What Does the Bible Say about Riots?
We know the Bible talks about wars and turning the other cheek, but does it say anything about riots? If so, does it have any lessons for us today?
Sometimes it seems like every news report features another fight between police and citizens, often described as a protest gone wrong. While no one likes violence in the streets, is it better to have no protests at all? What does the Bible say about riots?
What Separates a Riot from a Protest?
A riot is a violent public disturbance, often against an authority. It often involves the destruction of property--public or private. A protest is similar to a riot in that it is a public expression of rejecting an idea or action. However, a protest is usually a cooperative, organized act of non-violence.
What Does the Bible Say about Respecting Authority?
The Bible speaks pretty clearly about respecting the authorities that are put in place. One of the more common passages on this topic comes from the first part of Romans 13. It states:
"Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing."
In the Old Testament, God sometimes commands his people to use violence. However, these passages should be read in context--God was doing something specific to root out the evil among them, especially evil authorities. This could be a poor example to emulate, as God was trying to preserve and protect His specific people (Israel) during a specific point in history.
What Does the Bible Say about Handling Evil Authority?
The Bible also says God has the ultimate response (in this life or the afterlife). In the meantime, Christians are to love and pray for their enemies, not to repay evil for evil. However, the Bible consists of dozens of verses and passages on God's people pursuing what is just.
For example, in Zechariah 7:9, God tells his people, "Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another."
In Romans 12:19, Paul tells his audience not to take revenge "but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord."
1 Peter 3 encourages Christians to "have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing."
Jesus gives the following advice about living for justice and peace:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:43-48)
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." (Matthew 23:23)
Does the Bible Feature People Protesting?
The Bible may not feature people standing outside buildings with picket signs, but it does describe many people peacefully challenging authority or making public statements about unjust actions.
Moses' mother hiding him in the river even though the Egyptians decreed all Hebrew baby boys should be killed may be seen as a subversive action (ignoring or defying evil laws). Moses and Aaron appearing before Pharoah to declare God wants their people freed, may be seen as a protest.
Clearer examples of protest appear later in the Old Testament. Prophets routinely spoke about sinful behavior damaging people, sometimes with dramatic elements. Isaiah stripped his clothing and sandals, walking naked for three years as a protest against Egypt and Ethiopia (Isaiah 20). Jeremiah wore a yoke on his neck and sent messages to rulers telling them not to fight against Babylon (Jeremiah 27). Ezekiel lay on his side for 390 days as a statement about Israel's sin (Ezekiel 4).
There are also times when the Bible speaks about people boycotting sinful activities. For example, in Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to show up publicly to worship the golden statue installed by King Nebuchadnezzar.
What Are Some Christian Perspectives on Protesting?
Peaceful protesting has played a significant role throughout Christian history. For example, the Protestant Reformation greatly altered the course of history and the church. Its most famous moment came when Martin Luther confronted the Roman Catholic Church by submitting his 95 theses.
The American Civil Rights movement involved numerous protests, many led by Christians (sometimes whole churches joining in). These protests helped pave the way for legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a reverend and key Civil Rights leader, was imprisoned at least 29 times for his non-violent protesting. He planned and led protests and marches around the country--like the March on Washington, the Montgomery bus boycott, or the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis.
Since the passing of Roe vs. Wade in 1973, Christians of various denominations have protested outside abortion clinics. Christians have petitioned Congress at the state and federal levels to change abortion laws. They've formed crisis pregnancy centers as a counter-protest to counsel young women and couples, providing encouragement and resources to bring their babies to term.
Is There a Time and place for Christians to riot?
Can Christians justify aggressive forms of protest? Jesus preached turning the other cheek, but was he using hyperbole? Sometimes he used exaggeration, like commanding his followers to cut off their hands and pluck out their eyes if either caused them to sin.
In the Old Testament, God commands His people to act violently and kill people doing evil things--like worshiping idols or sacrificing children--to root it out among themselves and the neighboring nations. Still, he had a special covenant relationship with Israel that included establishing them as a nation in a foreign land.
Rioting is rooted in anger and pain. Some could interpret their anger as righteous--similar to Jesus overturning the money tables in the temple. Jesus' actions (criticizing those who used the temple for business and con games instead of worship) can be seen as a violent protest. On the other hand, Jesus only did this once. Furthermore, as various Christian philosophers have noted, righteous indignation is a particular term with a particular meaning.
Sometimes Jesus set the stage for something violent to happen. He cast out a legion of demons from a man and directed them into a herd of pigs, who ran off a cliff and died. This is certainly a violent event, even though it affects animals. Jesus' attitude to violence may well be more complicated than we think.
Some questions about the line between peaceful protest and using violence to fight against evil take us back to just war theory, a concept first developed by Augustine of Hippo. Just war theory deals with whether it's ever morally acceptable to fight a war--what a just cause might be, and when it's right to take up arms. Even in discussions about wars against clearly evil people (like the Allies fighting against Hitler), there are debates about what cost may be involved. For example, would burning a business that supplies Nazi soldiers with weapons be justified, even though it hurts the business owner who may not sympathize with the Nazis?
In conclusion, the line between peaceful protesting and rioting is not always easy to see. The Bible describes many leaders who avoided violence, leaving judgment up to God. It also includes examples of God directly commanding His people to take violent action. Throughout history, Christians have debated whether certain violent actions are necessary after all other avenues have been thoroughly exhausted (and what that looks like).
As Christians, we should aim for peace, love our enemies, and turn the other cheek, while considering when (and if) violent action is appropriate. Our journeys to decide when violent action is necessary will require much thinking, much studying what Christians who have come before us have written about violent action, and much prayer and counsel from wise leaders. In the meantime, we must be extremely discerning and wary of people who claim God told them to act violently.
For other perspectives on Christianity, peace, and violent action, read:
How Should Christians Respond to Protesting?
What Does the Bible Say about V
Should Christians Get Involved with Riots and Demonstrations?
Is Christianity A Violent Religion?
Photo Credit: Getty Images/jackbab
Nate Van Noord is from Detroit, MI, a graduate of Calvin University, and has taught high school history for many years. He loves to bike, run, and play pickleball, has been to about 30 countries, and is a three time winner of NPR's Moth Detroit StorySlam competitions.
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