The Law is the Law, or is it? – Romans 13 and the Refugee Crisis (Part 4 of 5ish)

romans 13

“Romans 13 gives the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.” Southern Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress

We’re looking at Romans 13:1-7 directly instead of obliquely like many preachers (such as Jeffress) and politicians (like Jeff Sessions) in order to mine the Spirit’s original intent. Does this passage or does it not give the government carte blanche to function with impunity (as in separating families at the border) and an inviolable mandate to its citizens to follow sheepishly along with its “divine authority” to proceed at will?

We’ve looked at the passage from a lexical vantage point and we began last time examining it from a contextual point of view, i.e., what comes immediately before and after. Let’s continue that line of thinking now.

“Love does no harm to a neighbor.”

At the most fundamental level, loving our neighbor means to do him or her no harm. You don’t harm people that that you love, at least not intentionally. The applications to this are innumerable, but how are we not harming our neighbors fleeing from famine, war, and brutal cartels from the other side of the border when we incarcerate and separate them from their families?

In contrast to our talent of sorting people into boxes of neighbors and enemies, agape love is indiscriminate. We’re to treat as neighbors, says Donald B Kraybill, “even those to whom we have no obligation to act neighborly—even enemies that we could justifiably hate. Agape love responds to persons, not to social categories. . . . We should work as hard to help our neighbors achieve their goals as we work for our own.”

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”

When we sincerely love someone, at the same time, we hate what harms them. If an unjust law harms people, we’re to hate it (not the lawmaker, but the law) and resist it.

Clinging to the good isn’t about hoarding your Ben and Jerry’s for yourself, much less hoarding the good life you have when so many have an irreconcilably and unnecessarily bad life. Cling, then, to what is good for yourself but never at the expense of what would be good for others. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

“Practice hospitality…”

I wouldn’t consider what’s being done at our southern border and then justifying it with the Bible as being particularly “hospitable” the Greek term used throughout the New Testament for which (philoxenia) literally means “brotherly love of strangers.” Hmmm. Not exactly what we see in separating parents from children and detaining them like criminals.

“Mourn with those who mourn…”

That is, enter into their pain and do what we can to relieve it.

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him…”

If we’re suppose to feed our enemies, what about the starving at our border?

To those who cry, “Yeah, but they’re breaking the law!” I would propose that God’s law is higher than man’s. Which is worse, them breaking the law of the land or us breaking God’s law of love (and consequently his heart)? Let me pose a scenario that might clarify my point.

A father tells his eldest son to always love and protect his younger brother no matter the cost, to which he agrees. He also teaches his boys to always obey the laws of the land, which exist for everyone’s benefit.

The next day the two boys are playing next to a pond, which prohibits swimming in no uncertain terms. “Stay out of the pond. Violators will be prosecuted!” says a prominently displayed sign. The younger boy, who doesn’t know how to swim, slips, falls in the water, and shouts for help. Does the older boy obey the law or save his brother?

This is part of what is going on here in Paul’s letter to the Romans. He tells them to be devoted to one another in love, honor one another above themselves, and practice hospitality. He tells them to love even their enemies. In the very next breath he admonishes them not to revolt against the government’s authority. Always love and care for your neighbor––yes even for those outside your sphere (i.e., enemies)––AND obey the laws of the land. The question is what do we do when loving actions contradict one of the laws of the land? Do we save our brother or obey the “No Swimming” sign?

Only the most law-over-love folks would suggest to call 911 in hopes they can get there before he drowns! If their brother dies, at least the legalist obeyed the law. They didn’t save their brother but you can’t accuse them of being a lawbreaker!

Absurd, right? No more absurd than the idea that a parent fleeing life-threatening hunger or violence is more obligated to obey our unjust immigration laws than to save their children! Paul never teaches law over love. If they clash, then treat your brother or sister lovingly and let the law take care of itself.

“Love your neighbor as yourself”

This oft repeated command frames all our social interactions.

Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves at least three separate times: To the rich young ruler, a group of Pharisees, and an expert in the law. The last of these, in an effort to narrow the circle of people he had to love asked Jesus who was this illusive “neighbor”? Jesus replied with the parable of the infamous Samaritan who acted more neighborly than the priest and Levite who put law above love.

Paul says that in neighbor-love all of God’s commands are encompassed (“summed up” and “fulfilled”) and James creates a title for it: “The Royal Law of Scripture.”

Everything God wants is filtered through this one two-part command, “Love your God and love your neighbor.” Everything emanates from these, regardless of who the “neighbor” happens to be, wherever they happen to have been born, whatever color they inherited, or creed to which they ascribe. This is the standard, the plumb line.

No one said it would be easy, but we need to sort out how to live faithfully in the tension law and love, for love trumps laws (no pun intended), laws which are not plumb with love. Each thing we do personally and socially has to pass through the purifying influence of love of God and neighbor.

So, do we submit to the letter of the law and punish legitimate refugees (especially children) escaping violence and hunger to enter our country for survival or do we love them as neighbors and love their Creator enough to find a way to drop the charges and practice hospitality?

“If one confines one’s love to one’s own circle, one identifies oneself not with God, who loves universally, but with the racketeers and pagans, who limit their love to those who love them.” Clarence Jordan


Ya’ll come back next week for some talk about the theological implications of Romans 13. Until then, love your neighbor.

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