So we’ve really got to revisit the whole “Romans 13:1-7” thing again? Sigh.
I say “again” there because we Christians spent a huge chunk of the 20th century dealing with the same pernicious, obtuse and Orwellian manipulations of this passage that we saw this week from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Official White House Liar Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The same exact misuses of this passage for the same exact reasons.
This was an argument fought — and won — by the Confessing Church that rose in opposition to the rise of fascism in Europe. An argument relitigated and reaffirmed after World War II by a world and a church that struggled to grasp the full horrors of what unjust, evil leaders enforcing unjust, evil laws were capable of accomplishing with the compliance of complicit Christians citing this verse as their rationalization.
The argument continued throughout the Civil Rights Movement here in America, with segregationist white pastors advocating the same Session-ist Vichy interpretation advanced by the complicit idolaters of the Reichskirche. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged that spiritual darkness with an overwhelming light, but the darkness comprehended it not, because those Romans 13-quoting Christians loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (That last phrase from John 3:19, I am repeatedly told, is not “civil.” Jesus is imputing malice and impugning the motives of his opponents there, and the civility police tell me that is never legitimate.)
It was an argument fought again, with great theological depth and ferocity, by Christians and church leaders opposed to South African Apartheid. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared Apartheid to be a heresy, shredding the Vichy interpretation of this passage that Sessions endorses with an authority and thoroughness that you’d be foolish to challenge.
And all of those 20th-century iterations of this same one-sided theological argument about Romans 13:1-7 were also “again” because the church had convulsed through this same dispute all through the long centuries of slavery before it, with slavery-defending white Christians awkwardly taking the Sessions/Vichy side despite themselves having argued and apparently understood the opposite during the American Revolution. (Much the way the same people now likeliest to quote this passage Sessions-style are also likeliest to spout off about “big government,” cramming all discussion of the role and responsibility of government, instead, into a too-small dispute over its size.)
We don’t need to revisit and rehash all of the details of this argument. It is, and always has been, a lop-sided, one-sided affair. The side endorsed and advocated by Sessions and Sanders and Goebbels and Calhoun and Botha and L. Nelson Bell has always been flaccid, dishonest, inconsistent, and transparently self-serving. So we don’t need to plow through the scorching texts from Isaiah denouncing those submissively complicit in oppressive rule. We don’t need to revisit the whole library aisles of theological works contrasting the normative prescription of government in Romans 13 with its descriptive counterpart from Revelation 13.
Instead, here, I will simply quote the surrounding text. This is the text immediately prior to and immediately following the text that Sessions et. al. insist calls for unquestioning compliance and complicity in any policy of any government, ever. In terms of chapter-and-verse, this is Romans 12:9-21; 13:8-10. This is what surrounds the text that is the basis of Sessions’ claim, revealing the utter mendacity and foolish, brute cruelty of his reasoning:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
That is the text and the context. No matter what you want to think the bracketed seven verses say or mean, they cannot mean the opposite and negation of the rest of that text and context. No one — not even Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III or Sarah Huckabee Sanders, heck, not even Donald J. Trump — is ignorant or illiterate enough to read whatever those bracketed verses may say and claim, in genuine good faith, that this text as a whole can possibly mean what they’re pretending it does.
“Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” … and therefore discourage refugees from seeking asylum by subjecting them to arbitrary and lawless cruelties.
“Extend hospitality to strangers” … and therefore meekly stand by as strangers in desperate need are imprisoned and deported back into the lethal dangers they fled.
“Live peaceably with all …” and therefore support the separation of toddlers from their parents, for months or years or forever.
“If your enemies are hungry, feed them …” but deny food and life-giving shelter from the victims fleeing those enemies.
“The one who loves another has fulfilled the law …” therefore you are obliged to obey and cheer for hateful, unloving and unjust laws.
“Love does not wrong to a neighbor …” therefore do wrong to your neighbor.
“Love is the fulfilling of the law …” but you must never fulfill the law, only obey it, and sit up at attention, just like “his people” do over there in North Korea.
If you buy any of that, at all — if you think Sessions or Sanders is making anything even remotely like a credible argument about what “the Bible” has to say about Trump’s policies on refugees, asylum-seekers, immigrants, aliens, and strangers — then you’re wrong. You’ve gone wrong. You’re doing wrong, becoming wrong, being wrong.
Because your deeds are evil.