Romans 13:1-7 has historically been a divisive text. The list of its warped appropriations is lengthy. But my interest in this essay is not historical, unless we are speaking of the “historical present”. Today readers of Romans 13 fall into one of two camps. Each offers a radically different response to this text, yet both are colored by level of zeal. I believe Romans 13:1-7 speaks to both groups. Though this will only be true if we, in the words of Karl Barth, wrestle with it in “much sweat and many groans.”
(Mis)Appropriating Paul in Romans 13
Let’s call the first group—Group A. This group uses Romans 13 to support, sustain, or sanction the current political ethos, structure, ideology, or administration. Whether one agrees with the administration or party in power does not matter. Instead, what matters is that the current political operation is necessary, a necessary evil, or sometimes an anointed good (in the Davidic sense) within the divine economy. It is a finite conduit of providence, regardless of the particulars of it.
Christians who stand to benefit from the current political landscape will likely fall into this group. Their self-interest often gets buried in their religious faith, leading them to naively trust current political forces. They will look at this passage as evidence for their felt reality—“that it is not that bad” with the subtext that it is only “not that bad” for themselves. They repress knowledge of the political realities of others in hopes that they will not have to sacrifice theirs. Looking to the Scriptures, they will find much perceived support for this and may even have a strange sense of security with the political status quo. This becomes a/an (almost) heaven on earth situation—a happy purgatory of sorts, though their eschatological tendencies prevent them from being too satisfied with it.
What is strange about this group is that even individuals and groups on the margins, those with the least amount of economic, social, and political agency, will often fall into this category. The structures of power may deprive them, yet they look to this passage as a means of submissive salvation. One’s patience and passivity in regard to political and structural problems becomes an act of piety. Defiance to this order entails defiance against God’s order. They will also be tempted by “pious” withdrawal from the world, a world that is often seen as “passing away” where the divine order will replace the finite. With the exception of those who take a Davidic stance (as mentioned above), this group is likely to be disengaged from political activity, processes, and problems, or at least, uncritically engaged.
The “Davidic” strain of Group A differs from the rest within this group. It encourages political participation as an act of piety, but it “baptizes” the current political order, ethos, administration or party, marrying it with their faith. These finite entities begin to represent divine activity. This is a conflation of Old Testament motifs and systems (among much else), carrying them into foreign contexts. It is what Paul Tillich calls the “demonic,” or in regard to ethics, “moralism”, when the finite is raised to the position of the Ultimate. Christ is dethroned for the interests of a people or nation or particular way of being. Tillich is clear that Christians are not immune to this. One does not have to look outside the fold to find the “demonic.” Demons are, by nature, no respecters of persons, nor political parties.
Between these subsets of Group A, the devaluation of the current epoch in the divine plan is a common motif. This usually carries eschatological tones, where it serves as a “sign of the times”, even if this “sign” serves unethical or unChrist-like ends. The exception of this is the third, Davidic form. It often offers more of a triumphalism where Christians ought to rally around a particular party, system, or way of doing government in order to bring about the millennium—a millennium that happens to meet their own particular interests and not others, making temporal, historical, and culturally contingent forms int eternal, non-historical expressions of the divine life. This is the quasi-purgatorial “heaven on earth” mentioned above. But one must careful to not love it too much.
This makes up Group A in relation to how they read Romans 13 today. To be clear, my observations here are limited to the current American Christian religious and political climate. These reflections are not meant to be extended elsewhere.
Smothering Paul in Romans 13
But what about the second group of interpreters—Group B? How does this group interact with Romans 13? Instead of holding Romans 13 abreast to secure their current social, economic, cultural, or political position, this groups holds it afar yet with high ethical aims. They look to it as a means of correcting past mistakes, undoing what Paul has done. They are not simply sceptics. They ought to be skeptical when reading such a passage. A cursory reading would create problematic responses in numerous contexts.
They would argue that we should not submit to governmental authority because it has been abused, particularly by Christians, to suppress, hurt, and slay others. This position swirls in the psyches of many of us more “educated” folk. As Americans and Christians, we have been turning the mirror back onto ourselves in the past few decades, beginning to see the atrocities in our wake. We sadly have not just contributed to many deaths, but (often) things worse than death for some. I do not need to go into detail here, if you disagree with me or do not understand, you are likely Group A.
So, what about Romans 13 for Group B? Are we only able bring something to the text or is there still something to retrieve from it? Group A allows a retrieval but does not contextualize it; Group B does not allow a retrieval at all. One shuns the text; the other distorts it. Can this text not say something to both groups? As Christians, are we not called to hear the Word of God and not simply our word for Romans 13?
Hermeneutics in the Age of Trump
In our context today, a hasty reading of this difficult text leads to either of these positions. One is tinged with resentment. The other is colored with ignorance. Now, there is no doubt that Paul would have problems with the first group. In Paul’s Letter to the Romans the kingdom of God is presented as a cosmic affair. No ruler or political system is Lord in this schema other than Jesus Christ. In this sense, the gospel message is fiercely anti-Imperial, and it is likely that this text even offers a subtle, subversive sleight to that order. This kingdom cannot be wedded to any Empire except Christ’s. Nor does this entail uncritical engagement with the powers at be, which our Scriptures say much more about this than what is often discussed (e.g., the Gospel of Mark).
In Christ’s kingdom, Christians are to live like Christ, putting on “his mind” and imitating his life. The question must be posed to Group B, is Group B’s position, to use the words of Michael Gorman, a “cruciform” one? What Group B misses in this text is Paul’s message to the Roman church. Instead, they only hear their message for the text. They miss Paul’s pastoral advice to those in the Roman church who were considering responding to their “enemies” in non-cruciform manner. It is clear that this talk of “enemies” is connected to the current political order—one that is painted as demonic in Revelation. But here, Paul is concerned about the Romans abandoning the cruciform life of Christ for some other form to achieve their ends. Christ’s teaching is clear. One must love one’s enemy. Justice is in the hands of God. Paradoxically, this entails that God’s justice is ultimate, even despite the fact that the Empire may be acting unjustly in their present moment. Though “subjection” in this passage is largely centering around the Roman church paying their taxes, it is easy to miss that Paul is pastorally urging them to be like Christ “to overcome evil with good, not evil with evil” within the cloud of our frustration with our American-Christian heritage. This issue at hand not being anti-Empire but taking on the ethic of the Empire in the process.
Would Paul recommend submitting to governmental authority when it is engaged in clear unethical actions today? Given our context in America, I would argue no (and this is an infinitely complicated question/answer). But this does not mean that we must smother Paul’s message to the Roman church in the wake of our historical mistakes (Group B). Nor should we use it to support our own cultural and religious hegemony (Group A). We are Rome (in a sense) in this passage, but we are also the church in this passage. Paul’s words meant something to the Roman church, and as the church, we are wedded to our Scriptures with all their problems and difficulties. This is both our greatest luxury and burden.
Postscript: Given all that is said above, we still must acknowledge the reality that this passage in relation to what we have been discussing will not satisfy us in the sense we long for. Paul’s remarks on these matters are purely negative in this passage; they do not offer a constructive political ethic. This was the thought of Karl Barth when writing his Epistle to the Romans. Many were curious about how he would interpret this passage given the rise of National Socialism in Germany. His treatment of it challenges us to look deeply into the text and the letter as a whole, not taking the short cut in our interpretation. In his paradoxical manner, Barth concludes the section with the following;
“Beyond all those interesting and important problems concerning what we ought to do lies the great negative possibility of God. Perhaps we are, in fact, unable to demonstrate on its behalf better than by doing—as men who know!—what we are already doing.”Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 491-492.
Photo by Chait Goli.