Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders referenced the Bible and, in particular, Romans 13, to defend a particular immigration policy that has been separating mothers from their children at the southern border of the United States. When they did this, and let me be as clear as I can be, they had no idea what they were talking about.
Now, I realize those are some harsh words but I could give much harsher words for their wildly inappropriate interpretation of that passage of scripture. The theological term we should use to talk about this is exegesis. It’s a word that comes from the Greek meaning “to lead out” but in plain English it simply means: do your homework.
With every passage of scripture you should always ask who, what, where, when, how, and why. Failing to ask any of these questions puts you in the danger of ripping a passage out of context. This leads to bad interpretation and simply doesn’t take the Bible very seriously. Let the Bible speak for itself. That means you hear it within its context before you assume your own. This is a great lesson for all of us so let’s have some classroom time with this.
There are several reasons I can confidently say Sessions and Sanders had no idea what they were talking about. And I hope we all learn something from this so we can all avoid these mistakes when reading the Bible and referencing it for ourselves.
First of all, Romans is a letter. I know we call it a book of the Bible but it’s actually a letter. It was written by a man named Paul to a church, a group of Jesus followers who lived and gathered together in the city of Rome. Paul was a very complicated individual. A brilliant scholar named N.T. Wright just wrote a biography about Paul. You should buy a copy if you want to learn about this incredibly influential Christian.
Okay, back to Paul. Paul was Jewish. This means he read the Torah, celebrated Jewish holidays, and grew up in a world where his people and country had been conquered by the Roman Empire. Paul was also a Roman citizen and he claimed this citizenship on regular occasions. Like I said, complicated but it gets more complicated. Paul, after persecuting Christians, had an unexplainable experience that led him to become a Christian, a follower of Jesus. Oh, and Jesus, who Paul followed had been crucified, murdered, by the Romans.
This complicated man named Paul wrote a letter to this church in Rome to encourage them and help answer questions for them about what it meant to follow Jesus. When Paul wrote the letter of Romans he had no idea you and I would be reading it today. He wrote it for his time, in his language, to a particular group of people. Paul simply didn’t write Romans for you and me. By that, I mean he didn’t have you and me in mind. Does this mean it isn’t inspired by God? Does this mean it isn’t useful for teaching, learning, or growing in our faith? No. Not at all. Paul’s letter to the Romans was passed around churches because it was all those things but he wasn’t writing it to deal with our issues today. So, simply applying his words to our context is so dangerous if we don’t know his context which brings me to the next point.
Second, Paul was writing in this passage about a particular issue facing the Roman church. Nero, a particularly awful emperor was in power. Rumor has it Nero liked to use Christians as torches to light his garden. Some people say this isn’t true but the fact the rumor exists should tell us about Nero’s reputation within the Christian community.
The Roman church was also split between Jews and Gentiles. Jews had moved to Rome from Palestine and brought with them a very revolutionary Jewish nationalism that was leading to violence and could spill over into war. The Jewish nation had experienced this before and had been crushed by the Romans shortly before the birth of Jesus. Imagine what would happen if the young church was crushed and unable to fulfill its mission. Jesus faced this same issue when one of his followers, a zealot who loved these revolutionary ideas, attacked a Roman soldier when Jesus was being arrested. Jesus told him to stop because a revolution crushing the young movement was not the desire of Jesus. Empowering the people through his non-violent death and his resurrection was his plan (but that’s another post).
Based on this context, Paul was likely pleading with this church to cling to unity. This was a fragile time. Quietly submitting to the governing authorities kept the young church alive and allowed it to flourish underground. Did Paul think Rome was the greatest empire ever? Of course not. Based on our previous discussion about the conquering Rome and Jesus’s death by way of their torture device called the cross, the answer is not hard to conclude.
[It is also important to address, without getting too far into it, that a theory, that is widely accepted, is that Romans 13 is a parenthetical citation that Paul is responding to in the passages before and after Romans 13. There is a similar theory regarding the first few chapters of Romans. The point is there is a discussion among faithful Christians regarding what Paul is discussing and how he is addressing it. This should drive us all to want to learn more and be more humble about our interpretations before we do the homework we need to do when it comes to a text of scripture.]
Third, Paul taught the Kingdom of God just like Jesus taught. This was the belief that God’s Kingdom was the kingdom that we give our loyalty, allegiance, and deference. We are free in our country to say the phrase “Jesus is Lord”. In fact, if you said that in Congress you would probably hear an amen from more than one person. However, in the time the New Testament was written, saying “Jesus is Lord” was revolutionary. It was a code for saying that Rome, the emperor, and the powers that be were just playing king but the followers of Jesus knew who was the real king and his kingdom has no end. This means that when we say Jesus is Lord today we are making this same revolutionary statement. For more on this, read the book of Revelation. No seriously, do it. But understand it was a book written by a group of persecuted Christians that were using that book as code to say Jesus is Lord and the emperor won’t be on the throne forever.
Finally, how do I know Romans 13 shouldn’t be used to defend separating mothers from their children? Because it goes against the way God taught his people how to treat others. See Isaiah 10 and Exodus 23:9 as just a couple examples. It also is antithetical to the way of Jesus. And that mercy, love, and grace I see in Jesus simply tells me that using Romans 13 like this is about the last thing we should be doing.
To sum it up:
Do your homework on any passage of scripture before you quote it.
And, when in doubt, love others.