Context Matters – A Sermon on Romans 13:1-7

I had another message I planned to preach today – but then a different piece of scripture has been making the headlines this week.  Romans 13:1-7 is in the news. This part of Paul’s letter to Roman Christians was cited by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to support U.S. immigration laws, policies, and practices – especially the recent “zero tolerance” actions which result in separating parents and children at the U.S. border.

This inspired me to want to look more closely at this text – and I thought you might be interested in hearing more about this as well, so let’s look at this text and see what’s really going on here.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the sixth book in the New Testament and it is his longest letter. It’s dense and rich and talks about the justification and salvation of Jew and Greek alike by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Parts of the meaning of Romans 13:1-7 are debated.

Some scholars says its main original intent was to say to the Roman Christians, “Pay your taxes” (Romans 13:7). Others say the intent was more complex – however no biblical scholars regard this text as a call to blind obedience to all authorities and laws.

What matters most about Romans 13:1-7 is that it can only mean what it means in light of its context. That is, it cannot be ripped from its context in the letter to the Romans. Context matters. Context is the setting which something comes from. Our context is 2018, rural Audubon, Minnesota, United States, members of the ELCA Lutheran Christian denomination.

The immediate context of Romans 13:1-7 is Romans 12 and 13 which we just read. There, Paul sets out basic guidelines for the Christian communities in Rome, and for us.

Those guidelines begin with a call for nonconformity to this age, a transforming of attitude and actions because of knowing God’s mercy in Christ. This spirit of nonconformity and transformation is the prerequisite everything that follows. 

After a discussion of various gifts in the body of Christ in chapter 12, Paul calls on the Christian community to practice radical love – love that mirrors the love they have received from God in Christ. This includes hating what is evil and practicing the good; showing hospitality to strangers; loving enemies; weeping with those who weep; associating with the lowly; blessing persecutors; not repaying evil for evil; practicing peace toward all; not seeking vengeance for harm done; and overcoming evil with good. These beautiful words are what immediately precede Romans 13:1-7.

And immediately after Romans 13:1-7 is “the rest of the story”: what Romans 13 says as a whole. Here we find another radical call to loving our neighbors and a call to avoid the works of darkness by putting on Christ. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” 10 If you love others, you will never do them wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law.”

This context means that Christians hold to certain basic Christian principles – and we can’t follow any authority or law that calls us to violate those basic Christian principles. So, rather than being a blanket call to obedience, Romans 13:1-7—when read in context—actually supports Christian opposition to many laws and practices.

This is why, no matter your views about immigration in general, Sessions’ use of it to support the stripping of children from their parents is so morally repellent, and also a misreading of Romans 13:

Christians have to be very clear about this. Sessions, nor Sanders, nor anyone gets to take our beloved scriptures and use those to support something contrary to the message of Jesus Christ. If it is contrary to “hating what is evil and practicing the good;

If it is contrary to showing hospitality to strangers; If it is contrary to loving enemies; If it is contrary to weeping with those who weep; If it is contrary to associating with the lowly; If it is contrary to blessing persecutors; If it is contrary to not repaying evil for evil; If it is contrary to practicing peace toward all; If it is contrary to not seeking vengeance for harm done; If it is contrary to overcoming evil with good,” it is contrary to the message of Jesus Christ.

Oh, people have tried, and some quite successfully, to use scripture, these particular verses even, in this harmful, monstrous way – this was done in Nazi Germany. This was done in the time of slavery. Church, don’t let it happen under our watch.

Again, we may have all sorts of opinions about immigration, and that is fine – but Christians are called to care first about others being treated with kindness, mercy, respect, and compassion. This is not a partisan issue – this is a humanity issue.

There’s a lot of conversation going on about this, and that’s good. Many will say that what is happening with the new “Zero tolerance” policy is just a proper process, that if people try to come into our country illegally they need to expect some kind of repercussions, even repercussions of having your children stripped away. Perhaps you feel this way.

But in the church, we point to Jesus – he is our center, our guiding light, our wisdom, our Savior – and because Jesus was always on the side of the marginalized and oppressed, here we must pause for compassion first, take time to hear those stories, to listen, to try to understand. That’s what we must do here.

And if we understand more about what some of these refugees are facing, it becomes clearer why so many do try to flee their homelands and come here. I read the following from an immigration attorney who was trying to explain some of this. She writes, “In the last decade, the political situation in Central America has deteriorated. Gangs and drug cartels have taken power and the governments of Central America, particularly in the northern triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, are unable to protect their citizens. People are being extorted and required to make regular payments to gang members. If they refuse, they or their family members are murdered. Boys as young as eight years old are forced into the gangs. If they or their parents refuse, they are murdered. Young girls are forced to become the property of gang members and treated as sex slaves. If they or their families refuse, they are murdered. The police are unable to help, and in many cases have themselves been infiltrated with gang members, so that making a police report brings more danger. Parents are fleeing and bringing their children here to rescue them from rape and murder.”

This isn’t the case for all immigrants – but it is the case for most families coming in with children. And what parent wouldn’t want to rescue their child from this? Many of our ancestors left their homelands because of situations much less dire, but also because of that chance for life and hope.

I don’t know the answers, but I do know the solution to helping hurting, traumatized people isn’t to harm them further by adding in policies that result in their own children being taken away – even if it is for a short time, which it isn’t sounding like it will be a very short time for many of them. The solution isn’t to deliberately inflict more mental, emotional trauma on people running for their lives.

There’s times when this Christian faith we share isn’t meant to be just a warm fuzzy to comfort us, but a time when it compels us to action. Church, this is that time. It’s time to get as informed as we can and get as loud as we can. To be clear about who we are as Christians, followers of Jesus, not constricted by a narrow, hateful, hurtful reading of a few verses of scripture – but being fed by Jesus’ life-giving, forgiving message as a whole.

We are Christians – we hate evil and practice the good.

Christians show hospitality to strangers;

We are Christians – we work hard to love our enemies.

Christians weep with those who weep; associate with the lowly; bless our persecutors; we do not repaying evil for evil;

We are Christians – we practice peace toward all;

We do not seek revenge;

We are Christians – overcoming evil with good.

If you are interested in learning more and being of some help, I included contact information for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee services. They do excellent work with helping reunite families at the border and to assist those seeking asylum. LIRS has been a national leader in advocating for the reform of the U.S. immigration detention system and implementing humane and cost-effective alternatives to detention which utilize not-for-profit, community-based social service organizations.  

Home, by Warsan Shire (British-Somali poet)

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.

you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.

your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one would leave home unless home
chased you, fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly.

it’s not something you ever thought about
doing, and so when you did –
you carried the anthem under your breath,
waiting until the airport toilet
to tear up the passport and swallow,
each mouthful of paper making it clear that
you would not be going back.

you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.

no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere
and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side
with ‘go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?’

the dirty looks in the street
softer than a limb torn off,
the indignity of everyday life
more tender than fourteen men who
look like your father, touching you,

insults easier to swallow
than rubble, than your child’s body
in pieces – for now, forget about pride
your survival is more important.

i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home tells you to
leave what you could not behind,
even if it was human.

no one leaves home until home
is a damp voice in your ear saying
leave, run now, i don’t know what
i’ve become.

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