An exegesis of Romans 13

An exegesis of Romans 13

A few days ago, the so-called Attorney General of the United States, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, defended the Trump regime policy of ripping children from their families as they cross the border by referring to Romans 13.

Now, as I've mentioned before, I have a fair bit of Biblical knowledge. In my Catholic school career, exegesis was one of my favorite things to do in religion class. It probably marked me out as a writer, as you examine and interpret texts.

Now, if you wish to engage in true exegetical work, one should have a fluent knowledge of the language in which the text is written. In the case of Paul's Letter to the Romans, that language would be koine Greek.

I do not have a knowledge of koine Greek. But, I am quite sure, neither does Sessions. And, again, my religious education was of the rigorous, American Catholic variety, not whatever podunk snake charming church Sessions went to. (Am I being churlish? Damned straight I am.) So I will put my exegetical skills up against his any day.

So, let's begin.

As with all, we have to start with the text. Below is the text of Romans 13, as translated in the New International Version.

Submission to Governing Authorities
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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 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. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Love Fulfills the Law
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
The Day Is Near
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already comec for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darknessf and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.

OK. Shall we commence?

Ah, yes. Romans 13:1. The favorite verse of dictators from Louis XIV to Hitler to Trump (wannabe division). With Romans 13:2 being a co-favorite. All authority is from God, so rebelling against said authority is rebelling against God.

Let's peel apart those two verses' logical conclusions, shall we?

By that logic, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was instituted by God. (It certainly thought so.) The West's attack against that regime was then upending a divinely ordained order. The text is clear: all authority is established by God. Paul wrote this while a subject of the Roman imperium. He was not speaking about the Temple aristocracy, but about the Caesars, who in a few years would burn the Temple to the ground. All authority is God-ordained, and not to be questioned, if one takes Romans 13:1-2 at face value. And people like Sessions and Sarah Sanders do.

Romans 13:3-7 add layer upon layer of argument for respecting authority—all authority. Remember, Paul, formerly Saul, was a Roman citizen. When the Temple authorities came for him, he appealed to the emperor in Rome for redress, as was his right. And that's... interesting. The Temple authorities had condemned him; he appealed to a higher authority. So there we see a contradiction. He didn't submit to the authority which had immediate jurisdiction over him, but quite consciously tried to subvert it by going over its head. The judgment he received from it wasn't satisfactory; he tried to obtain a different, more favorable judgment. Which makes Romans 13:1-7 seem like nothing but hypocrisy.

Ah. But then, in Romans 13:8, we see a change. Let me reiterate it here:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.

Read that again. Verse 8 basically upends the importance of verses 1-7. Verses 1-7 deal with what one owes to the outside world. And, as we know from Paul's story outside of the Greek Bible, he tried to escape that debt. What matters more than obedience to external authority is our debt to love each other. In that way, we fulfill the law.

Romans 13:8-10 are the heart of the chapter. They are a paean to love, to fellowship, to doing harm to no one. "Love your neighbor as yourself". He doesn't say who qualifies as a "neighbor". Which, interpreted by the text, means everyone is a neighbor. Not just the person who lives alongside you. But those who seek refuge within your borders. Those who don't seek refuge but live in a country different from you. Humanity is your neighbor. Life is your neighbor.

I don't think I can overemphasize the radical nature of this statement. Jesus was the figurehead God-man of Christianity. Paul was its first theologian. And the theology he preached, as the theology ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels, was one of love. It was a love which didn't exist in the ancient world, which was strange, unusual, illogical. It wasn't tribal. It wasn't parochial. It was universal. It was all-encompassing. It was a love we owed one another as we were all creations of God. The child being ripped from her mother's side is no different than the child sleeping soundly in Paul Ryan's house. Both are of God, and both merit dignity and care by that very fact.

What Romans 13:8-10 does is put a firm condition on 13:1-7: Law has to be based on love, or it is not law.

And then, everything gets upended in Romans 13:11-14.

Because remember, the early Jesus movement was an apocalyptic cult. It expected the Lord to return to earth and bring justice to a fallen world. It wasn't the Church waiting two millennia later, the promise unfulfilled. The cultists firmly believed Jesus' promise that he would soon return at the right hand of God, overthrowing the kingdoms of the earth, and dealing with the just and unjust. We forget that the Jesus movement circa 50 AD was more David Koresh than Church of England in its expectations. You placate the authorities because all that matters is love, and all that matters is love because the world will soon come to an end. And because the day of judgment is near, treating each other with love is even more important, for so shall you be judged.

The Devil can quote Scripture to dupe the unwary. And Sessions is the Devil. Texts don't exist in isolation. By quoting only Romans 13:1-7, Sessions ignored the rest of the chapter, which subverts those first seven verses. Because all he cares about are the calls to obey authority. He and his master are no different from other totalitarians. They appeal to Scripture to excuse their crimes, and hope that the populace is too stupid to delve deeper. That's why I'm here. That's my calling as a librarian, as an educator: to bring light into the dark. And we're in a dark place right now. But the light is not far off, because what those of the dark use to perpetuate the darkness is actually full of light. They are just so lost that they don't see that.

No, ripping a child in the moment of its breastfeeding from its mother is not Biblical. It is, quite simply, of the house of Satan. And I will take a great pleasure in the true justice which will be meted out to those who enact this evil.

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