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The Romans 13 Controversy is in full swing. It began when Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump Administration’s brutal policy of separating children from their asylum-seeking parents by pointing to this passage from the New Testament in its defense. “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” he said. Then he reached for the Bible to justify the outrage: “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.”
Reactions were quick. As Vox and many others noted, separating children is a policy choice, not the law. But the larger issue was the Biblical passage’s historical use to justify injustices like slavery and segregation. As Tara Isabella Burton argued in an excellent analysis, drawing on a twitter thread by Diana Butler Bass and a blog post by John Fea, this historical use of Romans 13 frequently decontextualized Paul’s letter to the Jesus followers in Rome. As Burton concludes, the “Trump administration is using a distinctive and reductionist biblical reading affiliated with slavery advocates.” She argues instead that we need to read the Bible “within its historical context.”
This is absolutely true. And yet the controversy provokes a bigger question we might ask: once we recognize the multiple uses of the Bible to justify wildly divergent ethics, should we be moved, finally, to wonder why God chose this method to reveal her will to humans? It certainly seems to allow its readers to arrive at very different conclusions about God’s will. Why the uncertainty?
I don’t think we can chalk this down to insincerity. Sessions and White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders seem sincere in citing Romans 13 as Biblical support of this cruel policy—no more or less sincere than a politician and a spokesperson typically are, at least. Their theological ancestors were equally sincere in supporting slavery through Biblical citation.
One can criticize Sessions and Sanders for hypocrisy, but in hypocrisy critique the target is not the audience.
And better historical context of the Bible doesn’t get us out of this difficulty. Part of the historical context of Paul’s writings was his apocalyptic expectation that the world was imminently to be swept away anyhow during Jesus’s return. Paul expected it in his lifetime. In fact, that’s one reason for texts like Romans 13: there’s no need for a distracting social and political revolution since none of it was going to matter within the lifetimes of most of his readers and listeners. But Paul’s expectation turned out to be wrong—Jesus didn’t return.
So better historical context just compounds the question of the adequacy of this Book, given its wildly divergent ethical uses. Should we be prompted now to the meta-question of why Biblical revelation doesn’t seem to be working? Why has God left us alone with just this Book, when we can’t agree on its meaning?