Part II: Romans 13:1 and Liberal Theology

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This is Part II of a three part series.

Several days ago, the Wikipedia entry for the verse was updated to reflect the political changes in Biblical interpretation.

“…Romans 13 is from time to time employed in civil discourse and by politicians and philiosophers in support of or against political issues. Two conflicting arguments are made: that the passage mandates obedience to civil law; and that there are limits to authority beyond which obedience is not required. John Calvin, in Institutes of the Christian Religion[12] took the latter position: “that we might not yield a slavish obedience to the depraved wishes of men”. Martin Luther employed Romans 13 in Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants[13] to advocate that it would be sinful for a prince or lord not to use force, including violent force, to fulfil the duties of their office.[14]

Romans 13 was used during the period of the American Revolution, by loyalists who preached obedience to the Crown; and by revolutionaries who argued for elimination of the unjust authority of the King. Later in US history, Romans 13 was employed by anti-abolitionists to justify and legitimise the keeping of slaves; notably around the time of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which precipitated debate as to whether the law should be obeyed or resisted.[14]

In June 2018, Romans 13 was used by Jeff Sessions to justify the Trump administration family separation policy, saying:[14][15][16]

“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 them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”[17]

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, echoed Sessions’ use of Romans 13, stating:

“I’m not aware of the attorney general’s comments or what he would be referencing, [but] I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible.”[17]

Commenting on the fight to define Romans 13, Lincoln Mullen argues that “what the attorney general actually has on his side is the thread of American history that justifies oppression and domination in the name of law and order.”[14]…”

There are basically three articles the Democrats are using to pound President Trump. One is from the WPost. The first article to hit was on June 15, in the Atlantic, written by Lincoln Mullen, who has a history of disliking Donald Trump. Mullen cites a July 5, 1855 article in the Richmond Dispatch as reason to base his damnation of Trump and Sessions. He also uses Vermont Telegraph., March 04, 1840. Another passage is Anti-slavery bugle, December 01, 1849. Mullins wrote:

“...Black Christians were accustomed to hearing from white slaveholders a bowlderized gospel that emphasized texts like Romans 13 and Colossians 3(“Servants, obey in all things your masters.”) But their own readings of the Bible emphasized the book’s themes of deliverance from bondage. The Exodus narrative was a more central text than Romans 13. The black abolitionist David Walkercomparedthe United States to slaveholding Egypt and enslaved African Americans to the children of Israel. “All persons who are acquainted with history, and particularly the Bible,” he wrote, and “who can dispense with prejudice long enough to admit that we are men … and believe that we feel for our fathers, mothers, wives and children, as well as the whites do for theirs” could see plainly that the Bible was on the side of the oppressed and not the oppressor. As Maria Stewart put it in an 1831addresssuffused with scripture, “You may kill, tyrannize, and oppress as much as you choose, until our cry shall come up before the throne of God.”

The debates in the 1850s over whether Romans 13 required obedience or resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, and more broadly over whether the Bible supported enslavement or abolition,fracturedthe Bible’s authority in the public sphere. Americans’ allegiance to Romans 13 in a democratic society grew even more tenuous. While Southern Christians did keepdefending slavery from the Bibleeven after the Civil War was over, slaveholders could no longer claim that they were “the powers that be.” The text never entered the public discourse again the way that it had in the 1850s.…”

Lincoln Mullin is a leading expert when it comes to using American newspapers and history. I think perhaps the problem here is he has created a bridge too far. He dislikes Donald Trump. Fine. The man is an excellent historian. The problem is he is protesting too much.

From the WPost:

“…“There are two dominant places in American history when Romans 13 is invoked,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “One is during the American Revolution [when] it was invoked by loyalists, those who opposed the American Revolution.”

The other, Fea said, “is in the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong. I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”

“America was built and born on rebellion and a sort of radical resistance to authority,” Fea said. “Whenever Romans 13 was used in the 18th and the 19th century — and Sessions seems to be doing the same thing, so in this sense there is some continuity — it’s a way of manipulating the scriptures to justify your own political agenda.”

The chapter itself can be interpreted in varying ways.

“Romans 13 says that the purpose of government is to pursue what is good, and it says that the government should not be a terror for those who are doing good,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.

“You cannot read Romans 13 without reading Romans 12,” Salguero said, pointing to the prior chapter, which in part suggests that love must be the guide instead of evil.

“Laws are good, and order is good, but that doesn’t mean that separating families from each other is a good law,” he said. “There are good laws, and there are bad laws, and separating families from each other is a bad policy. We’re not against the law, we’re against bad laws and bad policies.”

Besides, as Soerens points out, the person in the Bible whom Sessions referenced ran afoul of the law.

“The fact that the Apostle Paul, who wrote Romans, wrote several epistles from jail suggests that he was occasionally on the wrong side of an unjust law,” Soerens said….”

Context – it’s all about context. Even, according to Lincoln Mullins, the use of Romans 13:1 to justify slavery was only for a very limited time, maybe a 20 year span of American history. Why is this important? Well… Basically, since 1860 or so, no one has even bothered connecting the dots between Romans 13:1 and legitimizing slavery. Heck, I consider myself a historian, and I’m having difficulty finding a connection. The fact that the connection between Romans 13:1 and defending slavery has not existed in nearly 160 – one hundred and sixty years – exonerates Jeff Sessions.

The series concludes, tomorrow.

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