By Brandon Cook
As I write this I recognize that it is not enough. There is too much to protest. Too much to call out against. Our clothes are already in tatters and the ash is running into our eyes, and yet there are more miles to march. I wish to examine a simple thing in many ways because it feels small and unimportant, but it is the small beliefs that we build on. They become actions. It is easy to let the small things pass us by before it is too late.
After President Trump signed his executive order halting our refugee program and banning travelers from seven countries, I witnessed many people highlight the injustice using scripture. Supporters of the President threw scriptures back, including Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God (NRSV).”
They accused Christian protestors of abandoning God’s chosen president. To say that this verse is taken out of context is a gross understatement. To claim that it means that all Christians should be absolutely obedient to whatever authority is placed over them, not only ignores the context of this verse in Romans, but also the core messages of the Gospel.
History repeatedly has shown up that those with evil actions and intents often rise to positions of power in our society. One cannot look at Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears and claim that it was right not to oppose the suffering created. America, along with other nations, has allowed evil to be perpetrated in the name of security, economic growth, Manifest Destiny, and greed. The Christian relationship to government and authority should not minimized to “Obedience is God’s command”.
Romans 13 continues by explaining that the role of the authority is to be “God’s servant of good (V. 4).” This is where our obedience as Christians lies. Authority, when it furthers the Kindom of God, whether intentionally or accidently, demands obedience. Those who name themselves as authorities and demand that Christians abandon what is good, never bear divine authority. Paul Achtemeier puts it this way, “If then a government claims for itself the kind of devotion proper only to God and demands that its subjects that they preform evil rather then good, and if it punishes those who disobey such demands to do evil, that government no longer functions as a servant of God and therefore is no longer to be obeyed as such (205).” To acquiesce to others because they claim authority is to abandon the authority that God placed on us.
So, where do our guides to what is good come from? This is one of the true beauties of this passage: It is surrounded by love. Literally. Chapter 12 is a litany of the virtues of a Christian, which famously begins, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” It instructs each person to “Let love be genuine (v 10)” and to “Extend hospitality to strangers (v. 13)” It concludes by condemning vengeful acts and anger, saying “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads (v 20)”. Chapter 13 boldly claims, “The commandments … are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (v 9-10).” Romans 13:1 is not isolated from these verses, but is dependent on them. When Christians approach the world through love, we can discern when God is calling us to follow.
Those who resist in this time do not do so out of jealousy or bitterness. We stand boldly and proclaim that just as we have been transformed by God’s love, we are transforming through love. I long for a day when obedience is warranted, in this administration or any other. But so long as evil is done is my name, I will resist. So long as refugees are denied shelter, clean water is threatened, and patients are denied healthcare, I will resist. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “It may be that the day of judgement will dawn tomorrow; in that case, we will gladly stop working for a better future. But not before (16-17).”
Achtemeier, P.(1985). Romans: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press (Louisville, KY)
Bonhoeffer, D. (1997). Letters & Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition. Touchstone (New York, NY)