Luther: Obey Secular Rulers

This week we’re dealing with Luther’s 1526 pamphlet, Can Soldiers Be Christian? I’ve seen a few different titles for this work, and I believe the literal translation is Whether Soldiers Can Be Saved. In this text, Luther is talking about whether or not it’s acceptable to be a soldier if you’re also a Christian. Are Christians allowed to kill people? Well…

The basic argument against Christians going to war rests on some verses from Matthew and James. In Matthew 5, for instance, Christ explicitly says ‘Do not resist an evil person.’ The old eye for an eye routine is waived in favour of submission, suffering, and non-resistance. The same sentiment is repeated throughout James, where the author frequently speaks out against resisting evildoers: “As an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered.” If you’re banned from resisting evil, then surely you’re also banned from being a soldier. I mean, if you’re going to war, it’s either a shit war, in which case you shouldn’t be supporting it, or it’s a just war against evil, in which case you’re transgressing against the Matthew 5 commandment by resisting evil. That’s what Luther is trying to deal with here. 

And Luther isn’t interested in denying or reinterpreting those verses either. As far as he’s concerned, it is wrong to resist evil. No question about it – just wrong. He describes the phenomenon of war made by the people against their leaders or superiors (such as the German Peasants’ War, say), and explicitly says it’s never acceptable. “No instance has ever come to my notice when it would be just, neither can I now imagine one.” He immediately proceeds to give an example where it’s fine, whoops – he says that you’re allowed to depose insane (as in legitimately mentally ill) monarchs, because they’re just gone. They are like stones or blocks (Luther’s actual words). Aside from that though, never.

So Luther really leans into the idea of the authority of political leaders. He explicitly says that people should just deal with suffering at the hands of corrupt tyrants: “better that the tyrants do them wrong a hundred times than that they do wrong to the tyrants once. For if any wrong is to be suffered, it is preferable that it be suffered from the authorities rather than by the authorities at the hands of the subjects.” That sounds a bit shitty, huh. The way Luther sees it, there’s a system that God’s put in place. The princes and monarchs or whatever are meant to take care of us plebs. If they don’t, they’ll go to hell for being naughty, but that doesn’t magically give us the right to upset the divinely ordained political order. We don’t right wrongs by doing wrong. Besides, who cares if a tyrant murders your family? “What carest thou if he destroys thy property, person, wife and child? He cannot harm thy soul.” It’s not acceptable to make a better life for people at the expense of obedience to God and the monarch.

Luther then turns to address the princes and rulers, outlining the conditions under which they are permitted to make war. He says again that the only just wars are defensive, or like internal wars where you’re dealing with your rebellious subjects. Again: a ruler’s job is to protect the stability of the kingdom, or whatever else they’re in charge of. To that end, war is fine, as long as it’s designed to keep the peace. Now, this is where things get interesting. As a Christian, your first obligation is to God. The ruler is an agent of God set in place to protect the peace, and to the extent that a ruler is fulfilling that divine mandate you are obliged to support them as part of your obedience to God. Therefore, yes, it’s fine and good to be a soldier, as long as you’re serving a monarch that is making war for a godly reason (ie to protect the peace). But it’s therefore also true that if a monarch is warring in a disobedient or ungodly manner, you as a citizen are morally obliged to resist. “If thou knowest for sure that he [the monarch] is wrong, then do thou fear God more than man, and go thou not to war nor serve, for in such a case thou canst have no good conscience before God.” Luther’s very happy for you to die or be imprisoned on this principle: “thou must take the risk and lose for God’s sake what may be lost.” It provides moral grounds for conscientious objection: God is sovereign; earthly rulers receive their mandate from God; when rulers disobey God in waging war, your first allegiance is to God over the ruler, and you must therefore disobey your disobedient ruler.

The other thing that I think is coming through quite strongly here is the idea that the stuff that happens in this world doesn’t really matter. All of these offhand comments about letting your wife and kids die – it seems pretty callous. I have difficulty with that position, personally. I can see the radical appeal to it: if we are all destined for the eternal, in one sense or another, then certain earthly pursuits take on a different form. Crucially, entrance into heaven isn’t determined by your success, happiness, or wealth on earth – so if you live and die a squalid hobo, that’s not immediately relevant from the perspective of eternity. Luther makes a similar point in On War Against the Turk, where he says that even if you’re ruled by a tyrant, you should pray to be saved from the invading Ottoman Empire “and take the chance that they [the tyrants] will have the benefit of our prayer and be preserved along with us, or that we shall pay for their raging and be ruined along with them.” Again, the basic position is that the actual practical outcomes are of secondary importance against the wider spiritual context. Repenting for your sins is good, because it gets your soul right with God. It might have this unintended practical effect of saving the lives of your tyrannical overlords, but we can roll the dice – the practical stuff isn’t as important anyway. I think that’s not really a position that many people find comprehensible or appealing today. It seems to suggest that we don’t need to worry about improving the material circumstances of one’s life, because we’re all just going to die anyway. It functions as an excuse – for, say, not doing anything about global warming. Oh, well, your wife and kids might drown in the rising sea levels, but aren’t you really more concerned about your eternal soul? No, Karen, I’m fucking concerned about the end of life on earth. It’s legitimately turning into the apocalypse round here, and – wait a second.


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