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. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” (Romans 13:1-3a)
Much has been written about Romans 13 – including here! – in response to the efforts by Jeff Sessions to use the first few verses of the chapter to justify the Trump Administration’s ghastly policy of separating migrant children from their parents. In fact, so many good articles and posts have been written in the last few days that it is a challenge to keep up. Below are links to three of these pieces, with a few brief comments.
Melissa Florer-Bixler, “How Jeff Sessions Reads Romans 13 and How My Mennonite Sunday School Class Does,” Christian Century.
Florer-Bixler is pastor of the Raleigh (NC) Mennonite Church, and she reminds readers that Mennonites are descendants of the Anabaptists, who in the 16th and 17th centuries were persecuted “for the anti-government action of baptizing one another upon confession of faith in Jesus Christ.” So it makes great sense that her Mennonite Sunday School class struggled mightily to understand Paul’s admonition to be subject to the governing authorities. She lays out various ways to read this passage, including an argument advanced by Mennonite theologians that to be “subject” means that a Christian must submit to the state’s punishment when they rightly disobey an unjust law. Interestingly, in this post Florer-Bixler does not endorse any particular reading strategy. But she is quite clear on the point that “the Bible is a weapon in the hands of coercive power,” as evinced by “Jeff Sessions, [who,] like other tyrants before him, utilizes scripture for the good of the empire, to keep people silent, in line, submissive.”
Lincoln Mullen, “The Fight to Define Romans 13,” The Atlantic.
In this erudite article Mullen – a history professor at George Mason University – details the ways in which Romans 13 has been used in American history. It played an important and interesting role during the American Revolution: while it is not surprising that the Loyalists made great use of the call to obey the established authorities, the rebels also appealed to the text, arguing (in keeping with John Calvin) that only just authorities had to be obeyed, and unjust authorities were to be resisted. As Mullen details, the argument over Romans 13 was reignited with the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act: defenders of slavery naturally argued for active obedience to the law, while abolitionists (in keeping with the Mennonites mentioned above) argued against complying with the law while also accepting the government-imposed penalties. Mullen ends with this indictment: “Sessions may claim the Bible’s contested authority, but what the attorney general actually has on his side is the thread of American history that justifies oppression and domination in the name of law and order.”
Casey Strine, “What the Bible’s Romans 13 says about asylum — and what Jeff Sessions omitted,” The Conversation.
The thesis of Casey Strine’s compelling article comes at the very end: “The logic of Paul’s words might have sounded helpful to Sessions in isolation, but the letter they come from undermines nearly everything Sessions wants them to support.” To make his case, Strine – a Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Sheffield (UK) – explains the occasion for Paul’s letter, which was the return of recently-exiled Jewish Christians back to Rome. Paul was determined that the non-Jewish Christians welcome the Jewish Christians as equals. Encouraging his readers to love their neighbors as themselves (Romans 13:9-10), Paul was drawing on Leviticus 19, which calls on the host people to care for migrants. As Strine observes, “the command to love a foreigner and to let them freely gather food that belongs to you puts us a long, long way from Sessions’ arguments.”
It is no wonder that Sessions (a United Methodist) has been issued a formal church complaint, filed by more than 600 Methodist clergy and laity for child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to . . . the United Methodist Church,” including “the misuse of Romans 13.”
Finally: if you know of any individuals or organizations needing a trial lawyer to represent asylum-seekers, please contact Barry Sawtelle at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has received specialized legal training with the Mennonite Central Committee, and he is volunteering his services.