No, Romans 13 is not about obeying the governing authorities

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, King Herod got super mad and arrested some of the believers, including James and Peter, and put them on public trial. The night before the trial, an angel of the Lord woke Peter up, removed his chains, opened the prison doors and led him out the main gate of the prison.

Yet after escaping from jail, where he had been imprisoned for breaking the law, Peter went on to write in a letter:

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to the governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.”

And similarly, while Paul was in Damascus, he escaped from a strongman city governor who was trying to arrest him, by concealing himself in a wicker basket and having himself lowered down the city wall through a window.

Then after reaching safety, Paul wrote a surprising letter:

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities which exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

So are Peter and Paul hypocrites, asking Christians to do as they say, but not as they do?

Though these passages have been used to maintain the status quo (ever since the Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made it the official religion of the Empire), there is a BIG disconnect between Peter and Paul’s actions and the way we have traditionally interpreted their words.

The key to undertanding is in the word “submit”. Take a look at this. The Greek word hupo-tasso, which has been translated as “submit” or “be subject,” literally means to arrange stuff respectfully in an “orderly manner underneath”.

This simple meaning of “social orderliness” would have been understood by original readers, but it is a little obscured in our English translation.

This word is used in Ephesians 5:22 to encourage husbands and wives to submit to one another, and it reflects God’s concern for order and respect.

Here’s the main point – Paul and Peter believed that governing authorities are necessary for keeping the peace. God is a God of order – not anarchy or chaos.

But here’s where we go wrong. There’s ANOTHER word, hupo-kouo, which is best translated as “obey,” which literally means to conform, to follow a command, or to kowtow to an authority as a subordinate.

Peter and Paul could have used this word, “obey,” but they chose not to.

Trump and the Return of Divine Right

In deploying his pardon power freely and using the Bible to justify family separation, the president is exactly the sort of ruler that Enlightenment thinkers feared.

The heartbreaking scenes on the southern border seem a world away from recent presidential pardons. Sobbing children and bereft parents have nothing in common with Joe Arpaio, Dinesh D’Souza and, most recently, the Oregon ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, who had been convicted of arson in 2016 and whom President Trump pardoned on Tuesday. Yet both come down to a relationship between justice and mercy that has a long history — and a cautionary moral for the president.

Family separation shows justice without mercy. The pardon power displays mercy in the name of justice. The administration cites the biblical injunction to obey the powers that be as one explanation for their zero-tolerance policy on immigration. With regard to immigration, it seems, there can be no discretion. By contrast, presidential pardons show how extensive discretion can be, because the Constitution gives the president “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in case of impeachment.”

.. Most Enlightenment thinkers were uneasy about the pardoning power. The two greatest oracles for the Constitution’s framers, the French philosopher Montesquieu and the English lawyer William Blackstone, both attacked it. “Clemency is the characteristic of monarchs,”

.. The framers argued that “without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel,” as Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 74. This was particularly true in “season of insurrection or rebellion,” Hamilton continued, “when a well-timed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquillity of the commonwealth.”

.. With the ratification of the Constitution, George Washington received an array of powers many European monarchs might have envied. The president could veto legislation — something no British monarch had done since 1707

.. He has used the pardoning power as one of his few unfettered prerogatives, in just the undemocratic way Enlightenment thinkers feared. For them, authority flowed from the people, not from God; the pardon was a residue of divine right. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions cites Paul’s epistle to the Romans to justify family separation, he not only revives an argument used to defend absolutism and slavery but also implies there is still a power above the law defined by the Constitution.

.. The president can casually exercise his discretionary power to pardon Mr. Arpaio, who abused prisoners in his care, but then claims he is powerless to end a policy worthy of Sheriff Joe himself.

By Separating Families at the Border, the Trump Administration Enforces the “Rule by Nobody”

  • Donald Trump said that the Democrats made him do it.
  • Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, said it was the Bible.
  • Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, said it was the law.

They all said it wasn’t them. In their unified defense of the policy of separating children from their families at the border, Administration officials have adopted a technique of deflection that renders victims and critics powerless: they have depersonalized the violence.

.. This is how violence works in the world’s most cruel and terrifying societies. The victims of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, mass incarceration, man-made famines, and other disasters that humans intentionally visit on the “other” are always anonymous. The perpetrators portray their victims as a mass—the “animals” of Trump’s imagination, or the enemies and criminals that Sessions and Nielsen conjure up when they talk about asylum seekers

.. it’s not only the victims who are anonymous—it is also the perpetrators.

.. when Nielsen claims, in effect, to be just following orders, the nation’s top officials are not merely lying; they are de-personifying the perpetrators. They are not merely refusing to be held accountable but are saying that no one will account for the violence.

.. Vladimir Putin, has perfected it over the years. He has denied knowledge of arrests, trials, or even people of whom he was doubtless aware. He has shrugged his shoulders and spread his arms in a gesture of helplessness while claiming that the Russian judiciary is independent from the executive branch

.. Writing about the relationship between violence and bureaucracy, Hannah Arendt said, “In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted.” She called bureaucracy the “rule by Nobody.”

.. What may be new, however, is a Presidency that explicitly cedes authority to that bureaucracy. Faced with widespread criticism of the family separations, the Administration is not exactly doubling down in defense of it. It is not trying to bring voters, journalists, or politicians around to supporting its policies.

.. one can observe “if not shame, then at least chagrin.” But I don’t think it’s chagrin that’s causing officials to shift the responsibility onto anonymous others.

.. The kind of state that Trump would like to run—and apparently the kind of state of which Sessions would like to be Attorney General and Kirstjen Nielsen would like to be Secretary of Homeland Security—is one that can subject its enemies to what Arendt called “administrative massacres.”

.. The logic of such a state demands an all-powerful bureaucratic machine; it demands the terrifying spectre of the rule by Nobody. So they are retrofitting the United States with such a bureaucracy—cruel, senseless, and accountable to no one.

 

Scripture offers much material for arguments about dividing families

An outburst from Jeff Sessions about a new border policy has people scouring the Bible

People who really want to raise the stakes in this scriptural to-and-fro might consider turning to a verse in Matthew’s Gospel which warns of the dire consequences that may befall anybody who does spiritual harm to children.

If anyone causes one of these little ones…to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

The onus would then be on anyone who advocates confining hundreds of children in sweltering, makeshift facilities, separate from their parents, to explain how this could be for their spiritual benefit.

How Jeff Sessions reads Romans 13 and how my Mennonite Sunday school class does

In the hands of coercive power, the Bible is a weapon.

It is one of the strangest assertions in the Bible. By the time Paul writes this he has experienced hostility from all sorts of authorities. He has been threatened and imprisoned for breaking the law. Eventually he will die for these legal transgressions.

.. perhaps we should give attention to a popular Mennonite theological claim that Romans 13 is to be read in conjunction with Romans 12. This previous chapter speaks to the character of the beloved community, the forms life will take within God’s life in Jesus. The call in Romans 13 is to live this Romans 12 life in “submission,” but never in obedience. It may be incumbent upon our witness to the gospel to participate in a sit-in protesting unjust laws, but we submit to the arrest we know will take place.

..  the Bible is a weapon in the hands of coercive power. Jeff Sessions, like other tyrants before him, utilizes scripture for the good of the empire, to keep people silent, in line, submissive.

The ’Splainer: Why is Jeff Sessions quoting Romans 13 and why is it so often invoked?

The Apostle Paul wrote that passage while living under the brutal Roman Empire. Paul, a convert to Christianity who went around evangelizing people, was a known troublemaker, said Douglas Campbell, a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. His preaching had caused riots in Ephesus and Jerusalem. These public disturbances earned Paul disfavor with Roman administrators who greatly feared any incitement to revolution.

“He was in legal trouble so he had to cover himself,” Campbell said.

.. “He’s framing all of this in their context of, ‘We want you to be a good citizen as much as you are able. You’re not going to be able to offer sacrifices to the emperor. … If that’s the law then you’re just going to break the law and go to jail.  In terms of the government raising funds through taxes, that’s just what you do,” Cohick said.

That’s where that plug for taxes comes in.

.. But the fact Paul himself was imprisoned by governing authorities several times and eventually executed shows “You don’t follow the government at all costs,” she said.

“That’s not what Paul was saying.”

Sessions’s Use of Bible Passage to Defend Immigration Policy Draws Fire

Many were concerned that Mr. Sessions’s chosen chapter, Romans 13, had been commonly used to defend slavery and oppose the American Revolution.

.. The directive has led to the fracturing of hundreds of migrant families, funneling children into shelters and foster homes.

Mr. Sessions said, “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 the government for his purposes.”

He added: “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, it protects the lawful.”

.. “The founding fathers created the criminal justice system to be a largely secular criminal justice system,” he said. “They didn’t have in mind punishing criminals and condemning them using Bible verses.”

.. Before the nation’s founding, it was frequently used by Loyalists to oppose the American Revolution, Dr. Fea said. And in the 19th century, pro-slavery Southerners often cited the chapter’s opening verses to defend slavery — in particular, adherence to the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the seizure and return of runaway slaves.

.. Outside the United States, the passage was used by Christians in Europe to defend Nazi rule and by white religious conservatives in South Africa to defend apartheid
.. “It’s an endorsement of empire,” Gay L. Byron, a professor of the New Testament and early Christianity at the Howard University School of Divinity, said of the passage on Friday. “Whenever governments need to try to gain leverage in a debate, they say something like that.”
.. Mr. Sessions cited the Bible in his speech because he was responding to religious leaders’ criticism of the zero-tolerance policy on illegal immigration.
.. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, addressed the issue on Thursday in response to a reporter who asked, “Where does it say in the Bible that it’s moral to take children away from their mothers?”

Ms. Sanders responded that she was not aware of what Mr. Sessions was referring to but added that it is “biblical” for a government to enforce the law. “That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible,” she said.

.. Dr. Byron, the divinity school professor, said Mr. Sessions’s use of the passage is a classic case of a politician “cherry-picking” the Bible for statements that match their policy. “What’s missing is the fact that there are so many other biblical statements and mandates to take care of children and take care of those who are marginalized,” she said. “We don’t hear Sessions referencing those texts.”