What’s up with Romans 13?
Droves of Americans have been digging out their Bibles in recent days. They’re hunting for the Romans 13 passage that attorney general Jeff Sessions quoted when arguing for the administration’s policy on separating migrant children from their families. Said Sessions: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
So what’s behind the opening verses of Romans 13, where those who obey authorities are commended and those who do not are warned to be afraid? Are we asked to submit to all authority and all laws because they have God-ordained right over us? Or is there wiggle room to question unconditional obedience to certain unjust laws or wicked and despotic leaders? Loyalists to the imperial British Crown during the Revolutionary War argued the former. Patriots on the Revolutionary side argued that only just authorities and just laws were to be obeyed.
Seventy-five years later Romans 13 surfaced again as a lead text for national controversy. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring escaped slaves be returned to bondage, gave muscle to Christians who believed slavery had divine sanction. Romans 13, which pro-slavery advocates read as favoring the oppressor over the oppressed, became the proof text against abolitionists.
Seventy-five years later, as most of the German Christian church fell in line with the Third Reich, the principles of Romans 13 again figured prominently. All but a few Christian leaders believed state rule was supreme and not to be questioned.
As we know, picking a line from the Bible to prove a point – proof-texting, it’s called – is dangerous business. The scriptures have been used throughout Christian tradition to justify imperialism, slavery, genocide, and more. This month, the attorney general “used” Romans 13 to legitimize the separation of migrant kids from their parents.
Two comments of my own for understanding our use of Romans 13:
First, the larger context in scripture matters. Read the Bible for its narrative sweep. Does it generally favor the oppressor or the oppressed, for example? Just before these Romans 13 verses, Paul writes: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them, if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Just after these Romans 13 verses, he writes, “Love your neighbor as your yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Paul wrote this letter around 55 AD, in large part, to help the non-Jewish Christians in Rome welcome back Jewish-Christian migrants who were trying to reintegrate after a long absence. His concern was bringing people together, not separating them.
Second, Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail has powerful words: “One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has a moral responsibility to obey just laws … [and] a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Lots to think about here – probably more than Jeff Sessions had time to do, given the complex history of Romans 13 and all that must be on his plate these days.