Father James F. Keenan, SJ

Romans 13 and unjust laws

June 18, 2018

On June 14, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions described “concerns raised by our church friends about separating [migrant] families” as “not fair or logical.” He then cited Scripture to support his position: 

“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. 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.”

In defending the administration’s policy to separate immigrant children from their parents (2,000 kids and counting), Sessions’ interpretation of Paul as saying that there should be no questioning of the law is hardly unprecedented.

Before and during the American Revolution, loyalists to King George III routinely invoked it to keep the colonialists from breaking with England. 
It was used repeatedly to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), and appears implicitly in “Huckleberry Finn” when Huck decides not to heed what he learned in church, as he rips up his letter reporting to “Ole Miss Watson” the whereabouts of her runaway slave and his best friend, Jim.

It was invoked by Hitler during the Holocaust and by Calvinist leaders of apartheid in South Africa. Time and again, proponents of unjust laws have used Romans 13 just as Sessions did. His “theology of the law” has been tried before.

Without a doubt, Paul taught that the law was an expression of God’s will, but Paul also believed that following the will of God trumped all laws. Thus Paul himself was arrested and remained “in chains.” Depicting Paul as teaching unquestioning obedience to human law conveniently bypasses and truncates the much more accurate understanding of Paul as obedient to the will of God. 

 Romans 13 presupposes an ideal system of government. As the late biblical theologian Jesuit Father Daniel Harrington noted, this was not always, if ever, the case with the Roman Empire. “The most obvious counterproof would be the execution of Jesus of Nazareth under Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea,” he writes.

Harrington suggests that Paul’s advice cannot be made into “a universal philosophical-theological principle.” Rather, Paul is sensitive to the particular context that the Roman Christians were living in. In A.D. 49, the Roman emperor expelled all Jews, including Christian Jews, from Rome. In A.D. 54, he readmitted them. Paul, Harrington suggests, in such a highly charge political situation, presented “advice that would certainly cause no trouble for the Christians in Rome. Any imperial official who gained access to Paul’s letter could find nothing subversive or revolutionary here.” 

Finally, at this point in his life, Paul expects an imminent manifestation of the kingdom of God, and so notes in Romans 13:12 that “the day is near.” Paul’s admonition is hardly intended as an instruction that will hold for many generations to come. On the contrary, he’s giving prudential advice to a particular people for a limited time.

Like others who have tried to defend brutal laws, Sessions has taken Paul’s words wildly out of context.   

Many theologians have spoken out against the attorney general’s misguided biblical interpretation. Just as there has been a history of attempts by leaders to validate unjust laws by appealing falsely to Romans 13, so there is a history of theologians contradicting them. 

Consider the two great preachers of Paul and witnesses to the cross of Christ in the 20th century: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968). Like Paul, Bonhoeffer believed that obedience to God’s will was the Christian’s singular call. About those who attempted to use Romans 13 to compel submission to German atrocities, Bonhoeffer wrote, “No state is entitled to read St. Paul’s words as a justification for its own existence.” On April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was executed on the direct order of Adolf Hitler for plotting to assassinate him. 
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. argued that we can not and should not obey unjust laws. He led the entire civil rights movement through law-breaking acts of civil disobedience.  

The life and death of Christ, the teachings and imprisonment of Paul and the witnessing of Bonhoeffer and King stand clearly in evidence against the offensive claims of Sessions, and the inhumane policy the administration carries out in our name.



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