Thanks again to my colleague Dr. John Fea for a thought provoking article (his weekly post at Patheos) about the American Revolution. John reminds us that the terminology “Just War” was not one the founders, or even pastors of the era, thought about. John points out some differences between the arguments of the era, and the historical Just War position. He also points out some arguments from John Wesley critiquing the Revolution. Here is a taste of Wesley’s criticism, and John’s challenge to Christians today.
Wesley ticked off a litany of colonial sins: they refused to pay their taxes, they had destroyed property (“Ship-loads of tea”), and most importantly, they held African slaves even as they cried for their own freedom from English tyranny. For Wesley, the cry of “no taxation without representation” was absurd: “I reply, they are now taxed by themselves, in the very same sense that nine-tenths of us are. We have not only no vote in parliament, but none in electing the members.” Lack of representation in Parliament did not mean that the colonists were exempted from “subjection to the government and laws.” Wesley, needless to say, did not think the American Revolutionary War was justified.
Christians today who want to argue that the Revolutionary War was “just” must offer concrete evidence to suggest that this war was indeed a “last resort.” They must also make a compelling case that the colonists’ grievances against the Crown merited military resistance. Here are few questions that one might ask in this regard:
Do high taxes justify a military rebellion against the government, even if such rebellion is in direct violation of passages such as Romans 13 that command Christians to pay their taxes?
Was the English government as “tyrannical” as the colonies claimed? And if it was, did the level of tyranny justify armed conflict? After all, Great Britain offered more freedom to the inhabitants of their empire than any other nation in the world.
Did the revolutionaries have a moral case to make for their own freedom when many had denied freedom to slaves in their midst? Or, as historian Mark Noll has argued, perhaps it was only the enslaved African Americans who could legitimately “justify taking up arms to defend themselves.”
These are tough questions. But they are definitely questions worth thinking about.
I agree that they are worth thinking about, especially for those who look to the founders as a shining light of Christian faith. For those of us who come from more pacifist traditions, it is another reminder of what happens when the role of government is elevated and we put earthly empires before the Kingdom.
On a related note, John commented on whether many of the founders were Deists in last week’s post. (Hint, he thinks that while they likely weren’t Deists, they weren’t really Christians either.)