“Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.” Martin Luther King Jr. in his message, Paul’s Letter to American Christians.
Various lawmakers and Christian have quoted Romans 13 in support of the present administration’s policy to jail asylum seekers at our borders. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions referenced the passage he didn’t misquote it as much as rip it out of context. Last time I refuted “always-obey-your-government” idea of a “lexical” standpoint. In this post we’ll look at the context of the passage in question. First a little context about context…
Paul wrote most of his epistles in an entirely different way than Solomon, for instance, wrote Proverbs. For the most part, Proverbs is more like a monthly devotional with each day’s theme unrelated to the previous one and not necessarily in preparation for the next. In ten verses Solomon might address ten completely different topics. On the other hand, Paul tends is usually much more systematic in his epistles, Romans in particular. His is a line-upon-line argument-building genre. One thought forms the basis for the next, and the next for the one that follows it.
Understanding the Proverbs requires very little consideration of context. Each verse is pretty much self-contained. If we read Romans that way, we’re liable to come up with some pretty aberrant conclusions, like the ones that Jeff Sessions seems to arrive at in regard to Romans 13:1-7. My point is, if we read these verses as though unrelated to the preceding and/or subsequent passages we might very well come to the conclusion that we must in every case, obey all laws, even at the peril of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of other people.
They say, “A text without a context is a pretext.” So, let’s look at the before and after contexts of Romans 13:1-7
What comes before?
Paul didn’t write his epistles in chapter and verse divisions any more than you put little numbers next to paragraphs in your letters to friends. It’s important then to note that any interpretation of Romans13:1-7 that does not include 12:9-21 about serving our fellow humans in sincere and sacrificial love is a misunderstanding of the text. Here are some sound bites:
- Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality…
- Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position…
- If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone…
- 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.
What comes after?
The same goes for what comes directly after verses 1-7:
- … the continuing debt to love one another
- …whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.
- …whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
- …Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
I trust you can see that neighbor love bookends the conversation about submission to governing authorities. Love––then law––then love again. He even spells out what that love looks like. It looks like:
- Love sincerely, be devoted to one another in love, honor one another, be hospitable, bless your persecutors, live at peace with everyone, feed your enemies…
- Be indebted only to love, love fulfills the law and never does harm to its neighbor…
Is it not clear then that love is the lens through which we relate to the laws of a civil society? Aren’t we to think and act as though love of neighbor trumps laws of state (no pun intended)? Shouldn’t everything we do, including having a posture of compassion for refugees, be filtered through the purifying influence of love of God and neighbor?
Put another way: The law of the land (Romans 13:1-7) doesn’t exempt us from the law of love (Romans 12:9-12 and 13:8-10). We are responsible, as good citizens of both heaven and the state, to submit to the laws of the state insofar as they reflect and don’t violate our most central commandments to love God and our neighbor.
Love is the summation of all of God’s requirements. If we love him and love others, everything else sort of takes care of itself. Therefore, I propose that regardless of the current policy and/or law regarding immigrants, we can’t biblically justify anything outside a loving treatment of destitute men, women, and children at our border.
Fourth Century Roman Emperor, Julian, said, “These impious Galileans (i.e., Christians) provide not only for their own poor but for ours as well!” Those crazy early Christians took care of the poor among the Jews, the Romans, and anyone who crossed their path! To our shame we often don’t even exhibit this kind of love and hospitality to the people next door, let alone to those on the other side of national borders.
I need another post to unpack some more of these prescriptions of Paul:
- “Love does no harm to a neighbor…”
- “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good…”
- “Practice hospitality…”
- “Mourn with those who mourn…”
- “If your enemy is hungry, feed him…”
- “Love your neighbor as yourself”
Talk to you next week about these.