Woe To Those Who Make Unjust Laws

Woe To Those Who Make Unjust Laws June 16, 2018

For those inclined to discuss whether certain laws are “biblical,” a tweet from Rev. James Martin is worth considering:

If the tweet does not embed or show up on your device above, it says:

It is not biblical to treat migrants and refugees like animals.
It is not biblical to take children away from their parents.
It is not biblical to ignore the needs of the stranger.
It is not biblical to enforce unjust laws.
Do not use the Bible to justify sin.

Personally, I think that approach is unhelpful, precisely because it fails to recognize that biblical laws are human laws, and biblical comments about just and unjust laws are human commentary. We should allow ourselves to be challenged by the biblical texts when they are seeking to hold us to a higher standard than we are aiming for, but we also need to be ready and eager to do better than they did. 

In addition to discussing current U.S. policy regarding illegal immigrant families in terms of biblical law, there have also been discussions of what the Bible says about obeying laws. On that subject, Bob Cargill’s tweet seems particularly apt:

Again, for those who may not see the embedded tweet, it says: “I’m sorry, but did Romans 13:1-7 disappear during the Obama administration, or are Jeff Sessions and conservative Christians just discovering it now?”

That is the other crucial point to make in response to the current discussion, and it is closely related to the first point. No one today is trying to enact all the biblical laws, and indeed it would not be possible because there are contradictions and tensions between them. Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 in precisely the way that the Communist authorities in Romania used to quote the same proof-text, wielding it as a stick to try to get Christians to submit and remain silent in the face of injustice.

As an American Baptist, I am part of a tradition that needn’t flinch at the idea of there being unjust laws in the Bible. We took a stand against slavery, standing against those who sought to use the Bible to justify perpetuating an evil. They could do so because that evil had been accepted by biblical authors and was woven into their worldview. The slaveholders likewise appealed to Romans 13 to bolster their position. The American Baptists, on the other hand, recognized that some principles we adhere to need to trump others (pun intended). And so it is important that Christians concerned for justice not simply prooftext back at those who make and defend unjust laws. As I wrote once before, “Prooftexting is an unwinnable game,” and to quote the classic movie War Games, “the only way to win is not to play.”

On this topic, see also Melissa Florer-Bixler’s article on discusing Romans 13 in her Mennonite Sunday school class, and Morgan Guyton’s blog post about “law and order Christianity.” See too Rev. Jennifer Butler’s comments, in which she wrote:

The fact that Sessions has had to trot out a corrupt interpretation of Scripture in the face of outcry from the faith community means we are being heard. He knows his policy will not pass a morality sniff test. Faith leaders will not rest until immigrant children are safe.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    It’s also a symptom of taking a passage of Scripture as a universal principle abstracted from its historical contingency. It’s one thing for Paul to advise a group of Christians not to be seditious or antagonize the Roman Empire lest they be persecuted and destroyed, and quite another thing for him to be saying that all governments throughout space and time are intrinsically just and approved of by God and should be obeyed without question.

    • The Mouse Avenger


    • John MacDonald

      And Jesus went out of his way to protest corruption in the temple, even though it was the last place he would have wanted to cause a disturbance because there would have been guards there to prevent just that sort of thing. Of course, this pericope lacks historical verisimilitude for just those reasons, but it still conveys the sense that the historical Jesus spoke up against social corruption/injustice.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        He also advised his followers to flee to the mountains when they saw conditions similar to Antiochus Epiphanes in Jesus’ day and age.

        • John MacDonald

          Bob Price is always fun on a Saturday night:

          “The whole apocalyptic discourse of Mark is a cento of scripture paraphrases and quotations, and it will be sufficient simply to match each major verse to its source. Mark 13:7 comes from Daniel 2:28; Mark 13:8 from Isaiah 19:2 and/or 2 Chronicles 15:6; Mark 13:12 from Micah 7:6; Mark 13:14 from Daniel 9:27 and 12:11 and Genesis 19:17; Mark 13:19 from Daniel 12:1; Mark 13:22 from Deuteronomy 13:2; Mark 13:24 from Isaiah 13:1; Mark 13:25 from Isaiah 34:4; Mark 13:26 from Daniel 7:13, and Mark 13:27 from Zechariah 2:10 and Deuteronomy 30:4 (Bowman, pp. 241-242, Miller, pp. 300-301).”

          – so, there is no reason to think it was historical

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I might not be following you. Why would repurposing OT texts mean Jesus didn’t say them?

          • John MacDonald

            It’s just the general idea that if we can show something in the NT to be theologically motivated (such as Matthew presenting Jesus as the New and Greater Moses), we should “bracket” claims to the historicity of that item because the author would have had motivation to invent it (Fulfilling Hebrew scripture, etc.). That doesn’t mean the item never happened – just that we have reason to doubt.

  • Timothy Weston

    Laws are about power. The WASP conservative establishment presents America as a country blessed by and consecrated to God. They do not pay any attention to the misuse of power yet whine when they can no longer hide their assholery behind God. Their Bible and Constitutions are tools to be used against others and discarded when it turns against them.