Week #9—What Christians Should Ask of Government: To Punish Crime, Tax, and Defend the Nation
Editor’s note: This is a manuscript from Jonathan Leeman’s class “Christians and Government,” which he is currently teaching through at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. There will be 13 weeks in the class. Here is the course schedule, to be published as it’s taught.
What Christians Should Do For Government
What Christians Should Ask of Government
Week 6: To Not Play God
Week 7: To Establish Peace
Week 8: To Do Justice
Week 9: To Punish Crime, Tax, and Defend the Nation (manuscript below)
Week 10: To Treat People Equally (Justice and Identity Politics)
Week 11: To Provide Space for True and False Religion
Week 12: To Affirm and Protect the Family
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In the last few weeks we’ve spent our time talking about what Christians should ask of government. Last week we talked at length about how the government is to carry out justice.
Today we want to consider some specific uses of that justice in regards to the state’s power.
The first is in Genesis 9:5–6:
And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
Here God is talking about the need to exact justice. His example is murder. We also see this concept of Israel using “the sword” other places in the OT.
- Deuteronomy 13:15: “you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword.”
- 1 Samuel 22:19: “And Nob, the city of the priests, [Saul] put to the sword.”
I think it’s fair to say that at the heart of a government’s authority is the power of the sword.
Paul then summarizes this in his reflections on government in the second text will focus on today, in Romans 13.
[The one in authority] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:4)
So in both the OT and NT, we see the government or state described as bearing the sword—God uses government as ‘the enforcer.’ Sociologists (like Max Weber) have defined governments in a similar fashion. If you’ve studied politics, you’ll probably be used to this descriptive phrase for governments: the institution which possesses a monopoly of authorized coercive force or power. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but I like it because it gives us a crisp definition of government.
So with that in mind, we see that government possesses:
- Coercive force: it can make you do things you don’t want to do because it has the sword. [i.e. speed limit; taxes; jail time]
- But bad actors can force you to do stuff too. That’s why gov’t is also: Authorized coercive force: A band of robbers or pirates possesses coercive force, but it’s not authorized. It’s not morally legitimate.
- A monopoly of authorized coercive force. The government is the only institution which possesses this right.
What we’re going to do today is drill down: punishment, taxes, and war. Three simple areas to discuss, right? Can we do that in 40 minutes? Probably not, but let’s try anyway.
My goal is merely to demonstrate from the Bible that government does possess a monopoly of authorized coercive force in these areas, but then to make a few observations about the just implementation of that authority in each area.
The most obvious place to begin, based on what we find in Genesis 9:5-6 and Romans 13, is the fact that God has authorized governments to punish crime. Turn to Romans 13, starting with verse 1:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (2) Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (3) For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, (4) for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:1–4)
Notice a couple phrases here.
The end of verse 2: The person who resists the government or its laws “incurs judgment.” He receives or gets [literally from the Greek; BDAG] judgment. Verse 3: rulers are a terror to bad conduct. Verse 4: You should be afraid for doing wrong because the government has the sword. It can take your life. It is God’s “avenger,” verse 4 says. And that last phrase certainly goes against any contract or consent-based understanding of government. The God’s carries out God’s wrath.
The philosophers and legal theorists typically talk about three different theories of punishment: retribution, deterrence, and reform.
- Retribution depends on the idea of just deserts. If you have done something wrong, you deserve to be punished. There’s the idea of a return or a payment back. Retribution is backward looking.
- Deterrence is the forward looking theory that punishing crime will reduce future crimes because it serves as a warning.
- Reform is the goal of rehabilitating a criminal’s personality or circumstances so that he or she will turn into a well-behaved citizen. This theory borrows from both Christian ideas of redemption as well as the role of discipline in the family between parents and children.
At a basic level, you can trace prison-sentencing in the U.S. through those three concepts. Retribution gave way to deterrence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This corresponded with a movement away from capital punishment as well as various forms of corporal punishment such as whipping and the rise of incarceration and the modern prison system as a common form of punishment.
Then in the late 19th and early 20th century, sentencing and movements for prison reform increasingly viewed punishment generally and incarceration specifically as serving rehabilitative ends. This led, for instance, to the indeterminate sentence, which consists of both a minimum and maximum sentence for particular offenses. The goal is to incentivize good behavior and rehabilitation. Parole and probation were also intended to serve the same rehabilitative ends.
For the last several centuries, the concept of punishment as retribution has certainly had its advocates, but it’s also had at least as many critiques. It rubs against our democratic sensibilities.
But it’s hard to escape. Romans 13 certainly seems to point to retribution: whoever resists authority incurs judgment. The government is an avenger, an agent of God’s wrath. For that reason, I think we can define punishment as a judgment of retribution on the person, property, or liberty of the condemned person (adapted from Oliver O’Donovan Ways of Judgment, 107).
But is punishment as retribution a wrong motive for Christians? Does it wreak of vengeance? Shouldn’t we love our enemies?
Of course. But the Bible is clear that the government has the right to use the sword in this way. I think punishment based solely on rehabilitation doesn’t work. Why? For two reasons.
Let’s consider Genesis 9 again: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
First, the point about retribution is clear here: you shed blood, your blood will be shed.
But second, and importantly, why? Notice the justification: for God made man in his image. The justification is not just about the offender, it’s about the victim. If we take rehabilitation to the extreme, it focuses solely on the offender, with no regard for the victims.
So the act of judgment is saying to the offender: “You’ve done wrong; you’ve offended God’s law; you deserve punishment.” But it’s also saying something to the victim: “You—the person who has been harmed—didn’t deserve that harm. That person is worthy—by virtue of being made in God’s image.”
In the Bible is that punishment actually affirms the worthiness and the value of the one who has been victimized. Yes, the desires to see someone punished and to suffer can become inordinate, and it can be wrongfully hateful. But that desire for punishment is also, rightly, a desire to re-affirm the worthiness of the one who has been sinned against, when that worthiness has been called into question by a crime: don’t shed a person’s blood, for God made that person in his own image. That person is worth something: he reflects God!
Deterrence and rehabilitation are both fine, forward-looking motivations. I think deterrence and rehabilitation are both fine, forward-looking motivations. And to the extent wise laws and programs facilitate either, that should be viewed as a good thing. For instance, a number of states use earned-time credits: These allow prisoners to earn an early release by completing classes, job training, and drug rehab. Reformers say they reduce prison populations and reduce recidivism rates. So long as such programs don’t undermine basic principles of retribution, it’s hard to see how that’s a bad thing. Of course, it is difficult to ascertain example how much punishment a certain crime requires, especially when we are trying to translate various crimes into “time in prison.” There is no absolute tariff on how much embezzling from your company translates into “years in prison.”
Is Genesis 9:5–6 a license for capital punishment? Formally, yes. There is a fairly clear injunction in play here. Verse 5: “for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning.” Verse 6: “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” But notice the mathematical equivalency and clarity of this reckoning. The text assumes a perfect balance between one life for another, and it assumes clarity on the matter. It’s establishing the basic principles of proportionality and reciprocity The punishment must be in proportion to the crime (approximately the same size), and it should be a clear exchange for the crime. In a phrase: proportional retribution. You get the same thing in the Pentateuch when it speaks of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). So this formal principle of proportional retribution should guide our criminal justice systems. That said, this formal principle should also force us to work to make sure that our criminal justice systems are in fact capable of providing clear and proportional punishments. If a system cannot do this because of imbalances and injustices in the system, then the system cannot provide justice. It cannot keep the principle articulated in these verses.
For instance, women in prison are raped and sexually assaulted at a far higher rate (by male prison guards) than men are. The number of women with HIV in prison rose by 69 percent in the nineties, while it decreased by 22 percent for men. In other words, a five year prison sentence effectively means something different for a woman than a man. Or, incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. Blacks and Hispanics were approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists. African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.
I was having lunch with an African-American brother in our conversation a couple weeks ago. He was pulled over on the way to our lunch. He knew to roll down his windows and place his hands on the steering wheel. Told the officer what he was going to do: “I’m going to reach into my glove compartment now and retrieve my registration.”
With these kinds of imbalances, it raises the question of whether the criminal justice is even capable of the kind of proportional retribution required by Genesis 9:5–6. I can understand why people might be reluctant to push toward capital punishment with these kinds of imbalances. What is clear, there is at the very least a mandate to study these matters and consider whether what injustices might be endemic to the system so that they can be addressed. You don’t do away with the biblical principle. But you recognize that the biblical principle requires you to work for a system where the biblical can be applied. Make sense?
With regard to capital punishment in particular, it’s worth observing what the Mosaic Covenant requires before putting something to death. It requires two or three witnesses, and in some cases it requires the accuser to be the one who first raises his hand in implementing the penalty. I dare say, in other words, that the burden of proof was far higher here than it is today. If capital punishment required two or three witnesses, you would have a different sort of system. A seminary professor from my seminary recently told me he’s moved to a “beyond any doubt” standard of guild from a “beyond reasonable doubt.” That makes sense to me.
Of course Genesis 9:5–6 is not simply providing a response to murder. It’s establishing the principles of proportional retribution for any kind of crime. The phrase eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot demonstrates the point. I don’t think we necessarily apply texts like these literally. That would mean kidnapping for kidnapping, embezzlement for embezzlement, sexual assault for sexual assault. That doesn’t make sense. Again, I think it points us to the principles of reciprocity and proportionality, or proportional retribution.
And this principle applies to both our criminal courts, which typically push toward incarceration, and our civil courts, which effectively impose fines.
Ironically, I dare say it’s easier for a civil court to establish a fair and proportional retribution precisely because a fine is quantifiable. It’s more difficult to translate the damage done in a crime into time spent in a prison. If I steal a million dollars from you, or physically assault you, what’s the algebraic formula that translates how long my freedom should be taken away through my incarceration?
Two comments here: First, incarceration has long been used to control people. Think of Joseph or Jeremiah or John the Baptist being thrown into prison. But mostly, imprisonment has been used simply to control people, or hold them until the implementation of the true punishment. It’s only in the last couple of centuries, as I understand it, that incarceration has been viewed as the punishment itself. The Law of Moses, interestingly, makes no provision for imprisonment.
Second, employing incarceration as the form of punishment shows us the limits of human retribution. Certainly incarceration restrains people from furthering crimes, and there is an element of justice since that expressive act of judgment communicates both the wrongness of the crime and it affirms the worthiness of the victim of the crime. But our ability to translate crime to time is a tough enterprise.
In short, what are some biblical principles that govern just punishments in the criminal justice system?
- Clear reciprocity.
- Which implies you’re seeking to minimize the incidental sufferings of the innocent (the family and dependents of the condemned, for instance; approximately 5 percent of woman in prisons are pregnant, and many do not receive adequate care.)
- Avoiding ethnic or gender-specific prejudice.
- Summarize: proportional retribution.
- Rehabilitation and deterrence secondary
- Some cultural relativity: there is not an absolute tariff. I think there are different “languages” of punishments do to the different sensibilities of people. Some societies are more sensitive to physical injury or death, others to social humiliation. (O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 121).
A second place where government exercises coercive authority, of course, is in taxes. Three questions we want to try and answer here: Should we pay? Why or why not? And how much?
Should We Pay?
The unsatisfying, simple, easy answer is yes. And this is precisely where Paul goes next in that same passage in Romans 13. After describing the government’s right to punish, he turns to taxes.
For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is wed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Taxes are owed to government. That’s striking, isn’t it?
Jesus certainly affirms the same thing as Paul. When asked whether they should pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus told the people to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” The coin with Caesar’s image and inscription, in some sense, belongs to Caesar. So pay him.
Why Should We Pay Taxes?
But the second question is, why? Why should we pay taxes? Yes, because God commands it, but why would he command it? Paul answers in the second half of verse 6: “for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.”
This “thing” may refer to restraining evil and promoting good, collecting taxes, or the service of God himself. We pay them because they have a job that God has given them to do. God says they perform a necessary function, which is why he has established governments. They are his ministers.
How many of us how many of us consider the IRS, or the government bureaucracy in general “ministers of God”?
Clearly this should affect how we feel about paying taxes. Our hearts tend to complain. But that’s not the attitude God would have us take. He would have us thank him for the good work government does by using our tax dollars. And would have us give our taxes with thankful hearts for the work of government in promoting good and restraining evil.
Now perhaps the most divisive question of the morning:
How Much Should Our Taxes Be?
Obviously, we don’t find a clear rule in Scripture.
So the question we want to ask is, does the Bible offer any principles for how to think about this question? I believe it does. But first, let me offer this disclaimer: we’re clearly in the domain of wisdom here, where the biblical principle is not straightforward.
So let’s start with some biblical principles I think we as Christians can affirm:
- The right of property, which is implicit in the biblical commands not to steal or to covet your neighbor’s stuff.
- Included in this right to private property, I believe, is the right to keep your wages, and to keep them in proportion with the quality and worth of your labor:
- “The laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7) said Jesus.
- “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor” (1 Cor. 3:8), said Paul.
- And in Jesus’ parable of the minas, a person earns a reward in proportion to his work and talent. The servant who produced ten minas more, and not just five or two, received a greater reward: “Well done, good servant! Because you have been in very little, you shall have authority over ten cities” (Luke 19:17; see also the parable of the talents in Matt. 25:14-30; see Grudem, 294).
- We “owe” taxes to government so that it can do the jobs God has assigned us to do, as already discussed.
- Governments should seek to do good and promote good. It does this by punishing the bad, and promotes the good, Paul said.
- EX: How does this relate to taxes? Well one way to apply is to say that the government has an interest in growing the economy, or seeing to that it at least doesn’t hinder it. So if a business or corporation is creating wealth and providing jobs and generally increasing the stand of living for people, the government as God’s minister shouldn’t seek to hinder that, but help it along by promoting reasonable tax laws.
- A fifth biblical “principle” we can affirm is not so much a command as it is the precedent. We can learn from OT precedents.
- EX: Well, we see the “tithe” in which Israelites were to give 10 percent of their money to the Lord. The tithe was very much a flat tax. Make a million dollars, you give 10 percent. Make 10,000 dollars, you give ten percent. (Lev. 27:30-32; Deut. 14:22-23).
- The people also had a census tax imposed on everyone for half a shekel. Exodus 30:15: “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than half a shekel.”
- Provisions are made for the poor in matters of animal sacrifice. The poor were not required to bring a lamb for sacrifice, but could bring turtledoves or pigeons (Lev. 12:8). Not a tax, per se, but one might want to argue for an institutional sensitivity to poverty based on this precedent.
These six principles help us to think about the Bible’s relevance for everything from debates surrounding taxes. Let’s consider three examples:
1. Should Everyone Pay Taxes?
In America today, due to various income deductions, about 47% of the working population pay no taxes. Is that right or fair?
Potential danger: when you don’t pay taxes, the government is not accountable in the same way to your vote. The government can raise spending dramatically, and you may not care, at least in the short term, because it doesn’t affect you.
In fact, you begin to favor spending increases, because you benefit more from it, but you don’t have to pay for it. That’s how we end up bankrupting the country.
And because of the principle that governments do good with that money, it seems that generally, most should pay taxes.
2. Should there be an inheritance tax?
How does the government justly tax money that it has already taxed when it was being earned as income? This is an example where it’s hard for me to see a principle of fairness
For example: old man dies in a room surrounded by his children. They’re all mourning his death. Then, in the moment after his death, looters break in and take half his property. We would all say that that’s stealing. But what principle changes the tax man walking in and demanding half of all assets on money he has already taxed? Proverbs 13:22 says, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” Ezekiel 46:18 says, “The prince shall not take any of the inheritance of the people, thrusting them out of their property.”
My challenge is, a Christian should look for a principle of justice for why the right of private property would be overturned here.
So does that mean as Christians we should oppose the inheritance tax? What do you think? Biblical principles can inform our thinking here. For better or worse, this isn’t exactly a hot-button issue of the day.
3. Are progressive tax rates fair?
I think a more interesting question we’ve seen this cycle has been about a progressive tax rate—are they fair or just? Progressive tax rate sets your tax rate according to your income, so that the more money you make, the higher percentage of your income you pay.
What’s worth observing in our present cultural environment is that a lot of people in America generally think it’s fair or just for folks who make more to pay more in taxes.
We heard that exact argument on Wednesday: “It is time for folks like me who make more than $250,000 to pay our fair share,” the implication being they haven’t paid their “fair” share.” But the question I would like to pose here is, fair by what or whose standards?
The Bible focuses on treating both the rich and poor fairly and justly. Exodus 23:6: “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit.” And Exodus 23:3: “Nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawusuit.” The question is not whether someone is rich or poor, but whether he has done good or evil. And it is wrong to punish those who have not done evil: “To impose a fine on a righteous man is not good, nor to strike the noble for their uprightness” (Prov. 17:26). And this is consistent with what the Bible teaches about government: “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14).
Here it’s as if some politicians are conflating punishment with taxes. But the rich don’t “deserve” punishment—or to pay more—just on the basis of their income.
We just talked about punishment as evaluating whether someone has done good or evil—not whether they’re rich or not.
In Proverbs: “To impose a fine on a righteous man is not good, nor to strike the noble for their uprightness” (Prov. 17:26).
And this is consistent with what the Bible teaches about government: “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). We shouldn’t assume people have been unjust because they have a lot of money.
It’s tempting to quickly reply, “Oh, well, the higher tax hardly hurts the rich” or “they can afford it.” And that might be true. But I think one of the first questions a Christian should ask isn’t, “Does it hurt” but “Is it just?” And here I would suggest that the burden is on Christians who argue for a progressive tax to offer the principle for why it is fair, instead of assuming it.
SELF-DEFENSE AND JUST WAR
A final area of coercive force where the government has legitimate authority is in wars of self-defense.
A larger question is whether there is such thing as just war generally, whether in self-defense or not. Was World War II or the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars of self-defense? Were they just wars? It’s not exactly the same question, or answer, for each of these. One might argue something is not a war of self-defense, but that it’s still a just war.
Historically, just war has several criteria:
- it has a morally right or just cause;
- it’s waged by a competent authority;
- the actions of the enemy are morally wrong—comparative justice;
- right intention;
- it’s the last resort;
- there is a probability of success;
- there is a proportionality of results—greater good will come from the outcome than harm done by waging the war;
- a right spirit—it’s undertaken with reluctance and sorrow, not a destructive spirit of hatred or vengeance/
I’m not going to undertake the defense of just war here. My goal is merely to state that a war of self-defense is just, simply on the grounds of Genesis 9:5–6. If an outsider seeks to shed my blood and my household’s blood, I believe Genesis 9:5-6 clearly grants my government authority to shed the blood of enemy soldiers in defense, or even if the attacking government is not threatening us with widespread slaughter, it is threatening our state.
What are some examples?
- WWII – Pearl Harbor;
- Historical, inaction to action: During the Clinton Administration, they decided not to act during the genocide in Rwanda and regretted this. So the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine.
- The doctrine says that because US has the power to prevent genocide, it has the moral responsibility to do so.
- Clearly, R2P, as it’s called, suggests that the United States and other powerful countries have a moral obligation of sorts not just to their own people, but to others.
- And I think this is where things get really tricky, because it often pits the needs of other citizens above the needs of your own. And my concern with R2P and similar doctrines is that it doesn’t understand the limits of a state’s power.
- EX: When Qaddafi looked like he was about to commit genocide, they argued they had to act. They took out Qaddafi. Now Libya is an ungoverned space. ISIL has a growing presence there. At this point we’re nearing the death toll of what we were trying to prevent.
- I think if we look at the current situation in Syria we see another example of a lot of gray areas. Where is the line between our duty to help others, and the hard, bold line of just acting when we’re required to for our own self-defense? Syria serves as the counter example to Libya—don’t invade, no real boots on the ground—and yet we still see a similar result.
- Certainly now, with the export of ISIS-ideology and the onset of lone-wolf attacks here at home, some make the argument that we have to deal with ISIS there because we are now physically endangered. Do we need to consider a larger scale “war”?
We need to think carefully, remember that the United States is not a theocracy and does not have the same mandate as the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. So, as we think about our involvement in the public sphere, whether on the Hill or through the voting booth, I think we need to be careful to consider all these factors and cautious in flippantly using Old Testament arguments of “just war” as an easy “out” for US military operations.