While on their way to a protest, someone wrote me a kind note asking me what I thought of Jeff Sessions’ take on Romans 13 (which Sessions is using to insist on respect for authorities, specifically in regard to letting our elected officials do as they please with the children of immigrants seeking asylum). Man, I could give you an earful. Interpretations of the opening verses of Romans 13 are controversial and there is a LOT written on them.
But look. The United States is not and I hope to God will never be a theocracy. Many of our founders fought and bled and died for the right to live in a country that would NOT be governed according to one faction’s particular interpretation of any religious text. I mean that: our predecessors fled Europe, fought wars, and died for this. So when our federal government starts quoting Scripture to dispel dissent, I get quite angry. This is still the United States of America, not the Republic of Gilead, and a good many of our ancestors died to keep that so. I wish more of our citizens would remember it.
As for what I think, as a Christian, of Jeff Sessions’ use of Romans 13, I’ll answer, since I was asked. Maybe these notes will help someone pull the wool from off a neighbor’s eyes and will be useful for that reason. But I urge you to call and write to your congresspeople before bothering with this post or any other like it, because Sessions is quoting Scripture at us specifically to delay some of our people in arguments and hesitation. I do not want to add to that hesitation.
If it is useful, you can read my notes. If it isn’t, skip it. But regardless, go call your congresspeople. Do that first!
…on Sessions’ use of Romans 13:1-5 as a bulwark against protest or civil disobedience:
1. First, the context in which Romans 13:1-5 was written matters. Romans 13:1-5 is not a standalone passage!
What Jeff Sessions has done, as many have done and as many always do, is pluck a short quote out of its context so that it can be used to say the exact opposite of the overall message of the text it came from.
Remember that chapter and verse numbers are arbitrary, and where punctuation appears in a translation of a Greek sentence is itself often an interpretive choice. If you want to read the opening verses of Romans 13 seriously, you need to read the section before it and the section after it, rather than just pluck part of a Greek text out and treat it like a standalone manifesto. It’s in the middle of an argument about how the first-century Roman church might conduct itself while beset with internal division and oppression from external authorities (the word is “exousia,” which is “powers,” those who have ability and force). Many scholars believe that the passage is a response to a dispute in the early church over how to handle taxation under Nero. (You can read a quick paraphrase of some of the different takes on the historical and rhetorical context here. This article is not at all comprehensive but it will give a starting point and it comes with a list of references.)
In brief, some in the early underground church were calling for the radical act of refusing to pay taxes – an issue that Paul addressed directly in Romans 13:6-7. Paul is cautioning the church to pay its taxes and not provoke an oppressive government. Such provocation will lead to punishment on the church from that government, he warns in 13:2 (“those who resist will incur judgment”). People who are reading the KJV here may get the wrong idea and think that God will punish those who resist governing authorities, because the KJV translates “krima” as “damnation.” Seriously!!! “Krima” means a verdict or a judgment in court. Paul is counseling the Roman church to avoid a situation where their members (some of whom probably lacked the protections of Roman citizenship) are hauled into the courts for refusing to pay taxes and are then fined, imprisoned, or sentenced to execution.
This is important.
There is no evidence that the first five verses of Romans 13 were intended by their author to be read as a universal creed for submission to state authorities. Paul is responding in a personal letter to a specific and local issue about taxation in Rome. He is advocating not stirring things up by withholding taxes – an act of rebellion that he judges to be without purpose. In this he echoes Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, etc.
2. Second, who is speaking also matters!
“Be respectful to the Empire” means something very different when the authority is saying it (Sessions) than it does when the rebel is saying it (Paul)! Context matters!
And by the way, can we please stop translating “hupotasso” as “submit”? Hupotasso = “deploy under,” a military term for deploying oneself, like a regiment, in support. (Latin sub + missio also means to “send under,” and I think it once had a similar connotation of battle support, but in modern English “submit” has specific and different connotations than it did in classical Latin.) A better translation in this context may be “Maintain your support for the authorities.” Paul is building the argument that the Roman church should continue to pay taxes. Context.
3. The larger message of the speaker also matters!
These five verses are so often taken by themselves as if they’re a standalone manifesto and used to silence dissent – as if Paul is advocating against civil disobedience rather than advocating for caution. But if you read the rest of the letter – and, for that matter, the account of Paul’s life in Acts – you will realize quickly that the idea of Paul preaching against civil disobedience is ridiculous. Paul is literally under house arrest for civil disobedience while writing some of his letters. Again and again in Acts, Paul ends up punished or imprisoned by the authorities for choosing civil disobedience when disobedience is necessary.
Just because Paul is saying in Romans 13 that refusing to pay taxes to Caesar is not a battle worth picking does not mean that Paul is saying that no battles are worth picking.
Consider the verses that follow later in that chapter – the ones Sessions didn’t bother to quote even though they are the summation of Paul’s argument on the subject.
Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Romans 13:10 — “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Paul is making the argument for obeying taxation law within the larger context of making sure nothing is obstructing the church from its principal work: loving one’s neighbor. Getting in a financial dispute with the Emperor and getting your members killed would definitely get in the way of that. In fact, in Romans 13: 6-7, Paul contends that the only actual impact that refusing to pay taxes is likely to have is that the tax collectors won’t get paid and won’t have food on the table. Whatever the good intent of those Christians who want to refuse to pay taxes as a form of resistance, the impact will be that they’ll get tried and convicted (krima) and their neighbors who are tasked with the collection of taxes will go hungry. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” Paul urges. Paul appears to suggest that refusing to pay taxes to Nero is a fruitless resistance that is also not the most effective way to love one’s neighbor.
The obvious corollary to this is that there may be other cases where loving one’s neighbor requires civil disobedience. When loving one’s neighbor and doing no wrong requires that you disobey or protest unjust laws, Paul is very much in support of doing so. Loving each other comes first. In that, the law of God is fulfilled, Paul insists.
The letters in the New Testament are frequently unequivocal in telling the church to shelter the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant. It is that which James tells us is “true religion.” So for us to take a line out of context to mean “shut up and let your government put children in concentration camps” when the early church was specifically tasked with providing sanctuary for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant – is patently absurd. That’s not Paul. That’s not Peter either (he told the exousia that “we must obey God rather than man” – Acts 5:29). And that’s definitely not Jesus.
For a Christian, the first directive is always to love one another as selflessly as God loves us, and THAT is what will either drive obedience or disobedience to authority. That is why Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Paul in support of civil disobedience in his Letter from Birmingham Jail!
And that’s an apt reference because this warping of a few lines of text to mean the exact opposite of what the text as a whole is advocating is not just something Sessions does to Paul. It’s the same move when Sessions or others quote the “I Have a Dream Speech” to suggest that Martin Luther King, Jr. — of all people!!! — would have urged today’s citizens not to protest in the street or march on the capital. That, of course, is absurd, since Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on the capital himself. Just as it is absurd to suggest that Paul would advocate against civil disobedience against a government committing atrocities — as, again, Paul was under arrest for civil disobedience!
This kind of rhetorical gymnastics to justify blind obedience to a federal government that is carrying out atrocities is worthier of the Third Reich than of the nation we’ve been insisting that the United States is or could become, and it is insulting to our intelligence, our conscience, and our shared humanity.
4. Finally, the type of ‘authority’ matters! The “exousia” (“powers,” those with ability and force) in Romans 13 refers to the oppressive leaders of Rome: Nero and those Nero appoints. Now, Paul may believe that Nero was “deployed” (tasso) in that position by an act of God, but that is manifestly not the case with the elected officials of the United States of America. Trump and Sessions are not Nero (though I concede that Mr. Trump at times acts like Nero). Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions were not “deployed” (tasso) to their position by an act of God. Our officials are either elected by us or appointed by those we elected, and are therefore answerable to us in a way that Nero was not answerable to the underground Christians in Rome.
When Jeff Sessions quotes Romans 13, he is saying that we should obey our elected officials in the same way and for the same reasons that we would obey an emperor or dictator, those who rule by force. And that is an appalling thought.
– Elected officials are not the same as dictators deployed by an “act of God.” Our officials are our laborers (whom we hired), and by definition are not the “exousia” to which Paul refers. In the U.S., Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions are not “exousia” (“powers” ruling by force), and we the people are literally the government. I have the sense that many of us keep forgetting this. We need to unforget it.
– Taking Romans 13 out of context to say “never protest the government” is not compatible with a larger read of the New Testament, which is packed with countless stories of people protesting the government in cases of atrocity or racial/religious oppression.
– Paul insists that our first duty is to love each other. The writers of Hebrews and James remind us that this means sheltering the orphan, the widow, the immigrant – the vulnerable among us. When children are put in concentration camps, our Christian duty, our American duty, and our human duty to put a stop to this trumps any duty we might have to Trump.
Finally, Sessions’ Bible-quoting is purely a distraction and silencing tactic. It is meant to get citizens who are practicing Christians to be complacent or slow in acting. It is an abuser’s tactic. This is not a time to be slow in acting. This is a time when children are being concentrated in camps within our borders, and it is our duty as the people of the United States, to whom our elected representatives answer, to stop it. Those of us who are Christians, it is our duty as imitators of Christ and lovers of our neighbors to stop it. It is our duty as human beings to stop it. There are a lot of gray areas in religion, politics, and human action. This isn’t one.
So, for the love of God and your neighbor and your country, be LOUD until our federal authorities cease this inhumane, cruel, and ungodly practice of kidnapping children from asylum-seeking parents.