This blog is mainly about building. This entry is about how people must sometimes tear something down before they build.
Last month, as the Egyptian uprising was wrapping up and the Libyan revolt was gathering steam, John MacArthur made a disturbing statement about how it is supposedly “unbiblical” to rise up against oppressive regimes:
“(B)iblically speaking, I would have wished the American government, which has a history of Christianity, would have risen up and said ‘this is wrong, this is forbidden for people to do this, this is intolerable.’”
MacArthur also claimed that rebellion might not make things better, and could even make things worse. He was right on both counts there: There have been ominous developments in Egypt, and Libya has been downright ugly. Bahrain has been crushed for now, and Yemen looks ominous.
It would be foolish to assume that uprisings will lead to improvement, and they tend to cause significant economic disruptions and often damage to key infrastructure.
But are uprisings necessarily “unbiblical?”
Let’s set aside his erroneous assumption that the uprisings are generally occurring among “believers” (that is, Christians). MacArthur is presumably using New Testament passages like “Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there.” (Rom. 13:1).
The problem is that MacArthur essentially claims that it is biblical to demand that people submit to the forces of darkness, and unbiblical for them to resist those forces. God does raise rulers, but God also tears them down.
MacArthur’s logic would have supported the suppression of the Civil Rights Movement or the American Revolution. But theologically more damaging, MacArthur ignores several literally biblical uprisings in which God clearly turned the people against bad rulers.
Consider what happened to a son of Gideon who killed his 70 half-brothers to clear his path to leadership. “After Abimelech had ruled over Israel for three years, God stirred up trouble between Abimelech and the people of Shechem, and they revolted. In the events that followed, God punished Abimelech and the men of Shechem for murdering Gideon’s seventy sons.” (see Judges 9:22-56, emphasis added)
And consider how Judah split from Israel. King Solomon’s son Rehoboam declared his intention to rule even more harshly than his exploitative father. In response, the people rose up. Rehoboam mustered an army to invade – much like Gaddafi, we should note – but then something interesting happened: God said to the would-be invaders, “Do not fight against your relatives. Go back home, for what has happened is my doing!” (2 Chron 10:16-11:4, emphasis added)
And consider the demise of King Ahab of Judah. After he conspired with King Jehoshaphat of Israel to attack another nation, a prophet who always prophesied “nothing but bad news” for the king had a vision: God had a little meeting with all the armies of heaven, in order to find the best way the king. A nameless spirit came up with the best idea, and Ahab died from an accidental lucky shot by an anonymous archer. (2 Chron 18: 18-34)
MacArthur also ignores the story of Nehemiah: The first half of this book contains a particularly interesting model of nonviolent resistance that focuses on collaborative building but holds the potential for violence if needed: “The common laborers carried on their work with one hand supporting their load and one hand holding their weapon.” (Neh. 5:17)
It is hard not to notice the parallels with the barricades around Tahrir Square. In both cases, the peoples’ readiness to fight limited or prevented the need to fight.
These stories do not end in happily-ever-after and I don’t claim that they prove that God generally likes revolt. However, they do provide clear examples of God moving through revolt. Anyone who wants to argue that people should always submit to their rulers – no matter how cruel or corrupt – must take these stories into account.
Some may argue that these stories are all “Old Covenant” and therefore moot. But this makes no sense. It is one thing to argue that we are now freed from following God’s Law, and another to argue that we should now always obey worldly laws that maintain injustice. One keeps with God’s loving and just character that is shown repeatedly through divinely-inspired revolt in the Hebrew scripture. The other goes directly against that character.
This is no abstract theological discussion, and its outcome may have a huge impact on the course of world history. Are we going to allow the worldly powers to once again seduce us into believing that God wants us to be their slaves?
This is a time like those biblical stories that we all know. Those stories make us very uncomfortable, and indeed we live in uncomfortable times. This is the worst time for an expert to make a blanket claim that a few passages in Paul’s writings suggest that people who aren’t even Christian should submit to whatever evil is thrust upon them.
And it is especially troubling that he would use that as the basis for the modern-day Babylon to discourage what is a generally righteous wave of uprisings because our violent global empire is supposedly a “Christian” nation.
This is not to justify violence, but to recognize that “there are times when you have to break the law because the Lord commands us to do something the law forbids” – MacArthur’s words! – and this may very well be a collective impulse.
As recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere show, this is no longer a faraway event. So there is all the more reason for us to be wary of those who once again attempt to co-opt the spiritual rebellion led and inspired by Jesus to thwart the noble cause of those who struggle for freedom.
In the same way that Jesus’ teachings took root in a backwater before burning right to the heart of the Empire, we can see that God is once again stirring things up, beginning in a slightly different backwater.
I have no way of knowing for certain that God is really moving through the revolts of the Arab Spring. However, there are enough parallels to biblical passages that we must at least consider that God is once again stirring up trouble.