The Bible has been in the news!
Over the last week scripture quotes have dashed across the headlines ever since our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, cited Romans 13:1-2 as he was talking about the administration's policy on immigration
(Click here to watch)
. Since then many faith leaders, including our Bishop and Presiding Bishop have weighed in on the immigration debate citing other scriptures, and just yesterday the President issued an Executive Order amending the policy. While I do have deep opinions about immigration both as a Christian and as a citizen, this post will not be about immigration. If you want my thoughts on that ask and I will be happy to tell you, but there are many voices on that in news feeds right now. What I haven't seen is someone talking in depth about Romans 13, the scripture that was cited, and how, with deep respect to our Attorney General, he may have missed what is truly important and revolutionary about this passage and its context.
While I hope you watch the clip yourself, Jeff Sessions is making a case that consistently applying the law is a moral thing in itself and he is citing Romans 13 as evidence for it. He also implies that obeying the law is a moral necessity because it is God who put our Government in charge. While, of course, in general following the law is a good and important thing, that isn't what Romans 13 is about and there are reasons why a Christian in power quoting it in this way is problematic. Once again I say this out of love and support for our Attorney General and our administration, and also I say it because I think Romans 13 has a lot to teach us about how we live full lives as Christians together.
The truth is what Mr. Sessions said is close to accurate, but there are a few important details that change the conclusion.
1) Paul, the author of the Letter to the Romans, broke the law a lot.
Much of the time that Paul was in ministry was spent in prison. Many of the letters in the Bible were probably written from his cell. Preaching the Gospel was a crime when this letter was written as was refusing to worship pagan idols. When Paul talks about being "subject to the governing authorities" he is not talking about following the letter of government's laws. He is pointing to something important, but it is different than following the law as written. Mr. Session has a point about the consistent application of the law, but that point is unrelated to Romans 13.
2) Citing Romans 13 when you are in power makes you look bad.
The Epistle to the Romans is a letter written to Christians in Rome from Paul, the founding pastor of their community. These letters where not written as a theological treatise for the ages. They were intended for their audience-a group a Christians trying to live in the heart of the Roman Empire. Many of those Christians were probably not considered citizens of Rome and the Roman government was actively persecuting Christians. They were throwing Paul's congregant friends to be devoured by lions. Within 50 years of the writing of this letter they would build the colosseum in this city of Rome so that they could kill people in front of larger crowds. It was the Roman government who were the ones who actually crucified Jesus. That is the government that Paul is talking about in Romans 13. He is not saying God likes this government so what they say is what God wants. Paul is saying that we are to respect even this terrible awful immoral government and we are not to fall to their evil level when we resist them. Paul's point is that God is working through people even as awful as the Romans. This is really clear if you read the verses right before Romans 13:1 which say "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God [...] Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (12:19-20). Right after that he says be subject to the government which means don't take up arms and try to kill them back.
So when you are in power and you cite Romans 13 you are comparing yourself to the Romans of Biblical time which you never want to do. Honestly when I heard Jeff Sessions say this I was dumbfounded. It would be a little like hearing someone say, "I am good at paperwork, like the NAZIs." NAZIs may be good at paperwork but you don't want to put them together with you.
3) Romans 13 is really important for Christians who are not in power.
Think about this for a second as it applies to our country. Certainly there is a lot of frustration right now, anger, hurt and division between Republicans and Democrats. But as bad as you think the other is, the Roman Government was much worse. And what was Paul's advice? Be good to your opponents. Overcome evil with good. Have faith that God is working through even the worst people to move us into justice and right relationship. If that advice works in the case of the Roman Empire than it certainly applies now. Paul doesn't say this to stop Christians from resisting what they see as wrong or unjust, he says these things so that Christians will resist using their best, most loving, most charitable selves.
Thank God we no longer have a functioning Colosseum like they did in Rome where people would be slaughtered for entertainments sake. Our society and economy, however; have become so fueled by rage that we have created an ideological Colosseum. Here we see words twisted, intensions assumed and accuracy ignored. Through social media, reality television and ratings-based reporting Americans clamor to see public shaming and hatred. I can't help but wonder what would happen if we all stopped to take the true meaning of Romans 12-13 to heart and worked on our problems together overcoming the evils of the world with love rather than slander and derision.