Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Jeff Sessions both invoked the Bible and, in particular, Romans 13 in their blasphemous attempt to rationalize their evil, antichrist policy of tearing families apart at the border. As Deacon Steven Greydanus pointed out, they are contradicted by the bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States and, I might add, the entire Magisterium of the Catholic Church, as well as a number of Protestant bodies and leaders. They’ve even lost Franklin Graham on this.
But their invocation of Romans 13 raises a number of questions that need to be addressed since some biblical illiterates who self-identify as Christians (and who are, in fact, Christianists serving an antichrist cult centered on the worship of Donald Trump) will spread the blasphemy while other biblical illiterates, scandalized by Christianism, will believe their reading of Romans 13 to prove that the gospel is a thing of monstrous cruelty and not the bulwark of defense for the least of these that it, in fact, is.
So let’s take a little look at Romans 13 and set it in the context of Paul’s thought and of the thought of the Catholic Church in light of Jesus’ revelation.
To begin with, note something rather obvious: Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ, the Savior who was murdered by the power of the state. If you don’t get that, you don’t understand the first thing about Paul’s view of the state. He is not, absolutely not, an idiot who believes the state is always right. So Sessions and Sanders are prima facie liars in their invocation of Romans 13 as justification for this fundamentally unjust law of tearing children from their parents. Paul does not mean “When the President does it, it’s not illegal.”
Paul, being a disciple of Jesus, understands that the law is made for man, not man for the law. Paul will, indeed paraphrase Jesus’ remark that all the law and the prophets hang on the two greatest commandments to love God and love neighbor when he writes:
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Ro 13:9–10).
He is speaking there of the law of Moses, but his conception of law includes the merely human civil laws of Caesar (whether Caesar is Roman or American).
All that is vital to grasp when we turn to Paul’s discussion of the Christian’s relationship with the State. Recall, next, that Paul is writing to a Church that has absolutely no access to state power. One or two Roman officials have become converts (most notably Sergius Paulus) in Paul’s day. One or two people connected to the court of Herod seem to have been followers of Jesus. But the overwhelming percentage of the still tiny Christian sect scattered around the Empire in Paul’s day were basically the dregs of society in the eyes of their neighbors. They were neither fish nor fowl. Not Jews exactly, but not Greeks or Romans of any standing either. Poor, powerless, slaves, women, children, Jews–all synonyms for “loser” in that society. So Christians relating to the state are, in Paul’s day, entirely subjects of that state and only rarely citizens like Paul.
That, by the way, was emphatically true of Paul’s Lord and God Jesus Christ. It’s why he was crucified and not given a decent execution like beheading (which Paul will suffer some ten years after writing Romans). Crucifixion was reserved for the dregs. It was the execution meted out to Spartacus and his fellow slaves and its purpose was extremely clear: to remind the untermenschen just who was boss and to provide an example pour encourager les autres. Indeed, as the story of the Passion illustrates, the state wielded it with such expertise that the horrifying sight of it induced Stockholm Syndrome in the mob and turned them against the victim, whom they jeered rather than against his executioners. “At least I’m not a loser like that guy!” was Rome’s desired response from the subject population. And so the mob of Jesus’ fellow Jews stands at the foot of the Cross and, instead of cursing the Romans, they curse the victim: “Ha! He saved others! He cannot save himself! If you are the Son of God, come down!”
(Americans should not get too high and mighty about that predictable bit of mob psychology. It is exactly the same thing that’s driven our own racist heritage for centuries. Wealthy whites have distracted the poorer white they exploited by pointing to his brown social inferior and saying, “Look out! That black guy and that Mexican are gonna take your job!” and the white fish have risen to the bait every time. As Lyndon Johnson once presciently said of the whites who opposed the Civil Rights Act, “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” And it is exactly that same dynamic that Trump is exploiting to get white Christianists passionately supportive about meting out diabolical cruelty to their own Christian brothers and sisters at the border right now.)
The mob at the foot of the Cross was responding to exactly the same psychological dynamics–and so would other mobs as the Christian message spread among the lower orders across the Empire.
This was, then, the precarious position of Christians throughout the Empire–including at Rome. And Paul had experienced it personally and repeatedly. In Acts 14, for instance, Paul whipsawed from being worshiped as a god after he healed a paralyzed man to being stoned within an inch of his life. He was “in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren” (2 Co 11:26). And he was in danger from Caesar–a danger so acute that some years after writing Romans 13 the very Caesar of whom he wrote–Nero–would use Paul’s Roman flock as human torches to light his gardens, crucify his fellow apostle Peter, and behead Paul.
Paul understood that the state could commit grave injustice. He really got that.
And yet, he writes the Romans:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Ro 13:1–7).
Fundamentalist Christianist biblical illiterates (and Fundamentalist Atheist biblical illiterates) read this text from the extremes and read it in isolation from all that I have pointed out above. Both totalitarian wannabes like the Trump Administration and atheist enemies of the gospel who want to paint Paul as a suckup to totalitarians try to read this text–preposterously–as commanding Christians to do whatever Caesar says no matter what as though the state is the very oracle and impeccable arm of God.
But as we have seen, Paul knows that ain’t so. So when Paul speaks of the state as “instituted by God” he does not, in the slightest, mean “the voice of Caesar is the voice of God” or that any law or decree of the state is, ipso facto, blessed by God and just. It was the state that tried to murder Jesus when he was a baby and succeeded in murdering him when he was a man. It was the state that beat the apostles and killed the apostle James. It was the state that beat and jailed Paul and Silas. And in the person of Nero, the very Caesar Paul writes of, the state will initiate the first great persecution of the Church and murder Paul.
What then, does Paul mean? He means something not very far from what Thomas Jefferson means in the Declaration of Independence:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Paul’s Church has zero political power. There will be absolutely no ability for Christians to effect political change to the Greco-Roman world for centuries and, in any case, Paul has no conception of the Church’s mission as involving that. So he sees the state from the perspective of the complete powerlessness of Christ’s little ones and from the perspective of Christ’s overwhelming defeat of the powers and principalities Jesus obtained in his passion, death, and resurrection.
See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him. (Col 2:8–15).
As Bishop Robert Barron has noted, the Christian exaltation of Christ Crucified is not simply a taunt directed at Satan and the powers of hell. It is also a taunt directed at Caesar. The claim that Jesus is King of Kings is a claim that Caesar serves Christ. That is why a jealous Nero will kill Paul a decade hence and why Christians will die for refusing to offer a pinch of incense to the Divine Caesar. When Paul calls Caesar God’s servant, he is making a treasonous and (to Divine Caesar’s ear) blasphemous claim. Caesar is a shoeshine boy, a lackey, a cog in God’s Providence. He serves at the pleasure of Christ.
For Paul, Caesar has a reasonable function in God’s Providence: he maintains a semblance of order, keeps roads reasonably free of bandits, sees to it that invading barbarians do not wreak havoc, makes sure the aqueducts are built and water keeps running, prosecutes thieves, murderers, and miscreants. And all this is to the good. So Paul tells his community, “Keep your noses clean and your hands to yourselves and your head down and do good work and you’ll stay out of trouble.” Paul is not an anarchist and does not endorse Vigilantism for Jesus or stupid hotheadedness that says, “I smashed that shop window and stole that diamond bracelet to protest that son of a bitch LBJ and the war in Vietnam!” He regards such people as selfish sinners, not as heroes.
But neither does Paul believe in the infallibility or impeccability of the state. Nor does the Church he is helping to establish. So Jesus, whom he serves, will say “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s” and his apostles will tell the state body of Judea, the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men” when the state commands an injustice. Four centuries later, Augustine will crystallize New Testament thought by likewise urging obedience to the state whenever it is morally possible to do so, but will also insist that an unjust law is no law at all.
What the Trump Administration is doing–the forceful removal of children from their parents’ arms as an act of cruel, vindictive, gratuitous spite–is absolutely contrary to the moral law and cannot be reconciled with the law of God. Because of this, it is an act of lawless and tyrannical power, not a lawful act of the state, and not only may be but must be resisted with whatever means we can find that are themselves in accord with the law of God.
Christians must pray that God help us end this criminal and gravely sinful assault on the integrity of the human family. Then we must ourselves act to fight it.
And we must do one further thing: We must learn our faith well enough that we can counter the lies being told by the diabolical Christianist cult in defense of this filth. That cult has grown like a cancer not only outside the Church, but inside it as well and is now at war with our bishops and spreading scandal and confusion both inside and outside the Catholic communion. Indeed, it is not too much to say that it is Christianist servants of evil who are the face of the Church in this hour. God’s Name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of them. It is up to us to make clear that this gravely sinful misreading of Romans 13 and other texts is not taken as pronouncing a blessing on the persecution of the least of these and commanding us to obey tyrants. We must show the world that Jesus is the stranger at our border and he is the one being ripped from Mary’s arms by a pious, lying, Christianist regime that serves a dimestore antichrist and not God with this evil policy.