Asking Attorney General Sessions - and us - to think more about Romans 13

By Hal Taussig |8.2.2018

Numerous commentators have pointed out some problems with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions citing a passage from the Bible to support regulations about people entering the United States without official government permission.  He points to Romans 13:1,2 to say that authorities are ordained by God.

I agree with these commentators that it is not so simple.

On the other hand, this is a chance to think more deeply about these issues.  So here I suggest holding off on making too much fun of some of the obvious problems with Jeff Sessions’ proposal.  That is, are any of us so sure what the correct way of thinking about whether, how much, or how little government can or does authentically help people understand what God wants?  Similarly how many of us can straightforwardly identify how much Christian scripture or any other scripture does and does not speak for God?

Why not take a longer look at Sessions bald bible quoting, notice the wide variety of valid and goofy thinking about scripture, government, and God, and ways of thinking more deeply, yet plainly, about it all?  (See Brandon Scott’s recent thoughts on the Romans 13 issue.)

Let’s take Sessions first.  He is following a well-worn Christian tradition in defending government authority by citing Romans 13.  This is not an unusual proposal, and is a mainstream interpretation of this text.  It does not take these Bible verses out of context, even if he may miss some important historical information.  However, these are the same verses and this is the same direction of interpretation that British King George used against the founders of the United States of America.  And, American government and church leaders in the 19th century argued against Romans 13 as they successfully outlawed slavery.  So it is smug, cheap, and short-sighted to mock Jeff Sessions, since it is a real question when and how governments can and cannot be a force for God’s goodness in the world.  Which government?  When?  How?  Why?

Next let’s take liberal Christians and/or scholars like myself.  I have to admit to being a bedfellow with Sessions more times than I want.

I do—sometimes—passionately think that democracy in the world is ordained by God.  I believe—and sometimes doubt—that the right for people to vote for the way they are governed is a God-given right.  I suspect Sessions would agree with me.

I also know that my 50 years as a trained biblical scholar has not shown me a clear path through the weeds of democracy, God, Christianity, and government.  I am quite sure that some of my oft-beloved Christian scripture—"God is love….We are God’s work of art”—is powerfully speaking for God.  And I am similarly sure that this same Christian scripture—“Slaves, obey your masters….A woman ought to be silent, because Adam was formed first”—are harmful.  I am also sure that sometimes—especially in reading scripture written in the midst of tyrannous kings and emperors—I am at a loss to understand how, when, and where scripture can help or hurt governments which act in God’s likeness.

Nor have I given up on the complex ways that God inspires, ordains, prophetically condemns, and changes God’s own positions relative to governments.  Nor am I willing to shrug my shoulders or become cynical about these important questions.  How could the God I claim not care about and work for the messy democratic process?

It is easy for me to catch Jeff Sessions in contradictions about God, scripture, government, and rights for immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees, and I will continue to do that.  Why is he, for instance, so sure that his regulations about border crossings are ordained by God and those of Presidents Bush and Obama were not?  The problem is that it is also fairly easy for all of us to catch ourselves in shallow, arrogant, and well-meaning contradictions.

I do not mean to say that all issues of our current tortured and volatile national life together are moot.  Nor is it helpful for us to stop thinking and acting in the public and government spheres as much as we can.  Similarly, it seems short-sighted to either abandon or enthrone scripture as wise, beautiful, and flawed in terms of public or private life.  Indeed, I am thankful to Jeff Sessions for bringing up the Bible in such a context.  So, I do refer him to the fact that there are more commandments in the Bible to be merciful to the stranger than any other commandments.

As a student of the Bible and one who shares the agonies of this moment, I suggest deeper thoughts, lively conversation, and more interaction about the Bible and the nation between people that may disagree.

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Photo of Hal Taussig

Hal Taussig (Ph.D. The Union Institute) is a recently-retired Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He lectures around the country and world.  The editor of the award-winning A New New Testament (2013), United Methodist minister, and author of fourteen books, his mediography includes The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Daily Show, People Magazine, Newsweek Magazine, National Public Radio, and many more.

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