Epistles, Part 3: A Response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | June 21, 2018Hi friends, many of you will have heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions' comments on our American practice of separating children from their parents if the family has entered the United States illegally. (President Trump has thankfully signed an executive order discontinuing this practice.) During his remarks, Mr. Sessions referenced the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. A number of things in Mr. Sessions’ comments are at odds with the witness of Paul’s epistles. Today, I want to continue our epistles series by focusing simply on Mr. Sessions’ use of Romans 13.
During an appearance in Indiana on June 14th, Mr. Sessions said the following (quoted from the video linked above): “I thought I’d take a little bit of digression here to discuss some concerns raised by our Church friends about separation of families.” Let’s pause here to highlight something hopeful: pressure from Christians in America is clearly reaching the ears of people in power. This is as it should be.
Mr. Sessions continues: “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Mr. Sessions offers this to his Christian critics as a means of defending the enforcement of zero tolerance policies along the border. Mr. Sessions misrepresents this verse from scripture in three ways.
The first and simplest is that Mr. Sessions misquotes it. Romans 13:1 reads, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). There is no mention here of God’s “purposes,” let alone of an indication that the authorities’ purposes and God’s are synonymous. (The word “purpose” does not appear in Romans 13:1 in the NRSV, NIV, CEB, or NKJV translations.) However, we do get something of God’s purposes in Romans 13:4: “for [the authority] is God’s servant for your good.” The authorities are the servant, and God is the master. Clearly, the servant’s job is to do the will of the master. What is the master’s will? The achievement of “your good.”
Paul continues in verse 4: “But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” If we keep Mr. Sessions’ comments in mind, we should become deeply uncomfortable at this point. If we follow his line of thinking, we are obliged to say that children separated from their parents at the border are the objects of God’s wrath executed “on the wrongdoer.” If we are not willing to say this—and it is my sincere hope that we are not—then we must say that the authorities, divinely instituted by God as they may be if we adhere to this reading of Paul, are not acting according to God’s “good” purposes and have therefore betrayed their divine appointment.
This leads to the second error in Mr. Sessions’ use of Romans 13. In addition to misquoting Romans 13:1, he has lifted it out of Paul’s argument flowing from Romans 12 and continuing (at least) through 13:7. For example, consider Romans 12:14, 19-21:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them….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.”
These are the words immediately preceding Mr. Sessions’ chosen verse about being subject to the authorities. It seems, then, that Paul is actually assuming an adversarial relationship between people and authorities. To make Paul’s point clear, I have added the bracketed sections: “Beloved [Roman Christians], never avenge yourself [on the authorities who persecute you], but leave room for the wrath of God [to be visited on the authorities on the day of the Lord].” When Paul writes, “if your enemies [the authorities] are hungry, feed them,” he is referencing the very authorities to whom he advocates subjection.
Why? Why advocate feeding the very oppressive authorities to whom Paul says the Roman Church should be subject (rather than, say, take up armed revolution)? Because Paul worships the crucified Lord and believes that fidelity to proclaiming the gospel—honoring Christ above all others by practicing charity toward your enemies, for example—while in a position of great weakness has power to convert even violent oppressors. In short, in advocating subjection, Paul advocates shaming the authorities into repentance and conversion to Christ. This is the example Paul sets when he is in prison. (See Phil. 1:12-13.)
So, if we return yet again to Mr. Sessions’ comments, it seems he would’ve been more accurate in his use of Romans 13:1 had he addressed himself to the immigrants themselves and said, “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government, all the while extending food and drink to our officials, until we repent of our cruelty and turn to the Lord.”
Finally, Mr. Sessions’ use of Romans 13:1 is misguided because Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13 likely represents his efforts to prevent armed revolution by Jews and Christians. Armed revolts were fairly common in Paul’s day, and much of the mistakes around Jesus’ identity centered on folks’ expectation that Jesus was going to overthrow the oppressive Roman regime. (A messiah, after all, is one who is anointed like a king. In the ancient world that meant leading armies.) These rebellions usually focused on unjust taxation practices. Not surprisingly, Paul concludes his argument in this section by focusing on taxation (13:6-7). His advocating subjection to the authorities is a way of ensuring the survival of the Roman church. With this in mind, it is unclear how Romans 13:1 translates to separating families of illegal immigrants.
Note that this whole critique (like Mr. Sessions’ himself) assumes that Paul essentially means what he’s saying; it’s just that what Paul is saying is not what Mr. Sessions wants him to say. There is reason to believe, however, that this particular piece of Romans is a kind of ruse, that Paul does not mean what he is saying, or at least not exactly. Next week, I’ll walk through a bit of ‘detective work’ to outline this interpretive possibility.
P.S. Mr. Sessions is not the first American political leader to misrepresent Romans 13. It is a seductive passage for those in government. If you’d like to read more, this piece in the Atlantic offers some historical perspective.