I know Jeff Sessions. I once conferred on the former senator something called The Ten Commandments Leadership Award for using his office to foster adherence to the virtues espoused in the Great Words of Sinai. Now, many years later, I’m tempted to rescind that award. In his present office, General Sessions has promulgated policies that violate not only the letter of God’s moral law, but the spirit of it as well. To add insult to injury, the Attorney General recently made a very poor attempt to use—or misuse—a well- and widely-exegetic passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 13. This text is a cornerstone in Pauline New Testament literature. It is also one of the most historically misinterpreted, deliberately distorted, and abused excerpts ever drawn from the Bible.
An Historical Record of the Misuse of Romans 13
In addition to guiding believers on how they are to comport themselves socially and in terms of the body politic, Romans 13 has been used previously to defend government actions in the mass slaughter of peasant farmers in Europe, slavery and Jim Crow laws in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, brutal torture and murder in Zimbabwe, and, of course, the extermination camps of Nazi Germany. Now added to this list of Romans 13 heresies is an attempted justification for the deliberate traumatizing of children by separating them from their parents at the U.S. – Mexican border.
As a help to General Sessions (and the President’s spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who echoed him), let’s try to understand not just the plain meaning of the relevant portion of Romans 13, but, what theologians, Bible scholars, commentators, and a premier Christian ethicist have to say about it. I’ll begin with an aphorism given to me by one of my instructors at Elim Bible Institute (Lima, New York), where I first took on a serious examination of Holy Writ some 40 years ago,
“Every biblical text without a context becomes a pretext.”
The first step in properly discerning the meaning of a biblical text is, in fact, its context. So, let’s put this one where it belongs. The salient verses in the Attorney General’s reference to Romans 13 is verses 1-5:
“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. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”
This is clearly a discussion of the Christian’s duty toward temporal, earthly government. As is usual for an evangelical, I tend to take a passage at its face value. This is the Great Apostle instructing his charges to basically behave themselves and go along with the prevailing social and legal order; to recognize legitimate authority and behave themselves in a civil manner. There were many revolutionary movements present in First Century Roman occupied Judaea. Due to Roman hostility toward the early Christian movement, its adherents were understandably tempted to join insurgent groups, but St. Paul admonished them not to do so. Instead, he says they are to “submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience” (Rom 13:5b NIV). In many ways, this is simple common sense. Still, there is more here than first meets the eye.
Again, context: This passage is bookended by two interesting discussions, both on the nature of the Christian’s relationship to fellow believers and, generally, to everyone else. In a word, this nature is love. The first of these two bookend passages begins this way, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (Rom 12: 9-13)
Because this proceeds the section on government, it is reasonable to assume that it is to inform that next discussion, the one in Chapter 13, verses 1-5. In other words, Paul, having said all this, (including the potent last imperative, “Practice hospitality”) essentially sets the frame for the Christian’s attitudinal approach to government: Hating evil . . . embracing the good . . . being spiritually fervent . . . serving the Lord . . . being full of hope . . . patient when afflicted . . . continuously praying . . . giving some of what you have to those that have none . . . being hospitable. It’s within this moral, ethical, social, and spiritual milieu that we are to approach the salient question in Romans 13, What about government?
Now, the edict to both obey and to see rulers as instruments of God are not without qualification. Barnes Notes says about the general rule of obedience and acknowledgment of authority, “there ‘were’ cases where it was right to ‘resist’ the laws. This the Christian religion clearly taught; and in cases like these, it was indispensable for Christians to take a stand. When the laws interfered with the rights of conscience; when they commanded the worship of idols, or any moral wrong, then it was their duty to refuse submission.” And “This does not mean that he (God) ‘originates’ or causes the evil dispositions of rulers, but that he ‘directs’ and ‘controls’ their appointment.”
Ellicott’s Commentary says it this way, “There will always be a certain debatable ground within which opposite duties will seem to clash, and where general principles are no longer of any avail. Here the individual conscience must assume the responsibility of deciding which to obey.”
It would do well to note at this juncture that there is never simply textual context to be concerned about in exegeting Scripture; there is also time, place, cultural, linguistic, historic, personal and other factors that must be weighed in interpreting meaning and application. Having said that, let’s bring this whole subject into the present day and the present situation: In contrast to the first century Roman Christians’ political environment, that is, a Republic ruled largely by oligarchs, acolytes and a despotic, often divinized, emperor, American Christians in the 21st century are ruled, to quote American founder John Adams, “by a government of laws, not of men.” The “ruler,” for the citizen of the United States, is the law itself and no particular individual officer of the law. So, when we apply all those caveats in Romans 12 to the “ruler” or “authorities” in Romans 13, we have direction for the Christian’s attitudes and actions, vis-à-vis, “the law,” first as it is in the Constitution, then in the product of the legislative bodies, and in some executive orders and policies, etc.
But to get the whole sense of this, we must go to the other bookend, St. Paul’s discussion on love. It’s found just after the so-called “law and order text,” in the same chapter, 13, verses 8 – 10, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
To review, the passage here indicates we are to approach our duties to government with a moral, ethical, even spiritual mindset, because it is only a morally enlightened conscience that enables us to decide (to go back to Ellicott) “which to obey;” that is, God’s law or man’s law. Now, in this second contextual piece, Paul adds a test that will help us to place love—specifically of neighbor—above all else in making our decision about the legitimacy of a law or government policy. Paul’s exhortation here on love reflects, of course, Jesus’ Second Great Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which, our Lord said, is “like,” or the equivalent to, the First Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (See Matthew 22:36-40). In Romans 13, Paul states unambiguously, “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” This would lead us to ask about our rulers, (that is, any law or lawful policy), “Does it do no harm to a neighbor?” If it does not do harm, the context here would indicate we are, indeed, duty-bound to obey it. However, if it does cause harm to a neighbor, then it is by definition immoral, unethical, unspiritual, and, consequently, unjust (see Malachi 6:8). To quote the great early church father, theologian, and bishop, St. Augustine, “Lex iniusta non est lex,” – “An unjust law is no law at all.” (Famously quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in reference to segregation laws in the south.) Ipso facto, in our American context, “no law at all” means no ruler exists to be obeyed.
Which brings us to the question at hand, Is Romans Chapter 13 relevant to the policy of the Trump Administration which separates children from their parents at the Mexican border? Of course, it is, but, does this mean that a Christian—or anyone for that matter—is obliged to obey the order to separate migrant children from their parents at the border? Adding to the moral weight of this question is the President’s recent comments indicating that one of the purposes of the separation and confinement of the children is to use the anguish this brings to them and their parents as an emotional deterrent against attempts by the parents to illegally enter the United States. In other words, the President and his operatives are inflicting pain for the purpose of scaring parents. It is clear on its face that this practice does considerable harm to the children, to their parents, to the officers and other government personnel that are demoralized by its execution, not to mention harm to the reputation and spiritual wellbeing of the American people. Therefore, the policy and practice of forcibly separating children from their parents at the border and any legislation ostensibly used to support this practice is patently unjust. As an unjust “law” it is “no law at all,” therefore rendering null, void, and erroneous the invocation of Romans 13 by the Attorney General to justify inflicting pain and anguish on parents and children.
The Attorney General, Ms. Huckabee Sanders, and the President would do well to consider what the great pastor, moral theologian, Christian ethicist and martyr to the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had to say about Romans 13, “No State is entitled to read St. Paul’s words as a justification for its own existence. Should any State take to heart these words, they would be just as much a challenge to repentance for the State as they are for the Church . . .”
A personal note: This, General Sessions, is your theology lesson on Romans 13. My prayer and hope is that you will give it due consideration and reverse your statement, order border personnel to stop inflicting this kind of pain and anguish on children, and return to God’s moral order by supporting the sanctity of the family. Should you decide not to do so, I respectfully ask you to return the plaque I gave you twenty years ago naming you a recipient of the Ten Commandments Leadership Award. I’m afraid your defense of harming children and parents disqualifies you from such recognition.