Like many of you, I’ve been watching in horror and in anger as our government forcibly separates children from their families at the border. The callous manner in which families are destroyed and children traumatized in order to act as a “deterrent” for undocumented migration is shameful.
I am one of many clergy that has voiced my moral outrage over this via petitions to the government. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked about clergy who object to his actions, he responded: “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes… Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”
The passage he’s referring to is the following:
“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. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1-4, New Revised Standard Version)
I’ve been asked to give my thoughts on The AG’s use of this text, and here it is:
As others have noted, this particular passage was a favorite of slave owners in the American South, who often cited it to discourage enslaved persons from uprising. It’s a passage with a checkered past. It’s also not talking about what the Attorney General claims it’s talking about.
When Paul wrote his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, some 2,000 years ago, they were a small and often persecuted religious minority. Many of them were also Jews (as was Paul), and Rome had recently seen efforts to banish all Jewish persons from the city. The Emperor who had so persecuted Jews and followers of Jesus alike had just died, and a new Emperor was in power. Would he be cruel or tolerant? No one yet knew. That is why Paul advocates for good citizenship and respect for authority. The believer, Paul says, should trust that ultimately God is in control, so any human government rules either by God’s command or by God’s permission, and thus should be respected.
Paul’s “wise command” is advice for a persecuted religion on how to be safe during politically tense times. Tragically, the new Emperor ended up being Nero, who would slaughter believers like no one prior. Paul himself would die during Nero’s mad massacre of Christians. Was Paul’s “wise command” really so wise after all?
To take Paul’s words, addressing a very specific historical moment and situation, and use them to silence voices of moral outrage condemning evil… well it’s despicable. To use Paul’s counsel to a persecuted minority as a way to justify persecuting the innocent in our own time… it’s reprehensible.
“Consistent and fair application of the law” is only “a good and moral thing” is the law is a good and moral law. When the law is wicked, to apply it is wicked. When the law is evil, to apply it is evil. This is the moral danger of insisting on “law and order” rather than justice and righteousness. Slavery was legal, but it was neither just nor righteous. Those that resisted, that disobeyed the law… they were just and history remembers them as righteous.
No out-of-context appeals to Scripture will change that this current policy is wrong, and it must be resisted. May the AG instead heed the clear and wise command of Isaiah:
“How awful it will be for those who mandate wickedness and legalize oppression, denying justice to the needy, taking away the rights of the poor among My people... How will you opportunists handle the day of reckoning?” (Isaiah 10:1-3, The Voice)