Last week, while speaking in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Attorney General Jeff Session referenced Romans 13 as he defended the administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border. He said, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. . . . Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” Speaking to the press later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated Sessions’ statement when she told reporters, “It is very biblical to enforce the law.” Historically, individuals have used the first seven verses of Romans 13 to enforce their will and power of others, most notably during the institution of slavery.
Speaking to the Washington Post, John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College, noted that there were two spikes in American history to Romans 13. The first came during the Revolution when loyalists to the British Crown used it. The second occurred during the 1830s onward as a defense for the institution of slavery. In response to Sessions’ comments, Fea said, “This is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”
Slaveholders used other verses as well. For example, Peter Tanner quoted Luke 12:47 to the people he owned. The verse reads, “‘That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.” Tanner deliberately focused on this verse when he “preached” to those he owned. He would ask, “D’ye hear that?. . . Stripes.” Tanner takes Luke 12:47 out of context. Contextually, Jesus speaks about the second coming, after his resurrection, in this verse.
Like Luke 12:47, Paul calls upon his audience in Romans 13:1-7 to adhere to the laws of this world because God has appointed them to positions of power. The verses read,
1 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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 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. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
The verses, addressed to Christians in Rome, calls upon them to be good citizens in hopes that their example will lead others to the faith. However, these verses do not tell Christians to support laws that run counter to the law of God. The verses immediately proceeding, Romans 12:9-21, tells us to “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.” Immediately following Romans 13:1-7, Paul reiterates that, above all else, we must love another. In verses 8-10, he writes:
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”a]”>[a] and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”b]”>10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Here, “law” refers to God’s law, not man’s. The scriptures, while telling Christians to adhere to earthly authority, and thus to be an example, also tell Christians to stand up for evil when it appears.
There are countless examples in the Bible where individuals did not adhere to the earthly law: Daniel, Esther, Joseph and Mary, and more. One key example comes when Peter and other apostles, after getting arrested for preaching the gospel, told those holding them, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). From a Christian perspective, does tearing families apart constitute love? Does it espouse the ideals that Paul talks about in Romans 13:8-10? In each case, I would answer no.
Thinking about this issue, and especially the ways that slaveholders and others use(d) Romans 13 to maintain power, I think back to Frederick Douglass and William Apess and their attacks on the hypocrisy, clothed in spirituality, that destroys families and seeks to control individuals by playing on their faith. In What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, Douglass confronts the hypocrisy apparent in the church during the period. He tells his audience:
The fact that the church of our country (with fractional exceptions) does not esteem ‘the Fugitive Slave Law’ as a declaration of war against religious liberty, implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love, and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness. A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to he naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. (emphasis added)
From a Christian perspective, when a law directly counters the love that God commands us to give to one another, then we must challenge and speak out against it. If we don’t we become complacent and sit in services aimlessly singing Psalms, espousing love while ignoring the atrocities enacted by leaders that are the exact opposite of love.
Like Douglass, William Apess directly confronted Christian hypocrisy as well. In An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man, he asks his audience, “Did you ever hear or read of Christ teaching his disciples that they ought to despise one because his skin was different from theirs? Jesus Christ being a Jew, and those of his apostles certainly were not whites—and did not he who completed the plan of salvation complete it for the whites as well as for the Jews, and others?” By stoking fears over immigration and enacting programs that rip families apart, we are telling people of color entering America, and those already here, that your life and your happiness do not matter. Aren’t we a nation founded on the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Actions such as the ones we see at the border do not present these ideals to the world or to America itself.
I want to briefly conclude with a couple of lines from Propaganda’s “Cynical.” These lines echo the same sentiments that Douglass spoke in 1852. Sadly, those same thoughts remain relevant today. He points out that we, no matter our religious beliefs, get too wrapped up in ourselves and our own problems that we ignore the issues affecting others. We need to adhere to Paul’s words in Romans 13:8-10 and love our neighbor more than ourselves. Propaganda raps,
Huh, what’s a Twitter beef?
I play Monopoly with refugees
Who know they ain’t gon’ ever again see they home country
I’m out here on some world relief
What’s a Twitter beef?
We need to let our voices be heard on this issue, and many more. We need to contact our representatives and let them know that separating families is morally reprehensible and needs to stop. You can find your Congressmen and Congresswomen at various sites. Do a search and write, call, or email them on this issue or others.