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Christian Libertarians



Roy Halliday
Formulations, 1996-97
Free Nation Foundation / Libertarian Nation Foundation

The libertarian philosophy, which is the basis of the Free Nation Foundation, is compatible with Christianity. Not only that, libertarianism is the only political philosophy compatible with the ethics of Jesus. Furthermore, although most Christians and most libertarians are not aware of it, Christians are logically aligned with the most radical wing of the libertarian movement — the anarchists. I intend to support these claims here in order to encourage more Christians to participate in the Free Nation Foundation.

Libertarianism as a moral philosophy is based on the principles that it is wrong to initiate violence and it is wrong to steal. Most people agree with these principles, but they do not apply them to the government. Libertarianism is unique in that it does not exempt the actions of governments from these requirements of basic justice. Consequently, libertarians condemn such state activities as war and taxation, and libertarians want to reduce government power to the minimum in order to reduce government crime. This means that libertarians are either minimal statists or anarchists, depending on how much government they believe it is possible to abolish. Reducing government power as much as possible is the same thing as maximizing liberty, so we are called libertarians.

The libertarian philosophy is not a complete world view. It says nothing about metaphysics, epistemology, esthetics, or theology. It doesn't even have much to say about morality, except that theft and the initiation of violence are wrong, even when done by the government. Most of the libertarians that I know are as skeptical about supernatural power as they are about government power. But it is not necessary to be skeptical about religion in order to be skeptical about government. It all depends on whether your religion condones theft and the initiation of violence by the state.

The things that Jesus taught about the end of the world, the Kingdom of God, redemption, salvation, grace, and life everlasting are essential to Christianity as a religion. And Jesus' strong convictions concerning charity, marriage, envy, honesty, faithfulness, piety, material wealth, and service to God are essential in defining a perfect Christian life. But it is what Jesus taught about theft and violence that defines Christian political philosophy, because political philosophy consists of the principles for using political power, which is financed by theft and based on violence.

Jesus' Political Philosophy

Jesus was totally opposed to theft and violence. He subscribed to the Ten Commandments, including number eight: "Thou shalt not steal." (Exodus 20:15). And he was a pacifist. He taught that we should not use violence to resist evil or to punish evildoers. Instead, we should respond to evildoers with love. We should love our neighbors and should show good will to our enemies.

Any open-minded reader of the New Testament will conclude that Jesus advocated nonresistance and nonviolence, despite a few passages that tend to point in the opposite direction. That Jesus was opposed to war and violence is even admitted by Reinhold Niebuhr, the leading theologian in defense of the allies in World War II. Niebuhr wrote:

"It is very foolish to deny that the ethic of Jesus is an absolute and uncompromising ethic.... The injunctions 'resist not evil,' 'love your enemies,'...'be not anxious for your life,' 'be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect,' are all of one piece, and they are all uncompromising and absolute."1

Even though Jesus regarded himself as the Messiah the Jewish people were waiting for, he refused to lead the Zealots in violent revolution against the evil Roman conquerors and oppressors of his people. When they came to arrest him, one of his followers drew his sword and sliced off the ear of a servant to the high priest. Jesus said:

"'Put up thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?'" (Matthew 26:52-54).

Instead of violence, he practiced forgiveness, and he offered no resistance, even when they crucified him.

Jesus did not believe in resisting evil with violence, but he believed in speaking out against it in strong terms. He was not a collaborator or a man who would negotiate with the devil. He was a radical champion of the Kingdom of God. And he taught his disciples to be just as fanatic and radical as he was. He taught them to obey God rather than government.

The Pharisees knew Jesus' attitude about serving anyone but God, so they "took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk" (Matthew 22:15) and get him in trouble with the law. They tried to get him to publicly condemn the payment of taxes. But Jesus was not ready to die yet, and they weren't clever enough to trap him. They said to him:

"'Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?'

But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, 'Why tempt me ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money.' And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, 'Whose is this image and superscription?' They say unto him, 'Caesar's.' Then saith he unto them 'Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.'" (Matthew 22:16-21)

When he was ready to die and was on trial for his life before the governor, Jesus wouldn't lie, but again he refused to say any words that would give the governor an excuse to crucify him.

"And Jesus stood before the governor: and the governor asked him, saying, 'Art thou the King of the Jews?' And Jesus said unto him, 'Thou sayest.' And when he was accused of the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing. Then said Pilate unto him, 'Hearest thou not how many things they witness against thee?' And he answered to him never a word; insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly." (Matthew 27:11-14)

Jesus encouraged his followers to keep the faith despite what those in power might do to them:

"'Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.'" (Matthew 5:10-12)

He warned them about the evil councils, and governors, and kings:

"'Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.'" (Matthew 10:16-18)

"'But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another.'" (Matthew 10:23)

Although Jesus was nonviolent, he was not meek and mild. He demanded full-time, life-long service and devotion to himself above all others. His political philosophy included the libertarian moral principles: uncompromising opposition to theft and to the initiation of violence. But Jesus was more opposed to violence than many libertarians are. He was a pacifist anarchist. He was an extremist who was willing to die for his beliefs rather than compromise. He was an outlaw who founded an illegal religious sect, and because of this he was executed by the state.

The Political Words and Deeds of Paul

The strongest defense of government in the New Testament is in Paul's letter to the Romans in which he says we should pay our taxes and honor and obey our rulers, because they are ministers of God, and if you resist them, you are resisting God, and you will be damned (Romans 13). Paul's statement is quite clear and unequivocal, but there are reasons why Christians should disregard it: (1) It comes from Paul rather than Jesus, so it is not from the most authoritative source and (2) Paul ignored it himself.

For example, when Paul was in Damascus (Acts 9:23), the Jewish leaders plotted to kill him, and the governor under King Aretas had the walls of the city guarded in order to seize him (2 Corinthians 11:32-33), but Paul defied the law, and his Christian friends let him down in a basket at night through a window in the wall, and he escaped the authorities. Paul also fled from the authorities in Iconium (Acts 14:5-7), and he hid from angry Jews and government authorities in Thessalonica (Acts 16:4-7). He was not so fortunate at Caesarea, where he was imprisoned for 2 years for spreading illegal ideas. Finally, this outlaw's luck ran out completely when he lost his appeal to Rome and was executed by the "duly established" government.

The Political Words and Deeds of Peter

The apostle Peter also taught respect for the emperor and his governors (I Peter 2:13-17), but, like Paul, he did not always heed his own advice. Peter and other apostles who were with him were arrested and put in prison for preaching and healing without a license (Acts 5:17-21). What did God do? Did God condemn Peter for breaking the law? Did God forgive Peter and say you violated the law for a good reason, but you must pay the price like a conscientious objector? No! God sent an angel to open the prison doors, which had been closed and sealed by the government authorities. God took the side of the criminal apostles and broke them out of jail! Not only did God aid and abet these criminals, he had the angel tell them to go to the temple and preach the gospel and break the law again! The apostles did as they were told and were arrested again. When the council asked Peter why he deliberately broke the law by teaching in Jesus' name, Peter replied, "We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29). The authorities were persuaded by Gamaliel not to kill the apostles. Instead, the council had the apostles beaten and released under orders not to speak in the name of Jesus.

"Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ."

Peter, like Paul, was eventually executed by the Roman government for the crime of putting God above the state. These convicted felons were the two great New Testament apologists for the state. Their actions more than atone for the few aberrant words they offered in behalf of the ruling powers.

The Outlaw Church

Jesus' original disciples and followers up to the fourth century continued to practice his philosophy of nonresistance, love, and forgiveness. In those days, Christianity was an outlaw religion. Those caught practicing it were persecuted. It was by going into hiding and doing things that were illegal as far as the government was concerned that Christians succeeded in spreading the gospel into Europe.2 Trying to follow in Jesus' footsteps, no Christian would become a soldier after baptism at least up to the time of Marcus Aurelius (about A.D.170).3 Aristeides, Justin Martyr, and Tatian in the second century, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, and Hippolytus in the third century, and Lactantius in the fourth century all made statements that show they regarded war as organized sin and a denial of the way of Jesus.4

The Established Church

The Church was Christian5 until Emperor Constantine declared himself to be a "Christian" in 312. After that the Church became the state religion and it opposed Christianity. The Church even went so far as to pronounce the primitive Christian attitude liable to punishment, and as early as 314 the Council of Arles decreed that "they who threw away their weapons in time of peace shall be excommunicated."6 Leo Tolstoy said the alliance between the Roman Church and the Roman Empire was "the moment when a majority of Christians abandoned their religion."7 He sarcastically described the arrangement between the Church and the emperor as follows:

...they sanctify his robber-chieftainship, and say that it proceeds from God, and they anoint him with holy oil. And he, on his side, arranges for them the congress of priests that they wish for, and orders them to say what each man's relation to God should be, and orders every one to repeat what they say.

And they all started repeating it, and were contented, and now this same religion has existed for fifteen hundred years, and other robber-chiefs have adopted it, and they have all been lubricated with holy oil, and they were all ordained by God...

And as soon as one of the anointed robber-chiefs wishes his own and another folk to begin slaying each other, the priests immediately prepare some holy water, sprinkle a cross (which Christ bore and on which he died because he repudiated such robbers), take the cross and bless the robber-chief in his work of slaughtering, hanging, and destroying.8

The Roman Church has adopted the concept of a "just war," and increasingly has tended to place the crusade of the day in this category.9 In the meantime other branches of "Christianity" also entered the heathen path as when Vladimir adopted Christianity in A.D. 988 and had the people of Kiev driven into the Dniepr river to be baptized against their will.10

Keepers of the Faith

Since the Churches were co-opted by the various emperors, the majority of "Christians" have been opposed to Jesus' philosophy of nonresistance to evil. However, over the centuries some nonconformists have dared to support Jesus' moral philosophy at the risk of becoming martyrs to the vengeance of the orthodox Church. The German Baptists and Mennonites, the Friends or Quakers, and the Shakers are examples. Even the Roman Church tolerated nonviolence within some of its monastic orders. Francesco d'Assisi practiced nonviolence as part of his attempt to lead a perfect life in the manner of Jesus.

In 1846, Adin Ballou published Christian Non-Resistance, which is a lengthy defense of Jesus's moral philosophy that draws out its libertarian implications.11 Leo Tolstoy, who was influenced by Adin Ballou's book, became a famous advocate of Christian nonviolence and anarchism. He used his influence to raise money from English and American Quakers to charter ships in 1899 to bring approximately 12,000 Dukhobors (Russian Christians who refused to bear arms and were consequently persecuted and exiled by the Tsar's "Christian" government) to a large tract of land in Canada where they were allowed to practice nonviolence.12

Albert Schweitzer was inspired by the nonviolent philosophy of Jesus. He expanded it into the philosophy of reverence for life. After earning doctorate degrees in philosophy and theology and becoming the premier pipe organist in Europe and an authority on Bach and a Christian pastor and an author, Schweitzer decided he wasn't doing enough for Christ. So he went back to school, became a doctor of medicine, and then moved to equatorial Africa to minister to the medical and spiritual needs of the benighted Africans. During World War I, the French government arrested him, brought him back from Africa, and put him into a prisoner of war camp in the Pyrenees, because he was technically a German subject. After the war he continued to split his time between doctoring in Africa and lecturing and giving organ recitals in Europe. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

Brother Andrew, a Calvinist Christian from Denmark, exemplified another aspect of Christianity that leads to radical actions in violation of government laws. Like the early Christians, Brother Andrew took to heart Jesus' command to spread the gospel throughout the world and to reclaim it for God (Matthew 28:19-20). He explained his smuggler's attitude toward political borders this way:

"You see, I don't believe that our Lord is willing for his Word and witness to be kept out of any country by guarded boundaries or government decrees. That would be contrary to both the spirit and the letter of his commission to us to make disciples of all nations. In fact, doesn't it make better sense to concentrate efforts on those very spots that are most resistant to the gospel, most dominated by the devil's power?"13

So, during the Cold War, Brother Andrew smuggled Bibles behind the iron curtain in violation of the laws of the communist governments, and he became the organizer of dozens of teams of international smugglers who illegally brought thousands of Bibles and Christian documents to victims of communism. He offered a Christian defense of these criminal activities in The Ethics of Smuggling in which he expressed views that are in line with the most radical libertarians. He believed that to succeed against the devil you have to be as dedicated and fanatical for Jesus as the communists are against him. He also believed that to follow God's law it is sometimes necessary to break the laws of governments.

"I want to be very plain here: if we are consistent in keeping the law of God, of necessity we will have to break the law of many governments. At this moment, in all the godless, atheistic governments where they tell us not to teach, not to take Bibles, we've got to break that law or break God's law."14

"What so many regard as an ethical issue, saying, 'Oh, you shouldn't smuggle; you should keep the law,' is nothing but an agreement with the devil. In debating the morality of smuggling, we deny God the right to rule the world. And that is exactly why the devil rules it."15

Christian Libertarianism

The link between Christianity and libertarianism is very simple. The Christian moral philosophy includes the libertarian principles that in is wrong to initiate violence and it is wrong to steal. Christianity is, therefore, a libertarian religion. As a religion, Christianity goes beyond libertarianism to include beliefs about many subjects in addition to justice and politics. Nonetheless, since Christians accept the premises of libertarianism, they should, logically, reach the same conclusions about the morality of government taxation, legislation, and war. If it is morally wrong for a Christian to steal or to initiate violence, it should also be morally wrong for a Christian to advocate, condone, recommend, approve, or authorize someone else committing these crimes in his name. As Tolstoy said:

"Laws are rules made by people who govern by means of organized violence, for non-compliance with which the non-complier is subjected to blows, to loss of liberty, or even to being murdered."16

Hence it is morally wrong for a Christian to advocate, condone, recommend, approve, or authorize government taxation, punishment, legislation, war, or violence of any kind.

The perfectionist ethics of Jesus goes beyond the minimum entrance requirements of libertarianism. All that libertarianism requires is that you not condone theft or the initiation of violence by anybody. Libertarianism does not require you to not resist when someone attacks you. Libertarianism allows, but does not require, the use of violence in self-defense against aggressors. Furthermore, libertarianism allows you to delegate your right to self-defense to others. This is the source of the disagreement between the limited-government libertarians and the anarchist libertarians. The limited-government libertarians believe that governments have somehow gotten the authority to protect our rights and to punish criminals. The anarchists deny this. The Christians, who do not even believe in using violence for self-defence or punishment, must logically be aligned with the anarchists.

Christians cannot condone the violent overthrow of government, but Christianity would destroy government by withdrawing support.

"A man who refuses to kill and imprison his brother man does not purpose to destroy government: he merely wishes not to do that which is contrary to the will of God; he is merely avoiding that which not only he, but every one who is above a brute, undoubtedly considers evil. If through this, government be destroyed, it only shows that the demands of government are contrary to God's will — that is, they are evil; and thus government, being in itself an evil, comes to be destroyed."17

We encourage Christians to join the Free Nation Foundation. We need more radical libertarians to balance the wishy-washy minimal statists. Let us work together to create a sanctuary for human beings, a refuge from organized violence, a land of peace and freedom.


Notes

  1. Reinhold Niebuhr, Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist, p. 15.
  2. Brother Andrew, The Ethics of Smuggling (Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois, 1st ed. 1974), p. 44.
  3. Harnack, Militia Christi, p. 47.
  4. G.H.C. Macgregor, The New Testament Basis of Pacifism (Fellowship Publications, Nyack, NY, 1960), p. 88.
  5. By "Christian" I mean following the teachings of Jesus.
  6. Macgregor, p. 90.
  7. "Church and State," p. 149 in Tolstoi's Essays on Life (Carlton House, New York, 1928).
  8. "Church and State," pp. 151-152.
  9. In Italy, "Christian" approval of World War II was so strong that the Italian bishops were said to have petitioned Mussolini to extend the "crusade" to the Holy Land. (Macgregor, p. 149.)
  10. Translator's footnote to "Church and State," p. 150 in Tolstoi's Essays on Life.
  11. Adin Ballou, Christian Non-Resistance (Universal Peace Union, Philadelphia, Pa., 2nd ed. 1910; reprinted in 1970 by Da Capo Press, New York).
  12. Translator's footnote to "The Emigration of the Dukhobors," p. 316 in Tolstoi's Essays on Life.
  13. Brother Andrew, p. 29.
  14. Ibid., p. 48.
  15. Ibid., p. 51.
  16. "The Slavery of Our Times," p. 359 in Tolstoi's Essays on Life.
  17. "Persecution of Christians in Russia," p. 302 in Tolstoi's Essays on Life.

Roy Halliday recently retired as a technical editor for a major software development company, and is working on a book-length essay on justice.

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