Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made news
when he referenced the Bible to defend the immigration policy of the Trump Administration. Sessions stated:
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order...Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
First off, I have no desire to debate immigration policy so you can rest easy in knowing that this post will not be political in nature. Instead I am more interested in addressing Sessions' reference to the Book of Romans (chapter 13 to be specific) and the unique role this particular chapter of the Bible has played over the years.
Paul and Romans in Brief Historical Context
If we want to understand why Romans 13 has been such a controversial piece of Christian scripture we must first understand why Paul wrote it to begin with. Most scholars agree that Paul authored Romans sometime between the years 55 and 58. As its title suggests, Paul wrote this epistle to the "Christians" who were living in the city of Rome. (I hesitate to use the word "Christian" because it is anachronistic to this time period. It would be better to say "Jesus followers" or something similar. In the interest of simplicity, however, I will continue to use the word Christian).
So what was happening in Rome that inspired Paul to write to the Roman Christians in the first place? In the year 49, just a few short years before Paul wrote his letter, Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews
from the city of Rome, due to what the Roman officials called "instigation of disturbances" among the people. Shortly thereafter, Claudius was killed by Agrippina, his wife, in the year 54. Long story short, Nero, the son of Agrippina, rose to power. At first, Nero's reign was one of peace and prosperity. Nero allowed the Jews to return to Rome and inaugurated a short era of peace and prosperity that permeated the Roman Capital.
As we all know, this period of prosperity didn't last, and Nero eventually became a degenerate who persecuted Christians to the point of death. For Paul and his fellow Christians, this was a dark time, and Paul was certainly no fan of Nero. So why would Paul write to the Romans and tell them to submit to Nero's leadership or potentially face the wrath of God?
What we must recognize is that Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans BEFORE
the persecutions of Nero had begun. This is significant because when we read the words of chapter 13 we must keep in mind that Paul was writing during the brief period of peace and prosperity at the beginning of Nero's reign. When we are mindful of this fact, the verses that Jeff Sessions (and many others) quote from scripture have a very different interpretation.
1. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
2. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
3. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
5. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
6. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
7. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. (Romans 13: 1-7)
Paul was not writing to a group of persecuted Christians living under the yoke of a dictatorial psychopath. He was writing to Christians who were being given (albeit temporarily) an opportunity to thrive. The last thing Paul wanted these new Christians to do was to create waves or even appear to oppose the new regime. By all accounts it seemed that a new era of tolerance was upon all of Rome, and the Christians stood to benefit from it in a big way. Why would anyone dare resist it? Paul, like any leader, would have wanted his people to submit to such a leader. Why wouldn't this be the will of God?
Romans 13 Over the Years
Jeff Sessions is far from the first person to reference Romans 13 as support for a political agenda. Over the years Romans 13 has been used to oppose everything from the American Revolution to the Civil Rights movement. Jeff Sessions referencing this chapter of the Bible is simply par for the course when it comes to politicians wielding scripture like a weapon. As Historian John Fea put it
America was built and born on rebellion and a sort of radical resistance to authority. Whenever Romans 13 was used in the 18th and the 19th century — and Sessions seems to be doing the same thing, so in this sense there is some continuity — it’s a way of manipulating the scriptures to justify your own political agenda.
Romans 13 was used by Loyalist colonists to oppose the cause of American Independence. Romans 13 was used by slave-holding Confederates as doctrinal justification to own slaves (interestingly enough, these were the same Confederates who ended up breaking with the Union. Funny how Romans 13 could be used to justify slavery but not to oppose a break with the Union). Romans 13 was even used in Hitler's Germany by pro-Nazi Christians
to inspire support of the German Furor. Heck, some have argued (convincingly so?) that Romans 13 was Adolf Hitler's favorite chapter
of the Bible. Even here at American Creation
, the blog list of how Romans 13 has been interpreted by a plethora of different people with different agendas is so long that I quit counting at 36 posts
Romans 13 is, like so many other parts of scripture, a unique tool that can be used to add credence to almost any agenda. Paul's words can be twisted to fit just about any issue, from opposing American independence in the 18th century to justifying immigration policy in the 21st century. The fact that these words come from the Bible is why so many are both pleased and pissed with Sessions today. Having said that, Sessions' tactic is neither unique nor particularly convincing from a purely historical perspective. Simply put, Romans 13 has been used to justify/oppose everything under the sun. To call something the "will of God" by appealing to this particular chapter of the Bible is like trying to kick water uphill.
In conclusion, the Apostle Paul was not attempting in Romans 13 to write out a manifesto for Church-State relations that would stand for the next two or three millennia. Instead, Paul'sconcern was pastoral and local. Paul was worried about his little band of Christians in a foreign land. Paul was advising his followers to be loyal to a regime that was, at the very least, happy to stay our of the way of the Christians. Jeff Sessions is simply wrong when he assumes that this part of the Bible supports his argument on immigration. It does not. Like so many before him, who have also used this Bible chapter to support their respective cause, Sessions is simply acting like a politician, not a historian or theologian. My guess is the Apostle Paul would want Sessions to leave him out of this whole mess because he had bigger fish to fry.