MY EARS PERKED UP this week when I heard politicians quote the Bible to justify doing something that has upset many in our country: separating children from their parents who are seeking asylum and protection.
When I heard the quote from the Bible, the very first thing I thought of was how Southerners in the 1800s quoted the Bible to justify slavery. There’s an awful lot in the Bible that seems to not only accept slavery as a matter of fact but that condones it and tells slaves to work hard for their masters.
Christians do not observe that cultural tradition any longer.
We have declared slavery illegal, regardless of what the Bible says about it.
We argue that Paul’s comments about slavery weren’t intended for all time, but were a reflection of his own culture. So we take what he said in that context, not out of context and into our culture.
This week’s Bible quote paraphrased a letter the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the ancient version of Washington DC—Rome, capital of the empire:
“Obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
What Paul actually wrote
Here’s how the Casual English Bible quotes Paul on that topic:
“We all need to let the government govern us. Our leaders got where they are because God put them there. That’s true of every government leader.
So you should know that anyone who bucks the government is taking a stand against what God has set up. If you do that, you’re going to get punished for it…
Government leaders are doing God’s work. They are trying to help you. But if you do things that you know are wrong, you have every right to be afraid. You should know that your leader doesn’t carry a sword just because it nicely accessorizes his outfit. He’s on assignment from God as an avenger who has full authority to punish someone who misbehaves.
So obey the laws. Don’t do it just because you’re afraid of getting punished. Do it because you know in your heart that it’s the right thing to do” (Romans 13:1-5 Casual English Bible).
Why Paul wrote as pro-government
Many Christians, from both the progressive and the tradition-minded tribes, say they believe it doesn’t do the Bible any favors when we quote it to justify taking babies away from their nursing mothers who have fled to our country for help.
Some would say the quote from Paul provides only a weak leg to stand on. That’s because Paul may have been writing his pro-government letter to people in Rome to warm up the leaders there for his imminent arrival. He was headed there, and he didn’t want them to think he was a threat. Roman senators would have loved reading what Paul wrote about them.
Paul did the Pres. Bill Clinton sort of thing by trying to adapt to the people he was with. Rich or poor, powerful or weak, he wanted to fit in. He wanted people to feel comfortable around him. He said so in a letter:
“When I’m around non-Jews who don’t obey Jewish laws, I ignore the Jewish laws, too. I adapt to their culture because I want to win them over. I don’t ignore God’s law, however. I consider myself a servant to the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21-22 Casual English Bible).
Paul said he believed that God’s law trumps our laws.
God’s law included the Ten Commandments. But it also included one other fundamental law that is repeated throughout the Bible. You’ll see it’s irony right away:
“Do not mistreat foreigners living in your country, but treat them just as you treat your own citizens. Love foreigners as you love yourselves, because you were foreigners one time in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34 NCV).
Citizens are the authority
Here’s a push back against that law of God:
The difference today is that the people who are coming in are breaking the law. We told them not to come. And we said if they came anyhow, we would arrest them.
It’s a fair point.
We can write a law that says it’s illegal to come to our country looking for help from someone in your country who is trying to kill you, or from gangs that have taken over, or from an autocratic leader who is executing people on a whim.
We can write a law that says it’s illegal to run out of a burning building.
But Christians have to contend with God’s law, too.
Fortunately for us and for many others around the world, in a democracy citizens are the authority.
We have representatives who are supposed to represent us. But if they make bad laws or do dumb things, we can fire them. Or we keep them and suffer the consequences.
It’s always uncomfortable for me to weigh in on politics because it’s so divisive.
I also have my doubts about whether or not anything in the Bible is going to change anyone’s political ideas, whether or not the people say they are Christians.
Folks who are afraid of being overrun by foreigners and blown up by terrorists who sneak in are probably not going to be swayed by any Bible verses that remind us to welcome immigrants.
And I think we can forget trying to convince people by pointing them to our own history as a nation of immigrants.
But when I heard politicians start using the Bible to justify something that most people seem to feel is despicable, I thought I should probably remind folks that it’s okay for Christians to say it’s not okay for our representatives to do something that shames us all.
Political representatives are our employees. Sometimes we need to call them into the office, shake them like a rag doll, and say, “What were you thinking?”
Well, maybe not shake them. Even if we want to.