Donald Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy on immigration, leading to the separation of children from their parents at the US/Mexico border, has dominated the foreign news in the UK this week. As with all such news items, it is much more complex than at first reported, and we need to understand carefully what has been going on.
The situation hit the headlines with an unconfirmed recording of children crying who had been separated from their parents, and a picture circulated on Twitter apparently showing children in cages because of Trump’s policy—but this turned out to be from 2014. In fact, the policy of separating some children from their parents came from Obama’s period in office, and the same happens in the UK in cases of illegal immigration where parents are deemed to have committed an offence. The reason for this is that children cannot be imprisoned along with their parents—and the change that Trump made was to criminalise all those crossing the border, rather than trying to separate out illegal immigrants from genuine asylum seekers. Trump’s reversal of the separation policy came in response to the outcry—though it was not clear exactly what it specified or what it would mean for those already separated.
Adding to the emotion and confusion in this situation, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Paul’s words in Romans 13 to deflect criticism and suggest that Christians should simply accept the Government’s approach:
“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 the government for his purposes,” Sessions said during a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Ind. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”
What is odd about Sessions reaching for this text is that it was previously called upon in two key moments of US history:
“There are two dominant places in American history when Romans 13 is invoked,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “One is during the American Revolution [when] it was invoked by loyalists, those who opposed the American Revolution.” The other, Fea said, “is in the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong. I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”
The current use (and previous use in Europe to justify loyalty to Adolf Hitler in pre-war Germany) might suggest that the Bible is useless as a guide for anything, since its texts are so pliable and can be used to support opposite positions. But this is not a problem with the Bible—it is a problem with language! Any text, taken out of its context, can be made to mean anything. This is the basis of the entertaining videos by the comedy duo Cassette Boy.
Although Cassette Boy is cutting up words and phrases, the same issue applies when you cut up whole sentences. This can be seen clearly in the joke about the person wanting guidance from the Bible, and sticking a pin in it three times, only to read:
Judas went out and hanged himself (Matt 27.5)
Go thou and do likewise (Luke 10.37)
What you have to do, do it quickly (John 13.27)
This is the problem with all ‘sampling’ approaches to the Bible—not because it is the Bible, but because it consists of human language, and this is a problem with treating language of any kind in this way.
So how should we read Paul’s injunction in Romans 13? We need to read it as we need to read any biblical text—but asking what kind of writing it is (genre), exploring its context, seeing where it comes in the canon of Scripture, and paying attention to its content, what the text actually says. (See my Grove booklet How to Interpret the Bible for a longer exploration of these principles.)
The first thing to note is that this is a letter, and not part of a doctrine text book. This means that it was written in a particular time and place to particular people in a particular situation; like all letters it is ‘occasional’, that is, written on and for a particular occasion. That does not mean it is trapped in its context or that we cannot learn important theological truths from it. But we need to remember that, whilst as part of Scripture it is written for us, it is not written to us. Paul was not thinking of protests about child separation at modern borders when he was writing it, and we need to go on a brief hermeneutical (interpretive) journey to see how it applies to us.
Secondly, what is the context in which Paul is writing? Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that Paul is writing to a very small minority group in the capital city of a massive, powerful empire which dominated what was considered the known world. He was not writing as a powerful office-holder in the world’s largest economic and military power. This is important, since power dynamics are key to shaping the meaning of texts, and when the power dynamics are inverted (as in this case) this is the most direct way to change what a texts means and what it implies.
More specifically, Paul is writing (unusually) to a church community that he did not found, and one that was in some tension. The Emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome at some point around 50; Luke says that this is why the Jewish Priscilla and Aquila had ended up in Corinth, along with many other Jews (Acts 18.2). This explains why there is a ready market for Paul’s tent-making skills, providing temporary lodging for the many refugees. If Romans was written by Paul in the later 50s, then by now Claudius has died and the Jews have been able to return. But Suetonius notes that Claudius’ edict ‘was on account of Chrestus’ which could indicate that it was the result of Jewish objections to the proclamation of the good news about Jesus (we see similar agitation happening in Thessaloniki and Ephesus in Acts). If so, this would explain why Jewish-Gentile relations between believers shapes Paul’s argument in Romans, as he deploys classic Jewish criticisms of gentiles in Romans 1 and then Old Testament texts in Romans 2. (When he says ‘all have sinned’ in Rom 3.23, this refers less to ‘all humanity’ and more to ‘all, both Jew and gentile’.) In this context, it is vital that the Jewish-gentile Christian community is not seen by the authorities to be agitating and disruptive.
The third issue in reading well is looking at the canonical context—that is, the place of the text in the context of the Bible as a whole, considering both the immediate verses around it as well as other related passages. This is where Jeff Sessions’ use because even more ironic. Romans 13.1 needs to be read in the context of the whole of Romans 12 and 13; we must not be misled by the chapter divisions (introduced by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton) to detach the start of one chapter from the end of another. In the previous verses Paul is addressing those tempted to take the law into their own hands by seeking revenge, and Paul’s injunction is to leave judgement to God, and instead ‘kill’ people with kindness, citing Proverbs 25.21–22:
If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.
It is in this context that Paul encourages submission to ‘the powers that be’; they are the ones to whom God has given the authority to reward good and punish wrongdoing, so we should not presume to do this for ourselves. Paul then continues by outlining what laws we are obliged to keep—reaching a climax with the law to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, echoing the explicit teaching of Jesus in Mark 12.31. Both Paul and Jesus are citing Lev 19.18, which comes in the context of rehearsing many of the Ten Commandments, and includes not only the prohibition on taking revenge, but also the injunction to care for the ‘poor and the foreigner’:
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19.9–10)
And the context of of the whole of Romans 12–13 is set by Paul’s opening words:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12.1–2)
Rather than pressing us into a docile acceptance of whatever the government of the day says, Paul is here advocating a radically distinctive way of living—though one that avoids any unnecessary conflict with the authorities (‘as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’ Rom 12.18).
We are then led to consider the wider biblical context of Paul’s teaching about governments and political power. One of the constant themes running through scripture is the tension between the will of God and the actions of those in power, even amongst the people of God. A key moment in the Old Testament history comes when the people demand a king ‘like the other nations’ in 1 Samuel 8. The prophet Samuel warns them extensively of the dangers of political power, and how easily a king will exploit resources, take what is not his, lead the young men off to death in battle and exploit the people with heavy taxes for his own benefit (1 Sam 8.10–18). The uneasy settlement over kingship (and with it all political authority) can be seen in the subsequent account of the kings, some good, but many ‘who did evil in the sight of God’ and led his people into disobedience and, ultimately, the destruction of exile.
This ambivalence is captured in two quite distinct episodes in the New Testament. One is Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees in Mark 12.16–17 on whether we should pay taxes (an issue still to the forefront in Romans 13). Jesus highlights the problem inherent in the question, by noting the coin’s image of Caesar, something that breaks the second commandment, and that within the temple precincts. But in his answer ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ Jesus is not dividing the world into the two regions of the secular and the sacred, but highlight the limitations of ‘Caesar’s’ demands and the total nature of God’s. In other words, the demands of secular power can never trump (!) the moral demands of God. There is a similar distinction evidence in 1 Peter 2.14–17; governors should be ‘honoured’ but it is God who is to be ‘feared’.
The other very different episode comes in Revelation 13, a description of Roman Imperial power as the ‘beast from the sea’ (redeploying the imagery of Daniel’s four beasts in Daniel 7) who makes claims that only God can make, tramples on his people, and is an agent of the devil in opposing God’s work. Romans 13 can never be read without also reading Revelation 13.
This all points us back, finally, to the actual content of Romans 13. At the centre of the pericope (the unit of text) is Paul’s assertion that ‘the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.’ This implies an obligation to submit to good law—but also enjoins Christians in contexts where they have a free voice to remind governments whose power they truly exercise and therefore to whom they must give an account. ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’ Jesus reminds Pilate (John 19.11), pointing out to whom he must be accountable in this exercise of power.
So what does Romans 13.1 means for us in this context? Obey the authorities as far as you are able; recognise that God institutes governments for the good of people, to render judgement between good and evil. Don’t cause unnecessary trouble, living at peace with all as far as you are able. But recognise, too, that the ultimate authority is God’s, and this calls you to live distinctive lives, following in the first instance God’s commands for holy living. This includes care for the weakest and the vulnerable, including the refugee and the foreigner.
All this is not to say that biblical interpretation is somehow more important than caring for children. But it is to note that reading the Bible badly can be used to shield our conscience from what is evidently wrong—and reading the Bible well makes it clear what God’s priorities are in this kind of situation.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?