Reading: Romans 12:8-13:14
On Monday and Tuesday, the Southern Baptists held their annual convention and passed a resolution on migrant children being separated from their parents. On Wednesday, the Catholic bishops issued a very similar statement. On Thursday, Jeff Sessions spoke at Fort Wayne Indiana, and spend a good deal of his time offering a rebuttal to these statements based on a few verses in Romans 13. I don’t appreciate government officials arguing that our faith needs altering to fit the political needs of our government.
Of course, these statements and the rebuttal didn’t come out of nowhere. In May, Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy that would separate children from their parents. Since the beginning of May 2000 children have been taken away. Right now we have over 10,000 children in custody, and the few reports we have of the conditions that these children are held in telling us that it is unacceptable. There really isn’t enough information, to tell details but there is enough to know that this is deliberate cruelty.
Unwarranted family separation is traumatic to both children and their parents. Last week, I heard the story of Marco Antonio Muñoz who died in custody on May 13. This was a father who entered in the US at a place where people often come to ask for Asylum. When he and his wife came, they were separated from their 3-year-old child and the family was broken up and detained. He was distraught, as you might imagine, he was considered an unruly prisoner, and we are told that he committed suicide while in custody. Remember, it is not illegal to ask for asylum. This family was broken up, and a distressed father died over something that is completely legal.
This is father’s day, and because two thousand children were taken due to an arbitrary decision, hundreds of fathers are facing the same distress that Marco Antonio faced. Nobody makes the decision to leave home and start a new life in a new country lightly. People leave because they are desperate to find a place that is safe for their kids. We have rules that allow people to ask for a safe place to live for a reason and, what we are looking at is children being used as a weapon to punish parents for asking.
I was not surprised by these statements, nor was I surprised that they made the news. There are about 16 million Southern Baptists in the United States, and over 1 in 5 Americans are Catholic. Such religious groups are large enough that whenever they make statements, the statements make the news. I was deeply surprised, however, when Jeff Sessions decided to offer a rebuttal to “our church friends”, where he cited scripture and attempted to argue against these statements. I am deeply concerned that a government authority felt it was necessary to critique the theological views of Church leaders and suggest that we interpret scripture differently. Specifically, he suggested that Romans 13:1-7 means that we are to support what the government does as God’s will, because God ordained the government, and he recommends that churches support his policy.
An attorney General has broad authority to direct federal law enforcement policy, but zero authority to talk about church teaching. He has no standing to tell us that the positions of our Church are unbiblical, but the challenge is made. Jeff Sessions, speaking in the role of Attorney General, found a passage of scripture where Paul tells us to obey the government because the government does God’s work. Because of this, we must struggle with the question of which interpretation is valid: that of Christian scholars or a government official. Does Romans 13 mean that what the government does is God’s will and it is the place of the Christian to accept it, and not to criticize it?
The belief that Christians should always support the actions of the government is antithetical to the stories that we tell each other. One example I grew up with is the story published in Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place which tells the story of a family who felt that a law was unjust, and so they built a hidden room where they hid people who were illegally evading arrest and they helped them escape the government. The Ten Boom family was eventually caught, arrested, and most of them died in a prison camp. Corrie ten Boon survived and traveled the world telling the story about how they worked to save Jews from the Nazis, she wrote a book in 1971 that sold 6 million copies before a movie was released in 1975.
If we accept that Romans 13 means that what the government does is God’s will, and the church has no right to criticize, then we believe that Corrie ten Boom was disobedient to God when she and her family saved Jews from the Nazis. Everybody I know celebrates the courage of the ten Boon family. I was privileged to go to her house in Harlaam Netherlands, and to see the secret room where Jews were hidden. I know we don’t believe that Romans 13 means that what the Nazis did was God’s will because I hear Christians celebrating Corrie ten Boom.
If we look back in our own history, we see that we don’t believe that everything the government does is right. I’m sure that everybody knows the name Levi Coffin. Levi Coffin, like Corrie ten Boom worked to smuggle people to safety against the laws of the government. Coffin was part of the network of the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves find freedom and safety in Canada, and in his memoir, he estimates that he helped about 3000 people escape and that he never heard of any who passed through his home being caught. The Levi Coffin house is now a museum that is less than an hour’s drive from us; so if anybody wants to see what it looks like to hide fugitives from an oppressive government, we can go to the Coffin house in Fountain City.
Christian history does not allow us to interpret Romans 13 as God’s blank check to the government. Our heritage is one of being an illegal people. If we look at Quaker history, Friends are one of the groups that might be described as a free church. Free churches are all denominational groups who rejected the idea of a state church. Governments passed laws banning free churches from meeting. Attending a Baptist, or a Quaker or a Mennonite church was, in much of Europe illegal. Quakers and other nonconformists were imprisoned and even killed both in the old world and the new world because of laws that established a state church and forbid other denominations. The very existence of our church depends on an interpretation of Romans 13, other than blind obedience to the government.
If I go back further in Christian history to the time when the Bible was being written, I see some other issues. The first issue I see is Acts 5, where Peter is commanded to stop speaking by the authorities. Peter did not say: “I must obey men rather than God”, but instead he continued to preach and face arrest. The Christian message was only spread through disobedience to authorities.
As Christianity spread, there were several laws that they habitually broke. Laws were passed that forbid them to meet together, but they met together and scripture commands that they do not forsake meeting together. Laws were passed that required Christians to sacrifice to Caesar, and say Caesar is Lord — Christians refused, and those who would not refuse were kicked out of the church. Laws were passed calling on people to take part in community life, including civil sacrifice and idol worship — Christians refused to take part, disobeying the law. If Romans 13 were interpreted to mean that we support the government in all things, there would be no Christianity anywhere. All Christians have the heritage of being an illegal people, and we should remember when we were illegals.
Finally, consider the context of Romans itself. Romans 13:1-7 is not isolated, but comes in a section of scripture that talks about Christian’s relationship with society. This section includes Romans 12 as well as Romans 13. The argument that what the government does is God’s will, and should not be questioned by Christians depends on reading Romans 13:1-7 in isolation of their context. Even if we do not know not remember the audience of the book were an illegal people in Nero’s Rome, we see that the words preceding and following what was quoted leave no room for blindly following governments.
Romans 12 begins by telling us not to be conformed to this world. Paul is not telling the Christians to be good Romans who treat Nero’s every word as God’s law, he is calling them to non-conformity. The rest of chapter 12 talks about compassion and humility. The last part of chapter 12 gives many quotes from the sermon on the mount, ending with the words:
If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:20-21 NRSV)
Romans 13 continues to give a hint to the limits of the command to obey the government immediately after the section that is quoted. Paul moves from talking about why we should pay taxes and respect the authority of governing authorities to quoting Jesus saying:
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.
We are not called to conform, nor to let the world tell us what is right. It is true that we are called to pay our taxes, but above that we are called to live according to the law of love, to take care of those who need help (including enemies) and to do nothing to harm our neighbors. You need to stop reading at the correct place or you realize that Paul does not recognize the legitimacy of laws that require harming another person. Is it loving to rip children from parents who committed no crime but simply came to ask for refuge? In Romans 12 Christians are called to offer hospitality to those who need it. Does this policy harm a neighbor, yes it harms a neighbor. By Paul’s logic, by our nation’s laws, and by all that is right in the world, what is being done is illegal.
What are we to do? What Paul wrote at the end of Romans 13 is good advice, and I will end my message with the words of scripture:
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in day, not reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14 NRSV)