By Bill Mefford
So much has happened in the past couple of weeks, but not too long ago Rev. Robert Jeffress, the trump-supporting Baptist pastor from Dallas, made an idiotic statement claiming that Romans 13 gives clear support for donald trump wiping North Korea off the map. Though Jeffress and other evangelical triumphalists want to ascribe unqualified fealty to the state, they repeatedly do a very poor job of exegeting Romans 13. But Jeffress is unfortunately not alone. Jeffress joins a long line of palace prophets throughout history who have used (abused is more like it) Romans 13 to justify oppression, murder, war, and other human rights abuses.
So, it's not surprising that someone like Jeffress makes such an astounding and clearly bone-headed claim given that the book of Romans, and especially Romans 13, has been used to justify all kinds of evil perpetrated against vulnerable people throughout history. Slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, support for numerous wars including the illegal invasion of Iraq, and now this mindless, macho saber-rattling that our 4th-grader-in-chief has been doing with Kim Jong Un, neither of whom has shown any capacity for thoughtfulness or empathy for the possible death and destruction they could cause. This is being legitimized by the unequally unintelligent Jeffress.
I remember speaking to the Wesley Foundation at the University of Texas earlier this year and the subject was Romans 13. They were going through the book of Romans through the school year and I was tasked with speaking on this chapter. To be honest, I wanted to focus on Romans 13 not because I love this book or chapter; indeed, I do not. I have some major problems with the book of Romans and with this chapter specifically, and I will spell them out below. But I was afraid that someone with the same kind of Empire theology as Rev. Jeffress would do it.
So, to talk about Romans 13 it is imperative to first comment on the nature of the letter to the Romans itself. Romans is unlike any other letter Paul wrote. While Paul’s other letters were written to congregations in cities he had visited, with some of them directed to congregations he had actually helped start, Romans is completely different. He had yet to visit the believers in the most powerful city on the planet at that time. And here is something that I think deserves some extra reflection. Some like the fact that Paul has no prior personal engagement with the believers in Rome because it allowed him to write such eloquent theology.
But it honestly troubles me and let me share a story as to why. I remember a dinner conversation during my college days when we were talking about about the rise of "date rape," which was newly being named at that time. A guy sitting at the table - a neanderthal - made the stupid, but predictable comment that women who drink alcohol and wear "skimpy clothes" should not be surprised when they are assaulted. The young woman next to me, a friend of mine, immediately responded and quite angrily; and rightfully so because he was clearly blaming the victim. But her anger - rage, really - was so intense I knew instinctively that this had happened to her. I learned that day that there is an enormous difference between talking philosophically about an issue as opposed to talking with people who have directly been impacted by that issue. And as followers of Jesus, context always matters. Thus, when we act and speak addressing issues of justice and ethics, we should strive to do so with a specific context in mind.
Paul could not do that in his letter to the Romans because he had no personal experience with them. However, his 13th chapter fails as a result. Here is how.
Paul is blatantly wrong in v. 3 and this verse is enormously important in his argument here. This is the fulcrum upon which the entire beginning section in this chapter is balanced. Paul writes, "For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad." This statement is simply wrong and history bears that out. Look at Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Idi Amin, and a whole host of other terrorist rulers down through the years.
But yet, we do not have to look after the time of Paul's writing. Paul was an educated man and certainly knew of the history of the mistreatment of Israel at the hands of brutal dictators throughout history. Is Paul saying that the brutal dictators - the Pharaohs to name one group - were justified in their enslavement of Israel? Look at Pontius Pilate and Jesus. If what Paul writes in v. 3 is true, then Jesus must be guilty of "bad conduct." But that would, of course, throw something of a monkey wrench into the eloquent theology that Paul writes in the rest of this book.
I have no idea why Paul would make such a statement in this place, but he is clearly wrong. Perhaps he got caught up writing to believers he wants to impress because he longed to visit Rome and he made an argument he clearly could not justify. We have all done that at some point or another. But the truth is simply this, if Paul is wrong in this statement, then any kind of interpretation that conveys this passage as justification for any kind (and I do mean "any kind") of unquestioned allegiance to the state is without basis.
But let me add one less important critique to make from this chapter that stands out to me, especially when I consider who it is who touts unqualified support for the state (that is, unless a Black man is President). It comes in v. 6 when subjection to the current rulers is best exemplified through payment of taxes. The utter hypocrisy of those who throw around Romans 13 as an absolute demand on people to trust almost blindly in the state as a means of force against people they do not happen to care for (i.e., Muslims), is seen in the fact that one of our best signs of support and loyalty to the state is the payment of taxes. Funny how verse 6 never seems to come up a lot in their interpretations.
So, does the faulty argument in chapter 13 and Paul's lack of contextualization among the Roman believers render this book meaningless? No! I do not believe that at all. I believe all of Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, and correction as we journey towards righteousness. It is a mistake to throw this book out, as liberals too often do. And it is equally a mistake to make this the sine qua non of a Christian's relationship to the state as far too many triumphalist evangelicals do.
Since we have first been called "followers of Jesus" our relationship to everyone, including the state, is to follow the example set by Jesus, our Lord. So, let us recall it was Jesus who came bringing a message of a coming Kingdom that was a transvaluation of all we hold dear. Jesus turned upside down the image of a warrior king ready to take vengeance on our enemies, as Jeffress seems to desire. As a rebuke to Jeffress, Jesus' Kingdom is where the poor and vulnerable are lifted up and the rich and powerful are cast down; where our weapons will be beaten into plowshares and no one will study war any more. This is a Kingdom where peace is for all people for we will all sit under our own fig tree one day. I guess you could say it will be a fig tree revolution. Can you dig it?