Here is an unusual Christian position, and also an unusual libertarian position, on the American colonies’ War of Independence against Britain in 1776. Don’t worry, this is not one of those lame leftist bash-America posts that’s supposed to make you feel guilty about being an American. Although I frequently criticize the US govt (and any local govt), I must admit that, relatively speaking, it’s form of govt at the national level is probably better than nearly any other of a major nation, particularly because of the Bill of Rights. Most govts now and in history have been worse than ours. Instead, here I will focus on whether or not America’s War of Independence was a sinful act that was against God’s will, expressed in scripture. Since such a war blatantly violates numerous biblical commands to love your enemies and to submit to govt authorities, even to those that are unjust, I will argue that the war was a sin. To secede from the British govt was an act of disobedience from God’s word. And, I know this seems like a harsh party-damper, but, since it’s a sin to celebrate sin, this would also mean that Christians should not celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July.
This is particularly difficult for me to admit as a libertarian, because most libertarians would cheer for the colonies to defend themselves against a large British empire that wanted to tax them and regulate their trade, thus violating their rights. Also, most Christians seem to be pretty patriotic and look at the 1776 war with fondness, as if the war was even God’s will. So, I think I’m pretty alone on this, but the Bible seems clear and I will argue from it. The below arguments are pretty general and applicable to all unjust govts, but we’ll tie it in to our specific case at the end.
Submission to Government Authority
Before I cover some general biblical commands of nonviolent reaction towards enemies and aggressors, I will start by the most explicit biblical teachings on this matter, those that specifically command us to obey governments, even those that are wrong and unjust. As will be discussed later, the only exception is when the govt is commanding you to sin and disobey God, in which case you should not obey the govt. Here is a series of various scriptures that demonstrate the teaching of submission to govt:
Romans 13:1-2,5,7: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. […] Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. […] Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Titus 3:1-2: Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.
Hebrews 13:17: Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. […]
1 Peter 2:13-14: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.
When asked about paying taxes to Romans (the foreign occupying force in Judea), Jesus basically said that they should pay the Roman taxes: Matthew 22:17-21: “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Submission to Unjust Authority
The above passages speak for themselves that we should submit and not rebel against govt. Furthermore, this is to be done even if the govt is unjust and wrong. And, the command to obey the govt does not mean that the govt’s actions are right or that the people in charge are good in any way. Here’s a specific example. Jesus told his followers to obey the Pharisees and teachers of the law merely because they sit in Moses’ seat, a reference to ancient Israel’s theocratic government’s leadership position. They were to obey them even though the Pharisees and teachers of the law were evil and did evil, and Jesus told the people to not follow in their footsteps. In fact, all four gospels are filled with Jesus criticizing and rebuking the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Here is the scripture:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. […] You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”
There are some other passages that show parallels to submission to govt and demonstrate the general principle that submission is due even if the authority figure is wrong. Below is an example between slaves/servants and their masters:
1 Peter 2:18-25: Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
The above passage reveals even more. It describes how Jesus is our example of behavior and did not use force or violence to retaliate or resist those who were persecuting and killing him, and indeed the Gospel accounts testify that he did not. And, guess who was doing this to Jesus: the Roman and Jewish authorities, two governments working together to torture and kill the innocent Lord.
Peter himself, who told us to submit to the govt (1 Peter 2:13-14 above), wrote this while under the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire. Peter was even put to death by the Roman govt under Emperor Nero for preaching the Gospel, and Nero is well known for his corrupt and evil actions. Peter was well acquainted with unjust govt, but he still submitted, to his own death. Another example is much earlier when the apostles Peter and John actually rejoiced after being flogged by the Jewish authorities for preaching the gospels (Acts 5:40-42). In general, the early church suffered much persecution at the hands of various govt authorities, and in response to this the Bible shows the apostles frequently telling the believers to persevere under this persecution and not forcefully retaliate.
The very nature of Christ’s ministry also suggests a nonviolent response to oppressive govts. When Jesus started his ministry, people were hoping for a messiah who would lead a militarized revolution to overthrow Rome and reinstate the state of Israel. He conspicuously did no such thing. Instead, he focused on our hearts and how individual people should treat each other.
The only time when we are permitted and even obligated to disobey the govt is when the govt is commanding us to sin and disobey God (Daniel 6:7-10, Daniel 3:12-18, Acts 5:27-42). After all, God is the ultimate authority and sovereign of the universe. So, if the govt tells you to murder someone or steal, or worship another false god, you should not obey those particular commands.
Submission to Evil People in General, and Nonviolent Response
The above principles are not special for the topic of govt, and they should not come as a surprise to anyone who has read the Bible. The Bible is full of teachings about submitting to one another and abstaining from violence towards those who wrong us (this is particularly true in the new covenant (New Testament), which replaced the old covenant after the old covenant had finished serving its purpose and was fulfilled). So, submitting to oppressive people in a govt is just a special case of submitting to evil people in general. Here are a few scriptures:
Ephesians 5:21: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Matthew 5:38-45: Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Proverbs 25:21-22: If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.
1 Peter 3:9: Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
The Matthew passages above again demonstrate the principle that the command to submit does not imply that the other person is right or good. When Jesus says, “Do not resist an evil person”, this recognizes that the other person may be evil. And, when Jesus says to “turn the other cheek”, this does not mean that it was right and good for the aggressor to slap the person to begin with. This reinforces the point that just because we are commanded to submit to govt, this does not mean that the govt is right or good; it may be wrong and evil on a regular basis.
It is important to remember that there are some practical beneficial reasons why one should submit to others. Here are a few:
- Loving our enemies (or a harsh person generally) and not violently resisting them is such a radically bizarre and unearthly act of love and kindness that it will likely touch the heart of the aggressor and convict them of their own wrongdoing, helping to bring them to Christ (Proverbs 25:21-22, 1 Peter 3:1-2),
- In the case of submitting to govt, it allows a person to be blameless among men so that other people will not be distracted by your controversial breaking of the law while you are teaching people about Jesus and presenting an example of how to live to others (in other words, you are not to put “stumbling blocks” in front of others) (1 Peter 2:15, 1 Corinthians 8:9, 2 Corinthians 6:3), and
- Submission trains us to deny ourselves and our selfish will, helping us to continually kill it so that it can be replaced by Christ’s will (see below for the scriptures).
But, these are not all of the reasons, and even if these practical reasons are not applicable, it does not excuse disobeying God’s word.
The Gospel Message and Denying One’s Self
You may think that the above high standards of submission are unfair. That’s true, and part of the point. One of the central teachings of the Bible is that Jesus, who was innocent and sinless, was crucified and died for the wrongs that all humanity has done. Instead of all of us receiving the just penalty of death, Jesus allowed something extremely unfair to occur: he gets punishment even though he didn’t deserve it, and we believers get forgiveness even though we don’t deserve it. And believers are called to have a similar attitude as Jesus. So, in reality, we should not be so eager to receive fairness, otherwise we would all receive permanent death, for we all deserve it.
Another common theme in the Bible is humbling (lowering) yourself relative to others. And another is denying yourself and even “dying” to yourself; in other words, “killing” your own selfish will power and submitting it to Christ so that you replace your will with his will. Here is one scriptural example:
Matthew 16:24-25: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
So, all that was taught on submitting to unjust govt authority is in line with the broader gospel message.
Do not be discouraged. Most people are worried about their earthly lives and have the mindset to forcefully defend themselves against tyranny and other aggressors, even individual people trying to harm them. The idea to not resist against a bad govt seems scary in practical ways. But, Jesus tells us to not worry and fret about our physical well-being in this life, for he is faithful (Matthew 6:25). Maybe you are afraid of the uncertainty of what would happen if you and the Christian community didn’t forcefully defend its rights. You are afraid that others will hurt you and steal your property. It is like being afraid to walk on the uncertain waters towards Jesus, but Jesus calls us to have faith in him and do the unthinkable anyway (Matthew 14:29). It is like being afraid of a furious storm, but then Jesus says, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Matthew 8:26). Firstly, you should not be surprised if you face persecution, for “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, […]“ (2 Timothy 3:12). But, the scriptures give us plenty of encouragement about our final glorious reward in eternity if we simply endure and persevere in the trials in this short and fleeting life (Matthew 5:12 and James 1:12 are just two examples). Let God be in charge and carry your burden.
Application to America’s War of Independence
Considering the above scriptural teachings, the “founding fathers” and others who joined them disobeyed God and therefore sinned in their act of violent rebellion against Britain. You may think that Britain was wrong and violated colonists’ rights by taxing them and heavily regulating their trade and commerce. And, you are correct, but this doesn’t change the fact that they should still have submitted to the unjust govt of Britain, per the above scriptural teachings. By the way, our own US govt today does much much worse to us than Britain ever did to their colonists. Britain’s taxes on the colonists were actually pretty small. But, we are still to submit even to our own unjust US govt. If we are not allowed to violently overthrow our own US govt, which does so much more harm and rights violations to us than the British govt ever did, then certainly the colonists were even more so not allowed to overthrow the British rule.
Remember that the only time we are permitted and obligated to disobey the govt is when it commands us to sin. Even though the British govt sinned against the colonists, Britain did not command the colonists to sin. So, the exception does not apply here and submission and obedience was still due Britain.
I also want to clarify that I’m not suggesting that Christian colonists at the time should have joined the British army to help quell the American rebellion. You may think to yourself, “Well, I guess that submitting to Britain would also mean to fight against the Americans if Britain told me to.” This is not correct. To fight against the colonists would also violate commands to abstain from violence and murder. Even if your then-current British govt told you to fight against the colonists, you would be obligated to disobey the British govt on this specific command because they would be commanding you to sin. Essentially, the best option would have been to be militarily neutral as it pertains to the use of force, yet speak out against the sins of both the British and colonists.
Much of the above is general teaching that is applicable to even very oppressive govts. But, for our specific case, Britain was only relatively lightly oppressive to the colonies. There is simply no excuse. The war of rebellion was a sinful act. Also, it may be true that the eventual new US govt had good and beneficial improvements in how to structure a govt, but this is irrelevant and does not change the fact that the act of rebellion was not according to God’s will. And, God wants us to obey him and stay away from sin. It follows that we should not celebrate sinful behavior. Therefore, I do not think Christians should celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July, since this holiday is specifically dedicated to the act of colonial rebellion. This does not mean that we should not enjoy the day off work if given, but we should not give praise or reverence to the act of rebellion itself. This does not mean that we should disrespect those who have died in the war, as they acted according to how most people would act. It is difficult to obey God in some cases, and many may have acted out of ignorance. But, they still acted wrongly.