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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

How MLK read Romans 13

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has, quite rightly, been criticized for using the 13th chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans as justification for the separation of children from parents at the Mexican border. Sessions equates Paul's admonition to "subject oneself to the governing authorities" with obeying the law. Keep in mind, however, that Paul was abused, imprisoned, and probably martyred by Roman authorities for, presumably, not obeying Roman laws. Thus, Paul must have had something very different in mind than Mr. Sessions seems to think he had, as did other early Christians, who from time-to-time were put to death for not "worshipping" the Roman emperor. And what of the Christians who helped smuggle African-Americans out of the South on the Underground Railroad? Or, the European Christians who resisted the Nazis after their countries were overrun by Hitler's armies? Surely, Mr. Sessions wouldn't argue that they should've have obeyed Hitler's decrees just because he was in charge.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had an interesting take on subjecting oneself to the governing authorities. He argued that when he and other broke various laws using direct, non-violent action, they did so with the understanding that they would willingly accept the consequences (i.e., subject themselves to the authorities and their laws). They believed that in doing so they would help expose the immorality of the laws they were breaking. As he wrote in his letter from the Birmingham Jail:
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Mennonites, who hail from the Anabaptist tradition which includes other traditions such as the Amish and Hutterites, hold a similar understanding to King's ("How Jeff Sessions reads Romans 13 and how my Mennonite Sunday school class does"). During the Protestant Reformation Anabaptists were persecuted by both Roman Catholics and Protestants for refusing to baptize their babies, insisting that they must undergo a conversion experience before becoming members. In today's world, that doesn't seem like a big deal, but back then, in a world where church and state were not separate, it was both a theological and political act. It was asserting that one's conscience was not the purview of either the church hierarchy or the state. Thus, it was seen as an act of rebellion. For good reason, although Anabaptists have been willing to subject themselves to the governing authorities, they had no intention of obeying them if asked to do something contrary to their beliefs.

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