“Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
I would like to thank Jeff Sessions for helping me pick today’s scripture passage. All year long I adhere faithfully to the lectionary readings each Sunday. Sometimes in the summer I get the urge to stray from it a little. I may do a short sermon series or pick up on a topic that’s related to my reading. This week’s decision was made very easy, however, because Jeff Sessions decided to use scripture to defend the government practice of separating migrant children from their parents.
It’s not often I put on my boxing gloves and spar directly with federal politicians. It’s not my style. I prefer to start with the scriptures themselves, discern the truth they speak and apply that truth to our modern context. That context could be political, but most often it is not. But today I am beginning with a specific scripture and a specific government policy... both are under the microscope together. Now, if that seems too political for you, just remember – I didn’t wander into the political arena, Sessions wandered into the biblical arena. He opened his bible and proceeded to preach from Romans chapter 13, to defend the government’s zero tolerance policy as it applies to illegal immigrants to the USA.
The zero-tolerance policy was implemented by the federal government back in April of this year, and significantly altered the way our federal government handles illegal immigrants. Any migrants caught crossing the border illegally would be arrested and charged with a federal misdemeanor. If they were carrying children across the border with them, those children would be removed and detained in a separate facility from their parents. Prior to the zero-tolerance policy, illegal immigrants were subject to civil deportation proceedings but not criminal prosecution. That’s a big change. So, between April 19 and June 20, more than 2300 children have been separated from their families by our government. Border officials often used deceptive practices to remove them from their parents – telling the parents they were taking the child for a bath, and then whisking them away for good. So, parent and child never even had a chance to say goodbye to one another.
Now, last Thursday (June14), Jeff Sessions defended this new policy while speaking on immigration at a private gathering in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He said, “I would cite to you 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.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave those comments the White House seal of approval when she said: “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law... It’s a moral policy to follow and enforce the law.”
So, Jeff Sessions is on the mound and here comes the pitch... it’s a big fat slowball he lobs our way, and if we don’t swing at it we’ll have to accept umpire Sander’s call (and you know she’s going shout “strike”). So, let’s take a look at Romans 13 today and decide whether Paul’s words really do speak in support the zero-tolerance policy as Session suggests. Let’s do this – at the very least it will be a good refresher on how to read and apply scripture.
First, we should always be suspicious of those who lift little snippets of scripture out of context to defend their point of view. The bible can be used to support just about anything if all you do is quote tiny sound bites of scripture. A faithful reading of scripture is always more – read enough scripture to capture the original context of those words. We must first understand the scripture within its original context before we then ask, “how do these words speak to our present-day context?” And one of the reasons I like to use the lectionary is because it always gives us several scriptures to consider each week – an OT scripture, a psalm, a gospel reading and an epistle –and there is usually a common theme running through all of them. That’s important because it allows us to hear the voice of a specific passage within the chorus of the entire bible. The overriding message of the Bible is important too... and reading more than one scripture assures a balanced message is received.
So today we heard read Romans 13 in its entirety, because more is always better than less. And the first question we must ask is: “what is the context in which Paul says these words?” Paul is addressing the church in Rome... and Rome is at the epicenter of a vast empire called The Roman Empire, which extended from Spain to Palestine and all the way around the Mediterranean Sea. Obviously, the church in Rome could not escape the ominous presence of the political authority! And one of the questions that would have been on their minds is: “if Jesus is Lord, why do we have to obey Caesar?”
Paul does not answer that question until the 13th chapter of his letter. In the meantime, he’s building a theological case for grace – he says we are not made righteous by adherence to the Jewish law, rather we are made righteousness by God’s grace, received through faith in Jesus Christ. Christians, then, are not under the burden of the Jewish law. This meant that there is great freedom in following Jesus. But before that freedom can be over-interpreted, Paul puts some limitations on that freedom. In chapter 13 he reminds the Roman church that freedom in Christ is not absolute freedom here on earth. Just because we confess Jesus is Lord, doesn’t mean we can dismiss Caesar. Christians are still subject to civil authority. They must pay taxes to Caesar and follow the laws of the land. Why? Paul claims that God has instituted the Roman Empire and is using it for God’s purposes. What purposes? Specifically, Rome provides order and stability to the land... and order is essential to the spreading of the gospel message. So, Paul’s words defuse those who would consider turning faith into a movement against Rome – a movement that would only result in them becoming food for the lions at the Coliseum.
Now, this is the very passage that Jeff Sessions appeals to in his speech about the government’s zero tolerance policy. In his own words: “I would cite to you 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.” His statement would have sent chills down the spine of every Jew that heard it because this is exactly the argument made by a group of conservative Protestants in Germany back during WW2. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Romans 13 was used to justify allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Even earlier than that, it was used in America to garner support for the government’s policy regarding slavery... for the sake of order.
While it’s true that Paul’s words call for obedience to civil authority, it also sets parameters on those governing authorities. Paul is talking about a civil authority that is serving God’s purposes ‒ one that is being used by God for God’s purposes. According to Paul, Rome is a servant of God because it established order in the land. It’s important to note that the Roman authority had no idea they were being used by God to establish order and if they did, they wouldn’t care because they didn’t believe in God or serve God. This fact assured that God remained in the driver’s seat and not Rome in this relationship. But if the Roman authority were to argue that Christians need to be loyal to Caesar because Rome is God’s servant, we should be suspicious indeed. This would be a sign that the tail is wagging the dog!
In fact, it’s nothing short of scandalous. Government agents can be deemed “good” only if they promote civil good and punish evil. And if a government uses heavy-handed means or unjust measures to establish order/control, then they are not the kind of government Paul is referring to. As John Calvin himself says in comment upon this passage: “tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government.” (pg. 749)
There’s no question that the zero-tolerance policy is an attempt to establish control, but is it a God-ordained attempt? Not all attempts to establish social control are God-ordained. President Brashar al-Assad has attempted to secure control in Syria and has used everything at his disposal in a war against his own people... including poison gas. Millions of refugees have fled the nation in the last several years. Is al-Assad’s authority God-ordained? Very few think so! And it is blasphemous to suggest the citizens ought to support such a violent and unjust government.
Paul encourages believers to pay their taxes to Caesar because his authority has brought needed stability and order to the empire. This is not the same as a member of the political elite, exhorting our support for the government because they are establishing order by way of the zero-tolerance policy. Besides, control and order are not the highest ideals we pursue anyways. Love is! If Sessions were to read a little further in this chapter to verse 10, he would hear Paul say so himself: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” And this is exactly what is needed in this instance ‒ not harsher measures but the law implemented with love. Taking children away from parents who are desperate to escape the poverty and violence of their country of origin is not love. That practice is inhumane.
And we need only refer back to our own history to know that the separation of children from their parents is a dreadfully harmful practice. Back in the late 1800s until the mid-1900s, the American government (and Canadian government) both separated native children from their families by placing them in Indian Boarding Schools. Native children were removed from the reservations, their parents and community, given American-style haircuts and clothing, and forbidden to speak their native language. It was an experiment in indoctrination that failed miserably. We ended up messing up several generations of our native population. Our governments have long ago ceased such practice and even apologized for taking the children off the reserves and away from their families.
So why would we think tearing immigrant children away from their parents would be any less detrimental? It has been suggested that the immigrant children were being used as pawns to get Congress to sit down and come up with a solution to the immigration problem. If so, this is control of the dastardliest form. Children should never be used as pawns in any political purposes.
Fortunately, this practice raised such protest both nationally and internationally, the government finally backed down from the policy. On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order that directed the Department of Homeland Security to allow families to remain intact while they move through the immigration system. I applaud all those who spoke out against this inhumane practice and demanded better of our government.
So, it’s been a crazy week, but it is ending better than it began. And what have we learned? I hope we’ve all learned that the Gospel does not just speak to the soul of the person, the individual... it also speaks to the soul of a nation. And while control might be important it’s not the most important thing we pursue... love is.
As Paul says, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Love is the one debt we can never stop paying ‒ so live in love – God’s love.