Hello - It's Nick. Today we'll be going through Romans 13 and working through the best parts, the difficult parts, and sharing some of the historical context that helps us appreciate and understand the text a little better. While I can't promise this blog will be quite as exciting as 2/22/22 on a Tuesday (Twos-day) I will try my best. Let's get into it.
Scripture to Read
As you read take some notes of the things that interest you, challenge you, confuse you, inspire you, or anything else. Take time to reflect on those and ask God what about this text God wants to reveal to you. Further, I invite you to drop any questions you have about Romans in the comments below (or email me) and hopefully we can create a post specifically for your questions on Friday.
My Thoughts (But actually someone else today)
Fair warning today's "my thoughts" section might offend you - but I hope we can sit together past the offense and remain in the discomfort together in dialogue. We're nearing the end of Black History Month and its difficult to not put Romans 13 in conversation with the long struggle of African rights here in this country and other countries around the world. (South Africa, for example.) While I certainly respect the concept that Paul is writing about (you have nothing to fear if you do nothing wrong) I think he is being a bit naive to the internal prejudices that we all have within us. Therefore, I don't think I can really be the one to comment on Romans 13 from the perspective of a Black person in America. So, I want to highlight the writing of Michael Harriot from a piece he wrote in "The Root" - a Black first and Black forward news space. You might be tempted to click away and if you need to that's okay. We'll be back here Friday (or Monday) with my own words. But, I hope you'll remain. Michael is a far better writer than I could ever be. Thanks friends for your hopeful willingness to wade a little deeper into the waters of ambiguity and hopefully find solidarity with one another regardless of perspective, race, experience, or background.
Around A.D. 49, the Roman emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from the city of Rome. Historians argue about the exact date and the reasons, but we know that Claudius did not want them holding office or bringing in more immigrants. Instead, he wrote that the Jews (pdf) “should rest content with what belongs to them by right and enjoy an abundance of all good things in a city which is not theirs. They must not bring in or invite Jews who sail in from Syria or Egypt; this is the sort of thing which will compel me to have my suspicions redoubled.” The Jews, according to Claudius, were running in gangs, opening the borders and taking the good jobs from the true Romans.
As this was happening, one of the early Jewish leaders of a new sect called “Christianity” was composing a letter to his church. In the epistle, he told his oppressed minority of followers to avoid causing trouble with the most powerful government in the world. He wrote:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same. —A Letter to the Roman Church From the Apostle Paul, Chapter 13, Verses 1-3
If you have ever wondered why slaves adopted the religious philosophy of their slave masters, Romans 13 is your answer. If you wanted to know why slaves, who often outnumbered slave masters, rebelled so rarely, the answer lies in Romans 13. To understand why the Bible was the only book many slaves were allowed to own, read that verse again.
Christianity was adopted by people, rulers and governments all around the globe because it tells its followers to comply. It boasts of a benevolent God who knows best; even when you are the subject of brutality, the Bible tells you that this is what God wants. At the root of Romans 13 is an edict to obey authority.
The 13th chapter of Romans is white supremacy, explained.
Almost 2,000 years after Paul’s letter, the 13th chapter of Paul’s instruction to the Romans is still being used to silence, warn and squash minority populations. When U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III quoted the verse Thursday to explain the Trump administration’s gestapolike policy of ripping babies from the arms of their mothers and throwing the children into internment camps, he was simply the latest in a long line of white people who used that verse to justify white supremacy.
In 1859, a U.S. marshal named Ezekiel Cox was brought before the Market Street Church of Zanesville, Ohio, where he had been a member for more than 20 years. Cox was standing before a committee that would decide whether to kick him out of the church for returning a slave to a slave master, which the church considered a sin.
As reported at the time by the Prairie News, Cox defended himself before the tribunal by explaining himself with the Holy Scriptures:
Mr. Cox showed that this fugitive, Charley, did not escape from idolatry to join himself to God and his people but ran away from a kind and humane master, stole a horse, saddle and bridle, and committed a criminal offence besides of the most ferocious character, with a poor, weak white girl. Yet, such a wretch, Mr. Cox stated, appeared to have enlisted the deepest sympathy of many of the leading members of the church, and that he was arraigned before it for no other cause than having performed his sworn duty as an officer of the United States in arresting such a miscreant who, he stated, was not fit to run at large, or for any society, save practical amalgamationists or ultra abolitionists. ... Surely, said he, no Christian of any pretensions to Intelligence will deny that Slavery was at least recognized and tolerated when Christ was on earth, and during apostolic times as well as under the Mosaic dispensation; and referred to Paul to Col: “Servants obey in all things your masters according to the flesh,”... ... Mr. Cox also referred the committee to Paul to the Romans—“Let every soul be subjected to the higher powers For there is no power but of God Whomsoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God j and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation for rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.. Wilt thou not then be afraid of the power? Do that which is good and thou shalt have praise of the same.” See 13th chapter, 1st, 2d and 3d verses.
Cox was excommunicated by a vote of 22-12, but thank God, Charley was back in chains.
One of the reasons the Confederate South thought it was entitled to its own country where slavery was legal was Romans 13. In the buildup to the Civil War, even non-slave-owning white Christians used the verse to justify their support of the Civil War and slavery. They believed that God ordained the institution and that Romans 13 was a warning from Jesus to the North not to violate the Constitution and the law by outlawing slave owning.
During the civil rights movement, Paul’s admonition echoed through white, Southern churches, especially those that split from their larger denominations to hold on to segregation.
In the famous 1950s Presbyterian article “How to Detect a Liberal in the Pulpit,” the eventual formation of the segregationist Presbyterian Church in Americawas foreshadowed when the writer explained that liberal ministers “will be frequently found leading racial demonstrations, supporting workers in a strike ... supporting the right of the Communist Party to engage in its activity in this country, and in giving his approval to the decision of the Supreme Court removing the Bible and other Christian influences from the schools of the nation.”
In their opinion, sit-ins, protests and civil disobedience as a whole were explicitly against Paul’s instructions to Christians. Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders and even participants in the Children’s March were all sinners in the eyes of an angry white God, according to Romans 13.
God is even given as a reason why black people should stop resisting when they are shot by corrupt cops. Recently, Romans, chapter 13, was used to disparage the Black Lives Matter movement.
Despite the fact that Micah Johnson, who killed five Dallas police officers in 2016, was never connected to any organizations, Robert Jeffress, the head of one of the largest congregations in the area, condemned Black Lives Matter and said that he was sick of preachers disrespecting police because “the New Testament says in Romans 13:4 that law enforcement officers are ministers of God sent by God to punish evildoers.” (Coincidentally, this is the same pastor who said that NFL players should be happy they weren’t shot in the head for kneeling during the national anthem.)
When defending this kind of justification, one should never offer other Bible verses to contradict Romans 13. That can lead to a circular argument in which no one gets his or her point across. But there is another way to make white people see the light. Aside from Jesus and Paul, who was ostensibly the first pope, there is another man whom white people love to quote.
If you are black and have ever said anything radical, instead of quoting the apostle Paul, wypipo will often contradict your pro-blackness by informing you what Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted. When white people are taking their white-privilege classes in kindergarten, this is one thing they are universally taught. “What MLK would have wanted ... ” is the Caucasian equivalent of black people’s “All the time!” response whenever anyone says, “God is good.”
Well, in 1956, King preached a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., titled: “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” (pdf). In the sermon, King imagines what he would have told Christians during his time. King told the church:
[A]s I said to the Philippian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it [emphasis mine]. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.
MLK said it. That’s that.
But the irony of Jeff Sessions’ statement and the predilection of white people for justifying white supremacy with a Bible verse is the fact that Paul was beheaded because he wouldn’t conform to the beliefs of the government."
Thanks, Michael, for your words on Romans 13. Obviously there is a lot more to Romans 13 than just the first 7 verses but I felt the calling today that we needed to address this more than anything else. When I read biting commentary like Michael's against institutions such as the Christian church or the Police I don't view it as "hate." I view it as love, honestly. I, and people like Michael, love these institutions enough to want to see them become better. When I screwed up as a kid my parents wouldn't let me get away with it. I got grounded, I had to work to redeem myself, I got a lecture, or something of the sort. When I had tantrums in school I would get detentions or suspensions. I don't think the school or my parents hated me - they wanted me to be better. They cared enough to punish me and demand better of me. So, while I might bristle up against some of the points that Michael makes above and want to say "Yes, but..." I'm trying to resist that temptation and hear his thoughts, his pain, and his love even in the punishing commentary. I hope this can help offer a balm to any pain or anger you might feel in this situations. When we are able to do this we are slowly helping to heal the rift between us as citizens. That is something Jesus would say amen to regardless of the side of the aisle you land on.
Praying the Hymns
I want to lift up a hymn that isn't found in our United Methodist Hymnal (I'm a heretic, I know) because it is inspired by Romans 13. Further, verse 3 really seems to emphasize a point that I wanted to make in my message this past Sunday where I argue that we are to be transformed by love and resist conforming to the hate that fear and mistrust can cause. The words of verse 3 are as follows:
3 So, when next he comes in glory
and the world is wrapped in fear,
he will shield us with his mercy
and with words of love draw near.
So, let's learn this new hymn together as we close out this time of reflection together.
1 Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding! "Christ is near," we hear it say. "Cast away the works of darkness, all you children of the day!"
2 See, the Lamb, so long expected, comes with pardon down from heav'n. Let us haste, with tears of sorrow, one and all, to be forgiv'n;
3 So, when next he comes in glory and the world is wrapped in fear, he will shield us with his mercy and with words of love draw near.
4 Honor, glory, might, dominion to the Father and the Son with the everlasting Spirit while eternal ages run!