I’m writing to thank you for bringing an oft-misinterpreted passage of the Bible to light in your recent attempt to defend the policies of your administration. I’m not writing to you to tell you how to do your job. I’m not a lawyer, but I am a pastor, and since you cited scripture, I will confine myself to the interpretation of scripture.
Recently, when you were visiting Indiana, you said:
“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. 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.” - Jeff Sessions, June 15, 2018 (as recorded in the Indianapolis Star)
I believe the passage you were referring to was this:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. - Romans 13:1-4a
You may not have been aware of the history of this passage. It was cited in Nazi Germany by those in authority to induce the compliance, or at least the quiescence, of the German churches. Before that it was also cited in the United States by slaveholders to justify slavery. In other words, it has been used to justify all manner of evil done by the state because the government is, in your words, “ordained” by God.
In the passage immediately before Romans 13, Paul talks at length about an ethic of love.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. – Romans 12:9-10
Authentic love, then, resists what is evil in society by doing what is good. This is not a legal mandate, but a moral mandate. Mutual love seeks the best for everyone, not just one’s self, not just one’s interests, but the whole of the community.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. – Romans 12:13-16
The faithful are actively encouraged by Paul to extend hospitality to strangers and associate with the lowly, those on the margins of society. Paul asks the faithful to practice empathy not only with those for whom life is good, but also with those distressed by life’s turns.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:17-18, 21
This is where Romans 13:1 picks up, immediately after this. Paul is laying out an understanding of how followers of Christ in community are supposed to live together as a minority sect within a dominant culture that is often indifferent or even hostile to them. The governing powers in this context were not friendly, they were to be endured and overcome. Not by direct opposition, but by creating the kind of community to which we aspire. We cannot resist evil with evil because then we become the very evil we deplore.
We must find another way. And what is that way? By doing what is good. Note, Paul does not say blindly follow the law, he urges us to do what is good regardless of what the law says. If the law is good, then all is well. If the law is evil, then the church is seen to be supporting what is good. And what is this good? The ethic of love. Love trumps all.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 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. – Romans 13:8-10
This idea of “love is the fulfilling of the law” is not new to Paul or Jesus, but this ethic has been found throughout the Bible from the very beginning. I would remind you of Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives from Exodus 1:15-21 who disobeyed Pharaoh’s command to kill all of the male children born to Hebrew women. This was the law that they disobeyed. Instead they followed the ethic of love and compassion for a marginalized people and for this they are remembered.
In your remarks, Mr. Sessions, you aspire to a society that “protects the weak.” This is a laudable goal and one worthy of the Attorney General of the United States. The church is here to bear witness and to practice an ethic of love. Just as the United States seeks to become a “more perfect union” the church seeks to be “perfected in love.” We are not perfect, but that does not stop us or excuse us from our calling. The church must continue to practice an ethic of love even when it puts us at odds with the state. Like Shiphrah and Puah before us, we will be on the margins - watching, loving, and acting.
Rev. Lawrence Lee