The Context of Romans 13

This past week, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions used a passage from the Bible in such a feckless way that it has had myself, and a lot of the population of North America fuming. In response to the growing outcry over the separation of families who arriving at the southern US border as migrants and refugees, Sessions used cherry-picked verses from Romans 13:1-2 to assert that people should submit to governing authorities. Comics, including Late Night’s Stephen Colbert immediately jumped on it, and called him out on it. Colbert, a devout and practicing Roman Catholic, is well-known to be a Sunday School teacher when he isn’t in front of the camera. He pointed out that “love is the fulfillment of the law” a few verses later. Even Trump cheerleaders like Franklin Graham have openly disagreed with such a use, saying that separation of families is not Biblical.

But there’s another piece in this that hasn’t been voiced. Context is also highly important. Romans 13:1-2, as others have mentioned has been used as a proof-text by those in power as a way to keep holding onto power. Paul never intended for it to be understood that way. This was written in response to the general question as to how integrated in society should Christians be? This was written when Christians were a microscopic slice of the population under the rule of the capricious Roman Empire. At the time that Paul wrote this, in about 57 AD, Christians did not have a lot to fear from the Romans, despite rising tensions in and around Jerusalem.

Just a handful of years after Paul wrote these words, he would be imprisoned and then executed by the very authorities that he himself deferred to. The experience of Nero and subsequent persecution of minorities in the Roman Empire changed Christianity’s stance within the Empire. The Book of Revelation, for example, is a distinctly anti-imperial work. We forget that at our peril.

The distinction here is justice. It is good for us to respect the laws of a nation when they are just. The Bible is full of entire books of stories where someone stands up to governing authorities when they mistreat people, regardless of where they come from. Moses stood up to Pharaoh, proclaiming “let my people go!” The entirety of the prophetic tradition consists of people and voices crying out against those who would abuse their authority. When Jeff Sessions, or anybody, for that matter, uses the Bible to justify injustice, then this is the point where we draw the line and proclaim loudly that this is not the kingdom of heaven that Jesus saw.