Laws of the Land and Romans 13

That hand is not the color of yours, but if you prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man.
–Chief Standing Bear, Ponca Tribe, 1879

In the past year, the US government has “gotten tougher” on illegal immigration, primarily across our southern border. Here are just a two examples:

  • In January 2018, judges with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a claim that children being prosecuted for illegal immigration had the right to an attorney if they could not afford one. They cited that it would “strain an already overextended immigration system.” [1]
  • In April 2018, the US government announced a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration. [2]

And on June 14, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Rom 13 to defend that policy, which has led to separating children and their parents who were illegally entering the United States.

Rom 13:1-5 states:

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. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 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. 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. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

AG Sessions stated:

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. [3]

I want to look at Sessions’s statement in our article today, but first I want to state a few things as I begin. I believe that immigration reform and overhaul is necessary and integral; it is going to be an ongoing debate and dilemma in our political discussions for decades to come. But that is not the focus of this article, nor is it a discussion of “Red/Blue” politics or who should shoulder the blame.

Instead, I want to argue against two of Sessions’s premises here. First, the “law” is often applied in ways that are not “consistent and fair.” And second, Rom 13 is only one component of the biblical discussion concerning justice, politics, and personhood.

If we look back at our history, we find that the United States hasn’t practiced “consistent and fair” lawmaking in regard to the “weak.” We haven’t been immune to inhumane laws. African Americans, Native Americans, and countless others have faced legal discrimination in our nation’s history. I explore just a few examples below.

African Americans

Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the US Constitution states:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Native Americans not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

A dispute arose concerning taxation and representation. Southern states wanted slaves counted as whole persons for the sake of determining representation in Congress, but to count as property in terms of taxation. The Northern states opposed giving Southern slaveholders a stranglehold on government. In the end, they reached a compromise in which slaves would count as three-fifths of one person, and Native Americans wouldn’t count at all. It wasn’t until 1865 and 1868, with the passages of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, that formerly enslaved individuals were politically determined to be “whole persons” again.

The Dred Scott decision, handed down in 1857, declared that no one of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States and therefore had no right to bring suit in a federal court.

After Reconstruction, states enacted numerous laws preventing African Americans from owning property, running for office, and voting. Anti-miscegenation laws prevented mix-raced couples from marrying or living together. While many people believe these Jim Crow laws existed solely in the South, they were present throughout the United States and applied to Native Americans, Asians, and others, as well.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights acts were passed in the mid-1960s that many of these laws were overturned. And, in many ways, these struggles are still ongoing today.

Native Americans

More than 370 treaties were made between the individual states and/or the US government with the various indigenous peoples concerning territory, land, and rights belonging to these tribes. [4] Each of those treaties was subsequently broken to grant more territory to our expanding nation. Typically these treaties allotted land that the tribes already occupied, declaring that this territory would be for their “free use and enjoyment.” [5] But the US envoys would also insert language allowing individuals, states, or the US government the right to buy or lease land in the future.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 allowed the US government to remove tribes to federal territory west of the Mississippi, reportedly for their own protection and benefit. But then that territory, too, was constantly whittled down or taken away and the tribes, once again, resettled. There wasn’t just one Trail of Tears, but hundreds.

Under Article 1 of the Constitution, non-taxed Native Americans were not considered persons at all. Some might argue that they were considered to be part of another nation or tribe, but those nations were granted no real status. Treaties were made in good faith … and treaties were quickly broken, showing just how little credence or respect these various tribes received. In 1870, the Senate Judiciary committee clarified that “the 14th amendment to the Constitution has no effect whatever upon the status of the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States.” Numerous laws and Supreme Court decisions further declared that Native Americans were not citizens and had no protections under US law. It wasn’t until 1879 and the trial of Chief Standing Bear that the US government determined that a Native American is a person under the law and is entitled to its rights and protections.

What is right?

These examples remind us that laws often fall short of being consistent, fair, and protective of those outside positions of power and influence.

So, what is right? According to the law at the time, it would be right and legal to:

  • Round up a formerly enslaved person who had lived in a free territory and send them back to their slave master.
  • Prevent African Americans from going to the polls.
  • Lock up interracial couples for marrying.
  • Dehumanize others simply for the color of their skin and deny them their rights to life, liberty, and property.

Now let’s step back from what is legal and ask, what is right as a follower of Jesus?

Rom 13 is only one part of this biblical discussion on politics and the Christian life. We are also called to pray for those in positions of power. [6] And the Bible doesn’t shy away from harsh language about nations and their leaders. [7]

Numerous Old Testament passages remind Israel to provide hospitality and care for the foreigner who lives in their midst. [8] God reminds them that they were once foreigners and slaves themselves in Egypt. Israel didn’t interpret these commands as applying only to preceding generations; each generation identified as aliens and foreigners, even if they hadn’t been in Egypt in thousands of years.

And Jesus reminds us that God’s kingdom is not of this world, and our minds should be set on the things of God rather than earthly things. Our decisions, our actions, our passions should be guided more by the kingdom than any other factor in our lives.

So yes, Rom 13 commands us to “be subject to the governing authorities,” but Jesus also commands us to “render unto God the things that are God’s.” [9] And as Martin Luther King Jr. states,

One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. [10]

So, what is right? Is it right to follow the current laws and policies of our country, or offer hope and hospitality to immigrants entering our country, whether documented or not? Honestly, I believe both positions can be supported biblically. But what is the greater good? What would Jesus have us do as his followers? Because the church is meant to destroy the walls and barriers that divide humanity, [11] and offer hospitality and care to those whom others despise. Indeed, it is the core of “true religion” itself. [12]

[1] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latin-america/immigrant-children-don-t-have-right-free-lawyer-court-says-n842431
[2] https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-announces-zero-tolerance-policy-criminal-illegal-entry
[3] https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-sessions-addresses-recent-criticisms-zero-tolerance-church-leaders
[4] https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/01/18/368559990/broken-promises-on-display-at-native-american-treaties-exhibit
[5] This language comes from the Treaty of Canandaigua, signed in 1794 between the US government and the Iroquois Confederacy.
[6] 1 Tim 2:1-2: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” One wonders what Paul might have written after his final imprisonment by the Roman Empire that led to his death.
[7] Rev 17:1-6 refers to the Roman Empire and its agents as “prostitutes” and “the mother of prostitutes and the abominations of the earth,” and as one who was “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people.” Ezek 28:1-19 describes the King of Tyre in ways that many interpret as Satan. And Dan 10 describes powers and principalities in terms of “princes” over various political entities and nations.
[8] A few examples include Exod 22:21-24; 23:9; Deut 14:28-29; 24:17-18, 19-22; 27:19; Jer 22:3; and Mal 3:5. Jesus’s own story of emigration (Matt 2:13-15) must also be read in this light.
[9] Matt 22:21 KJV.
[10] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” A copy can be found at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html; last accessed June 20, 2018.
[11] See Gal 3:28 and Col 3:11.
[12] Jas 1:27.

 

Daniel McGraw is the senior minister of the West University Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. He is married to Megan and has two daughters, Hannah and Lydia, who teach him more about the love of God than any of his theology degrees ever has. He is a passionate, but wholly average, runner.

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Author:  Publish Date: July 26, 2018

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

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