In the midst of the current immigration debacle in the United States, I have seen an uptick in quoting Romans 13:1-2: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (NRSV)
When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, my own denomination, declared itself a “sanctuary denomination”, nearly every article featured multiple commenting on how a decision to welcome immigrants and proactively support immigration reform was a violation of Romans 13:1. The verse was thrown down like a gauntlet at coffee hours and in Bible studies. The argument seems to be that Paul renders dozens of verses about welcoming the stranger and caring for those away from their homeland moot with a few sentences about order and authority written to fellow Christians whom he had not yet met.
In history, Romans 13 was used by Martin Luther to support kings and princes in overthrowing peasant rebellions. Loyalist preachers in the American Revolution used the text to try to convince their parishioners that God expected, nay commanded, their continued faithfulness to the crown. In the 1850s, the Fugitive Slave Act demanded that escaped enslaved people were to be returned to their masters, even if they had made it to free states. Those upholding this Act indicated that compliance with such a law was in line with Romans 13:1 and that helping enslaved persons to escape was in direct violation of the Bible.
All of this serves to remind me of Shakespeare’s lines from The Merchant of Venice:
“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
We could speculate for a long time as to the root of Paul’s sentences in Romans 13. It’s not like the present Roman government (Nero) at the time of his writing was kind to Christians or to Jews. The verses just prior in chapter 12 are reminders that the Way of Christ is a action-based life of doing good for others, being welcomed by all kinds of people, and refusing to take revenge. In the context of Paul’s life, one could conclude that he believes that God ordains order, but that not all people who are in positions to maintain order, those with authority, understand their role in the context God intends. Paul’s interactions with jailers, court systems, and those who enslave others show a disciple who intends to live and died in Jesus Christ in all circumstances.
It is hard for me to imagine that the man who wrote, “For I convinces that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” truly believed that all rulers or persons in power were doing God’s true work. We may owe taxes because we are citizens and benefitting from the powers or respect to the office because it represents the power and possibility of our city/state/nation, but it is a far leap from that to believing that anything a ruler does is ordained by God. We certainly would not apply that to many elected or dynastic rulers of the past, why would it be true today?
In discussing this, someone pointed out to me that the American Revolution was the only way to overthrow a tyrannical government, but now we have the ballot box. My eyebrow has not yet descended from its astronomic heights in response. Surely, the colonies could have fought to have representation in the House of Commons and titles granted to landholders in the colonies. Then they would have had the representation they wanted. And if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his butt when he hopped.
No one who is throwing Romans 13 around now, in the midst of the immigration debacle, is doing it because they whole-heartedly believe in presidential authority descending from God. Or maybe they do, but only because this president is white, male, and saying what they want to hear. A leader who says what you want to hear isn’t necessarily right. In fact, such a leader may specifically be quite wrong.
How can we tell? If God has instituted governments for order, is the leader using the position to bring order through justice and peace by listening, compromising, and reflecting on the number of people who are helped and/or harmed by each decision? Or is the leader bringing order through fiat- created by whispers and blatant appeals to ego, wallet, and power? Does the leader follow through on promises, consult advisors who are knowledgeable on the subject in question, and wrestle with the realities of position?
Scripture must be weighed against itself, within and outside of its traditions, and with the gift of reason that comes through being able to reflect on history. It seems clear that Romans 13:1-2 cannot stand alone- apart from the rest of the epistle or the rest of scripture. When and where it has been used in history, it often ends up, as they say, “on the wrong side”. Furthermore, the ability to quote scripture as a support does not in and of itself make a stance particularly moral.
As an American, I take my vocation as citizen very seriously. I trust in the order and balance of government that is meant to exist in a representative democracy. I also resist situations in which those with more money, power, and willingness to cheat and steal elections influence the representation. Taking Romans 13 seriously means I care enough about the order God has established not to let any particular leader become an idol. Taking Romans 13 seriously means that I look hard at actions that seem violate the principles of my country, the order on which it was established, or the commands that are quite clear in the Bible. Taking Romans 13 seriously means I don’t casually toss it out in conversation when people are afraid for their own lives and the lives of their children.
A system that God has ordained does not require the oppression of immigrants or the refusal of asylum to refugees to maintain itself. The people therein should know that.
The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Big Timber Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Big Timber, MT. She blogs at lutheranjulia.blogspot.com and readsallthethings.com. She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit and is President of the board of RevGalBlogPals, Inc.
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