God said that we must follow the laws that are written to govern us. Scripture indicates that no one rules unless God explicitly gave him to power to do so. In a recent press conference, Sarah Huckabee Sanders reminded us that “it is Biblical to enforce the law.” When also discussing our nation’s current border crisis, Jeff Sessions made a similar comment, saying, “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 the government for his purposes.” Here is what he was referring to:
All of you must yield to the government rulers. No one rules unless God has given him the power to rule, and no one rules now without that power from God. So those who are against the government are really against what God has commanded. And they will bring punishment on themselves. Those who do right do not have to fear the rulers; only those who do wrong fear them. Do you want to be unafraid of the rulers? Then do what is right, and they will praise you. The ruler is God’s servant to help you. But if you do wrong, then be afraid. He has the power to punish; he is God’s servant to punish those who do wrong. So you must yield to the government, not only because you might be punished, but because you know it is right.
Let’s talk about that for a moment. “All of you must yield to government leaders. No one rules unless God has given him the power to rule, and no one rules now without that power from God.”
Well if this is meant to be interpreted word for word, then that is good news for Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, shoot, even King Herod. According to this scripture, they were all given the power to rule. Furthermore, anyone who was “against the government [was] really against what God has commanded.” Yikes.
But wait. If there are two countries at war fighting over two different viewpoints, whose government ruler is following God’s command and whose is not?
Furthermore, what about laws that we know to have been unjust and perpetuated by evil by the so-called “chosen” leaders of God? At some point, I think we all recognize that dictators were likely not hand-selected by God to rule the people. Instead, I would like to believe that the verse (and other similar verses) was meant to imply that God intended for all rulers to be of sound moral judgment. If, in an ideal world, we knew that all of our leaders were chosen by God for their ethical duty and ability to uphold the Lord’s will, then perhaps we all would (or should) abide by the laws set forth by our government officials. However, as history has proven, many leaders have been driven by greed, hatred, and the corruption of their power.
Take for example the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Nazis implemented a series of new laws that progressively became more unjust, ultimately leading to the murder of approximately 11 million people in just a few short years. The first law excluded Jews from Reich citizenship, therefore denying any say in the political decisions that were governing their lives. As expected, there were laws that prohibited Jews from having sexual relations or marrying anyone of German blood. The Reich later required medical examinations and certificates be presented prior to marriage to ensure anyone with hereditary illnesses could not proceed, and prohibited relationships or marriage to black people or gypsies, or to their descendants.
As we all know, the laws against Jews extended far beyond relationships, however. As the genocide progressed, Jewish people were required, by law, to register their businesses, which were then forcefully sold to non-Jewish Germans at unfair prices. They were forced to carry identification cards and if their legal name wasn’t “Jewish” enough, their names were changed so that they’d be easily identifiable. Jews were banned from being lawyers, physicians were forced out of practice, and eventually laws were made restricting Jewish children from attending German schools. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2018).
During World War II, 6 million Jewish people were killed at the hands of the Nazis and the Third Reich. It is estimated that an additional 5 million people (or more) were also killed under this regime. Most of the other causalities were people who opposed the regime and its laws, non-Jewish Polish citizens, Soviet civilians and POW’s, gypsies, Serb citizens, people with disabilities, the mentally ill, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and accused criminals, including people whose only “crime” was breaking the law against homosexuality (Simon Wisenthal Center, 2018). Eleven million people were tortured and killed and all of it was done within the terms of the then-current “law.”
“Laws” also allowed concentration camp doctors to experiment on prisoners, “to meet the needs of the army” and to continue “reinforce racial ideology.” Some doctors did it for the advancement of German pharmaceutical companies or for their own personal interests. The men conducting these atrocities were ordered to do so by the military. In other words, they were following the law put in place by their government officials (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives, 2018).
Here in the United States, we are no stranger to unjust laws that plague our country’s history. From the mass genocide of Native Americans to the institution of slavery and segregation, we are well aware of the social injustices and utter destruction that can happen when we follow laws that lead us blindly into sin and wrongdoing.
It is estimated that when Columbus arrived, there were anywhere between five and 15 million Native Americans inhabiting the land that we now call ours. According to the History Channel website, “by the close of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, fewer than 238,000 indigenous people remained” (2018). In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, a law that forced the remaining Natives off their lands and onto reservations. When members of the Cherokee tribe refused, another 4,000 natives were killed in what is now known as the “Trail of Tears” (Library of Congress, 2018).
When the opportunity to profit from the use of free human labor came knocking at our doors, we gladly accepted. As the slave population grew, so did American profits. According to a census conducted by the US Census Bureau in 1860, there were 3.9 million slaves living in our country at the time. Conveniently for white folks, the laws prohibited blacks from citizenship, land ownership, or having any political voice. The laws allowed parents to be separated from their children at the auction block (sound familiar?) because after all, the slaves had no rights here in America. Married couples were split up. Men, women, and children were considered property and therefore could be raped, mutilated, abused, overworked, sold, and traded at their owner’s leisure. Laws prohibited slaves from reading or getting an education because, God forbid, it may have sparked their understanding of the unjust laws that were binding them to a life of misery.
As time passed by and the atrocities of slavery were realized, laws still oppressed African Americans, people of “Hebrew descent,” Japanese Americans and so forth. There is a high chance that people of those origins were not allowed to live in neighborhoods near you. Black people were forced, by law, to attend different schools than their white counterparts. People of color couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain or patron most restaurants. They had to use certain books at the library because white folks didn’t want to be infested (recognize that term from more recent times?) by their germs. Our government forced Japanese people out of their homes and let them lose everything they owned, and for what? Not one interned person was ever found to be treasonous.
Are any of those laws ethical? Would Jesus have approved of them?
I found this video from the Jesuit priest Rev. James J. Martin, SJ regarding the law and immigration to be intriguing.
I was drawn to the priest’s commentary about picking and choosing when we believe that the “law is our command,” if you will. For example, in the current debate about immigration, many Americans continue to insist that because it is written in law that these folks came here illegally, even when seeking asylum, that they are committing crimes and do not deserve the human decency of due process (like our President has suggested) or even the human right to be with their children (or at the very least, the right to know where their children are and when they will be reunited). However, many of the same folks that believe that the “law is our command,” are also openly “anti-law” when it comes to issues like abortion or same-sex marriage; an indication that these people are, in fact, skeptical of man-made laws. Subsequently, they cannot actually believe that what is decided upon by the rulers of a government is necessarily in alignment with their moral values or their Christian faith–which at the end of the day, should actually trump any and everything else–at least according to the Bible. There are several examples of this throughout the Bible, one being in Exodus 1:15-17, when it explains how the Hebrew midwives refused to murder newborn boys, even when ordered by law to do so by the king of Egypt. Similarly, when King Darius ordered his kingdom to follow only his mandated religion, Daniel went home and prayed to God, even at the expense of breaking a law that was punishable by death (Daniel 6:6-17).
I also find it intriguing that in Pope Francis’s Gaudete et Exsultate” (or “Rejoice and Be Glad”) published early this year, he basically tells people that they need to have the same amount of empathy for immigrants, for the poor, for the vulnerable, and to victims of crimes and injustice as they do for the unborn. He wrote:
“Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life…Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection…”
In other words, he was saying that “pro-life” should be an ideology that applies to all people, including those who are already alive.
While I am in no way downplaying laws or a society’s need to have governing rules to prevent chaos, I do think that we need to go back to the basics in regard to immigration–to “treat they neighbor as thyself.” On the other hand, all moral values aside, a government only has enough resources for a certain number of people, right? We are doing our best by allowing some folks in, but realistically have to limit our intake because we don’t have the space or the resources to take on all of the world’s “problems,” right? (Thank God that Egypt didn’t say that to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph when they went their to escape murder at the request of King Herod.) Why can’t immigrants and refugees get in line and wait for their turn to be legally granted entry into the country?
It isn’t that simple. While that is worthy of an entirely different post, just think about it rationally for one minute. We are talking about folks who are fleeing poverty and oppression that is so bad that they are willing to risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones, small children included, to escape. That says enough in and of itself. If we dive deeper however, we can separate the folks who are here hoping to pursue the difficult task of seeking asylum, which is a process that requires a great deal of assistance and resources that they most likely do not have, from those who perhaps might just become “illegal immigrants” to limit their chances of being sent back to a place where it is not safe to live. Do any of you think that people wake up one day and want to leave behind everything they have ever known to live in a place that doesn’t welcome them? Do you think they want to spend the remainder of their life living in fear that they will get caught and deported or will be separated from their families (the only real thing of value in their lives)? I personally do not think that anyone wakes up and wants to be an illegal immigrant. Instead, I believe the people who embark on such a dangerous journey likely feel that when evaluating their options, it is the only choice they have left.
In Matthew 25:35-40, we are reminded that by reaching out and helping those in need,we are not just helping a fellow human, but we are helping God. I will leave you with these words:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (NIV, 2018).”