Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 to defend a controversial policy. The policy, roundly criticized by political and religious leaders, separates hundreds of immigrant children from their parents after they enter the U.S. illegally. Said Sessions: “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.”
The attorney general ventured into dangerous but familiar territory. He has a history of abusing scripture. Among multiple sources from biblical and theological scholars, perhaps Sessions should have consulted Karl Barth who offers this warning before presenting his commentary on Romans 13: “Those who do not understand the book as a whole will understand least of all what we now have to say.” Barth finds Romans 13 to be a troubling passage that threatens to deny God’s revelation. He calls the subjection in it the “Great Negative Possibility.” He contrasts it with love (the “Great Positive Possibility”) which “bears witness to the strangeness of God.” Sessions’ use of this passage misses the richness of God in relation to governmental authorities.
Romans 13 has appeared, sometimes notoriously, throughout U.S. history. Different people use the same verses to support various positions. During the American Revolution, loyalists cited it to promote obedience to the King. Revolutionaries brought up the same verses because those verses do not support government-sanctioned crime. Which one is right? To put it in the contemporary context, taking children from their parents is morally wrong, unless the parents are unable to care for the children or are exploiting or abusing them. When a family flees violence, and seeks asylum in the U.S., separating children from their parents does not fit with a moral means of achieving order.
In the 1850s, proponents of slavery pointed to Romans 13 as a justification for the Fugitive Slave Act. Few people today – Christian or otherwise – would argue in favor of slavery. If they do, most at least recognize that their position is an aberration. Otherwise, racist groups like the KKK would not wear hoods and meet in secret.
Yet, despite this history, Sessions chose this specific passage to support his position. When we use the Bible to support a position, we must exercise great caution. Every passage is part of a larger picture, and few verses can stand on their own without context. In Romans 13, Paul summarizes the law: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Sessions ignores this part of the epistle, perhaps because it is antithetical to his point.
The neighbor is the other. When Luke has Jesus define a “neighbor” (Luke 10:25-37), the neighbor is the foreigner. He is the one whom good Jewish people avoid. If we apply Jesus’ definition to Paul’s ethic in Romans 13, we find an inclusive spirit that draws people together. Romans 13:10 says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” When government officials arrest families fleeing violence and then separate them from one another, they are inflicting further harm.
Careful exegesis often reveals subtleties connected to a time and place. T.L. Carter suggests that Paul was being ironic in Romans 13. His audience might have had a common experience of oppression by the authorities. For instance, Emperor Nero burned Christians at the stake and took children from their parents. Paul’s readers could have connected the implausibility with irony. Unlike first readers or hearers of Paul’s letters, modern readers can go to chapter and verse, which can miss the larger context. The commendation to obey the government would flow from the marks of a true Christian. 1 Corinthians 12 ends, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21). Carter writes, “By the use of irony, Paul was seeking to undermine and subvert the very structures he was appearing to endorse.” If Paul intended to invoke irony, any government official would be wise to avoid this passage.
Sessions thinks he has the Bible on his side. However, Tarcisius Mukuka reorients Romans 13:1-7 under an African tree. Suddenly, Sessions sounds colonial when he uses these verses to rationalize injustice. Mukuka shuns customary opposites of either subordination or resistance. Instead, “Paul is . . . an ethnic hybrid who both affiliates with and challenges the Imperium Romanum at the same time.” In this case, subordination to Sessions’ interpretation and application of the law means arresting parents and sending their children into social services. Resistance, on the other hand, means standing against the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Mukuka’s approach means speaking truth to power. Furthermore, separating parents and children arguably does nothing for the U.S.
If the attorney general were listening, biblical people of faith might say, “Please invoke Paul. But, do not pick fragments of verses that seem to support your position. Try reading the whole book of Romans.” If Sessions were to follow that approach, he might find compassion for those who suffer the most. He might even argue for keeping families together.
 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 475.
 Barth, 493.
 Lincoln Mullen, “The Fight to Define Romans 13,” The Atlantic, June 15 2018.
 E.g. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024738/1855-07-06/ed-1/seq-2/#words=every+soul+subject+unto+higher+powers+power+god+powers+ordained+god. Cited in Mullen.
 T. L. Carter, “The Irony of Romans 13,” Novum Testamentum 46, no. 3 (2004): 228.
 Tarcisius Mukuka, “Reading/Hearing Romans 13:1-7 under an African Tree: Towards a “Lectio Postcolonica Contexta Africana”,” Neotestamentica 46, no. 1 (2012): 105.