I admit that I’m coming into this piece today full of piss and vinegar but how could I not? I read yesterday about how Sessions quoted Romans 13 to justify tearing refugee families apart at the southern border. This piece of scripture reads in full:
13 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
It sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? But like everything in the bible, we have to take a few things into account. First, we must read this and ask ourselves, for whom was this written and why?
Paul (supposedly) wrote this advice for Christians at a time in which Christianity was quite literally illegal in many parts of the empire. So, right off the bat, just being a Christian was flouting authority and therefore seemingly antithetical to Paul’s advice. So, what’s going on? How can one obey the authorities and yet remain a Christian? For Paul, it was all about example and walking that fine line between obedience to authority and obedience to Christ. One of the stereotypes about Christians at this time was that they were uneducated and uncouth criminals. Also, the Zealots, a group of Jews who wanted to overthrow the empire, were clearly a threat to existing order. The empire was constantly on the alert for Christians, Zealots, and other groups who they believed could upset the status quo. One way for Christians to avoid getting the attention of the state was to conform as much as possible to existing laws. Sadly, we see this same injunction given today to African American males who are criminalized simply by their skin color and for whom police attention often means death. Many black mothers have the same conversation with their sons that Paul is having here with his followers, even when they realize that they shouldn’t have to.
But what about the part about God establishing that authority? Isn’t that an endorsement of the state? This one is admittedly much trickier and, in fact, harder to reconcile. It does seem like Paul, in stating that the authorities are “God’s servant for your good” is basically saying that the state is always correct. But here again we have to look to context. First, and most importantly, people in Paul’s time were not into democracy as we know it today. Not only were they not into it, they could probably never have even imagined it as a possibility. While it is true that Greece had a form of democracy in place beginning about five hundred years prior to Paul, it was nothing like what we know today. Very, very few men (and it was always men and only of a certain classes) had any say in anything and there was certainly no thought for minority groups. Thus, Paul and his contemporaries were operating out of a very different political reality, one that believed that God had indeed set rulers above the people. However, that does not mean that they believed those rulers were necessarily put there as a favor. In the thinking of Paul’s day, God often showed displeasure with its people by giving them unjust or imperfect rulers. But when we read Romans 13, we see Paul talking not about an unjust ruler but about God instituting rulers who have our good in mind. Paul is clearly talking about obeying conscientious rulers which leaves open the idea that civil disobedience is still available to the Christian in some cases.
But let’s dump this all aside for a second and look at today. The fact is that no matter what you believe about God or scripture, our lives are very different today from what they were for the oppressed Jews and their gentile allies in Paul’s day. Christians are no longer persecuted on anything like the scale they once were and, thanks to Constantine, Christianity has been in bed with the state here in the west since the fourth century. Moreover, THE BIBLE IS NOT AN INSTRUCTION MANUAL. It is not a rule book you flip through to find the right rule that applies to your situation and it never has been. The bible, huge though it is, was never designed to carry the answer to twenty-first century problems and situations that its writers could never, in their wildest dreams imagine. The bible is the story of the nation of Israel and, later, the unfolding of the life and ministry of Jesus. While the bible holds an incredible amount of wisdom that we’d be idiots to ignore, it is ultimately the story of the development of thought about God and what it means to be human. Though we certainly have books like Leviticus that have lots of rules in them, nothing in that book is infallible simply because it is written in that book. Like the traditions we receive, scripture is meant to be consulted, pondered on, and respected while not being idolized. Bronze and Iron age males did not hold all the answers to questions we are asking today. And if you are disturbed by that thought, ask yourself WHY you feel you need a rule book. The fact is that many Christians openly and without shame throw out bits of scripture that are not life-giving. We don’t have to contort ourselves in explanation. The bible is not magical. We can throw out those “texts of terror” that some guy wrote thousands of years ago to describe his own situation and society. Those passages we find useful we can reclaim. The bible is chock full of moments of revolution, rebellion, and insubordination. What are we to make of that? What do we do when one part of scripture written by one group of dudes seems to contradict another part of scripture written by another group of dudes hundreds of years apart? We do what people over the ages have always done – we look to our conscience, that “still small voice” that many believe God gave them to use in situations such as this.
And now, tell me, when you get quiet for a few minutes and tap into that voice, what does it tell you? Does it tell you that God wants us to separate parents and children? Does it tell you that small, scared children are enemies of the state? Does it tell you that Trump is a just leader? Does it tell you that people of color are to be feared and despised? Or does it tell you that something else is happening here? Does it tell you that Sessions has no interest in God, or love, or scripture? Does it tell you that maybe, just maybe, he, like many politicians, is subordinating God to the state for other interests?
Because let’s be honest. Sessions doesn’t even believe his own bullshit, does he? If he did, he would advocate just as strongly for laws that promote the rights of women, girls, and LGTBQ people. Because they’re laws. In fact, Sessions wouldn’t even have a goddamn JOB because in the form of government the scripture passage describes and in the way that Sessions interprets it there is no quibbling about the law. What the ruler says goes and our job is simply to obey.
But guess what? We don’t live in an Iron Age occupied land. We live in a twenty-first century (kind of) democracy where not obeying is a time-honored tradition for Christians and non-Christians alike. In fact, it kind of, sort of is what MADE this country.
But Sessions appears not to understand either this or scripture. Jeff Sessions knows fuck all about either apparently.