of a man; when the state takes this prerogative to itself, it declares itself divine.
Call for safety = idolatry
Thus, those who call for the government to provide safety and security – as opposed to the Biblical task of only retributive and restitutional justice – are calling for open judicial idolatry.
And since idolatry always brings tyranny, they are calling also for judicial tyranny. From the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety, through the Nazi SD (Security Service) and SiPo (Security Police), Mussolini’s TULPS (Laws for Public Safety), the Communist KGB (Committee for State Security) and Stasi (State Security), to our modern American Homeland Security, Transport Security Administration, and National Security Agency, and to the modern American cops’ “It’s for your safety” when they unlawfully arrest and torture innocent people, “safety” and “security” have been the buzzwords for the government’s terrorizing and spying on its own population in the name of taking care of them. Haven’t we learned anything from history that we want more of the same?
Once the government is given the task to act preemptively to provide safety, there is no logical limit to what it can do to anyone, including its own citizens. If a group of non-criminal foreigners can be controlled and kicked out because they are a “security threat,” what would stop the government from doing the same thing to a group of non-criminal citizens, for instance, gun owners? Such a concept of government would justify the violation of any civil rights we today enjoy, and eventually will destroy all liberty. Haven’t we learned from history?
Thus, those who justify the governors on the basis of the supposed task of the government to “provide safety,” actually root for tyranny. The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate was not meant to root for tyranny, but for liberty.
Moreover, there is nothing righteous or Biblical in exploiting the irrational fears of millions of people for political expediency. It has been pointed many times by different experts – many of them conservative and not fond of Obama himself – that there is no rational reason to believe that the Syrian refugees constitute a threat, or that terrorists would try to sneak in as refugees.
The terrorist acts in Paris were not committed by refugees; to the contrary, there is clear evidence that at least one purpose of the acts was to implicate the refugees and turn the Western public opinion against them. Any rational assessment of the situation points to the fact that if anything, the flow of refugees de-legitimizes the Islamic State and therefore its leaders would like to see the flow stopped. They have published a number of propaganda videos trying to discourage Muslims from fleeing to the West. And what remains to be done is to scare the West into closing its borders. That’s what they are trying to do.
And the Republican governors swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker. Instead of educating their constituents on the real situation, and instead of working against irrational prejudice and fears, they simply offered a knee-jerk response. Not to mention that much of it was a pose and political opportunism in scoring political points.
The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate was not meant to justify political opportunism and using irrational fears for political purposes. Political opportunism doesn’t fight tyranny, it perpetuates it.
In addition, from a Christian and evangelistic point of view, this move by the governors of the most heavily evangelical states casts a shadow on the claims of American evangelicals that they are all for “evangelism and missions.” Granted, spending tax-payers’ money to bring refugees half-way around the world is wicked, and the outrage is justified.
(Although, whose fault is it? Isn’t it the fault of evangelical churchian celebrities who for over 100 years limited the Gospel to individual salvation and preached against Christianizing the culture? And isn’t it the fault of their listeners who should have purged the pulpits of those preachers long time ago? Why are we complaining when we have to live with the results of that same preaching we have tolerated for so long?)
Opportunity for evangelism
But the refugees are already here, and it’s not their fault that someone used tax-payers’ money to bring them over. So what’s the logic in sending them away instead of using this opportunity to evangelize them, an opportunity we haven’t had before because of the political and cultural conditions in their native lands? These people are running from Islam; in a way, they already hate Islam; how Christian is it to miss such opportunity for evangelism, and even lobby your politicians to that effect?
The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate was certainly not meant to destroy or harm the testimony of the Gospel.
True interposition on immigration
If we want to see a true example of interposition in the area of immigration laws, we need to turn to the history of Texas in the 20th century.