by William Trollinger
“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.”
By the time I headed off to college in 1973 I was absolutely sick of these two verses.
Growing up in evangelicalism, I was instructed — again and again and again — by my pastor and my youth leaders and my Sunday School teachers and my parents that our Baptist faith rested on the authority of the Bible. So it was my task was to immerse myself in God’s Word. Not always an obedient child, in this instance I heeded their admonitions and read the Bible, particularly the Gospels.
But by the time I was 12 or 13, I had encountered a major problem. What I read in the Bible did not square with other things I was being told in church and home, particularly when it came to politics. How was I to square Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbor with my father’s support for segregation and angry opposition to the civil rights movement? How was I to align Jesus’ instructions to “turn the other cheek” with my congregation’s full-throated support for the Vietnam War and disdain for the antiwar movement?
So in church and home I made what I thought were good biblical arguments in support of civil rights and in opposition to the war. And at some point in the “conversation” – things inevitably heated up beyond what could be called a conversation – my interlocutor(s) would often trot out a version of Romans 13:1-2.
God established government. So we are obliged to obey government. Those who resist will incur judgment. Argument clinched.
I thus felt as if I had been transported back to my adolescence when I watched Jeff Sessions and then Sarah Huckabee Sanders use Romans 13 to justify the Trump Administration’s morally reprehensible policy (just to be clear, it is not a law) of taking babies and toddlers and children away from their parents at the border. And in Dana Milbank’s op-ed piece, “This isn’t religion. It’s perversion” – where he points out all the other biblical passages that counter “the attorney general’s tortured reading of Romans” — I recognize my own adolescent counter-arguments.
The difference is that now I have a much clearer sense that those who use Romans 13:1-2 as their trump card are simply using it to shut down the conversation. That is to say, countering with other biblical passages is a pointless exercise. When it comes to separating children from parents at the border – as with the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement or even antebellum slavery (another instance where Romans 13:1-2 were favorite verses) – biblical context is not the issue. In this regard, my wise colleague Meghan Henning said it very well in a June 15 Facebook post:
I could offer an alternative interpretation of Romans, one that takes into account context, or even reads more than a single verse in isolation. But I won’t do that because the problem here isn’t one of interpretation, but of the history of interpretation. Sessions and Sanders have joined themselves to a long history of US figures who were comfortable reading the Bible in ways that do violence to other people. You don’t have to have advanced degrees in Biblical Studies to test whether your interpretation of the Bible is a part of this interpretive history. You only need to ask yourself one question: “Does my interpretation of this text hurt someone else or support violence to another person’s body?”
And then there’s Stephen Colbert’s brilliant “Jeff Sessions Cites the Bible in Separating Children From Parents”