Be Subject to the Governing Authorities

Within the last few days, Attorney General Sessions and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders each invoked biblical authority to justify the separation of parents and children seeking entry into the country. The reference was to Paul’s letter to the Jewish Christians in Rome to whom he advised “be subject to the governing authorities”, who are put there by God. Through the ages, this phrase has been used by slave owners to justify slavery, by Nazis to justify extermination, by Royalists in pre-revolution America to insist on loyalty to the king, and by just about anyone who wanted to promote dictatorship.

Why did Paul use these words, when he himself was considered a trouble-maker who was ultimately imprisoned and perhaps executed by the Romans? Was Paul fearful that the Roman government would read his letter and arrest the Christians, and so he wrote words that he did not really believe?

This is more plausible than one might think. Paul knew that Jesus was crucified as a seditionist, that David instigated revolution against King Saul, as did Elijah against Jezebel. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, there is a difference between good law that needs to obeyed for the sake of order, and bad laws, that need to be challenged for the sake of love. The Rome of Jesus was oppressive. King Saul verged on madness. Jezebel enforced the cult of Baal. They all needed to be challenged, and Paul knew it. He also knew that the law was summed up with the admonition to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. For Paul, as for Jesus, loving one’s neighbor always trumps the governing authority.

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