Legitimate Rebellion Against Unjust Rule
Q: Today, July 4, Americans celebrate Independence Day, when they broke away from English rule. But doesn’t Paul say that “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. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:1-2, RSV). Doesn’t this automatically mean that the American Revolutionaries shouldn’t have broken away and that they were resisting God by doing so?
A: No it doesn’t, but this is a real problem for many Protestants, who tend to treat such statements as absolutes without putting them in their broader, natural law context. The natural law function of the state is to secure the temporal welfare of the people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
“1898 Every human community needs an authority to govern it.[Cf. Leo XIII, Immortale Dei; Diuturnum illud] The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.”
However, not all states fulfill their function. The Catechism continues:
“1901 …Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.”
Therefore, when a state begins to harm the temporal welfare of the people in a profound and fundamental way, the state itself beings to profoundly and fundamentally resist God and the purpose for which he empowered the state, and in these circumstances political revolution can be legitimate given certain conditions:
“2243 Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless all the following conditions are met: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution.”
Whether all of those conditions were fulfilled in the case of the American Founding Fathers is a very technical historical question for someone else (I am no expert in the history of the events and conditions which led up to the American Revolution), but in principle there is no problem with revolutions to overthrow the rule of an oppressive regime so long as the above conditions are true.
There are many situations in which some conditions are fulfilled (e.g., there is an oppressive regime but no possibility of overthrowing it, or where there is a possibility of overthrowing it but doing so would bring about worse disorders through the collapse of the social order or the refusal of the populace to endorse the new regime, or where there are better ways of trying to change the situation), but revolutions are possible under God’s natural law, which forms the backdrop for Paul’s statement in Romans 13.
That the statement of Romans 13 is not an absolute is confirmed by the existence of other God-endorsed revolutions in Scripture, such as all the times the Judges or the Maccabees, by God’s strength, overthrew the pagans who had conquered Israel at different times.