For my Chinese readers, my conviction about Romans 13 is well-known because I wrote about this passage in three of my books. My English readers are probably familiar by now since this passage is also in my Right Texts, Wrong Meanings, chapter 15. What I have not talked about in any of my previous work on Romans 13 is how misunderstanding this text can have grave consequences not only on domestic civil liberty but also encourages foreign colonization. This text is serious, and if it is seriously misunderstood by Christians, the consequences are dire.
Introduction to the Problems and Meaning of Romans 13
I’ve been spending some time doing two things lately. First, I’ve been blogging on Right Texts, Wrong Meanings. Second, I’ve been reviewing some books written by known theologians on political topics within the Bible. Are the two related? Oh, yes. Having seen the “absolute obedience to government” interpretation of Rom. 13 surfacing again in the Hong Kong mega-churches (aka pro-China churches), I will disrupt my usual flow in blogging about each chapter and focus on chapter 15 of my book. Apparently, these argument and interpretive methods are not limited to Hong Kong pro-government leaders, but also is typical of right-wing evangelical (okay, these really are fundamentalists who claim to be evangelicals) theologians in the US. Right wing! Left wing! What’s the difference? Both sides have hijacked the Bible for their own aggrandizement.
Since some of these books claim to be “biblical,” I shall look at some of the usages to see whether that is indeed true or not. I will blog about the book I reviewed much later because my book review has yet to be published. My blog about this one book will illustrate one lesson I’ve been teaching congregations and students for years: proof texts prove nothing. One other lesson I hope my readers will learn is that no matter what the “experts” say about the Bible, read the Bible in context for yourself. Today, I will look at one usage by one very famous US systematic theologian. In fact, I’ve seen similar usage by several Christian authors on this topic.
Based on the systematic theologians book, his usual argument follows this logic, “If the Bible says to do this, you must do this. Period!” This guy got a lot of mileage out of Rom. 13, so much so that it is the most cited chapter of the Bible along with 1 Peter 2. If the biblical merit of any theological book rises and falls on the most cited passages, then the most cited passage ought to be examined. Let’s look at the meaning briefly before looking at the dire consequences of misinterpretation in the above form.
Rom. 13 is not that hard at all. It is part of Rom. 12. If we read carefully, Rom. 12.14 talks about blessing those who persecute, signifying a new topic of dealing with the society. While Rom. 12.14-21 deals with persecutors, Rom. 13 deals with the government, not in general but in specific situation dealing with morally neutral issues such as taxation (Rom. 13.6). I have dealt with this more extensively in my new book. At this point, all we need to know is that the backgrounds for Paul’s writing are two. First, Paul was on a mission to Rome and then Spain (Rom. 15.28). Second, Paul did not live in a democratic society. There had been no known success in revolting against the empire. In addition to the background of the text, there’s important lexical evidence for strong subordination of human government to God’s laws IN THE TEXT. My colleague and friend Sze-kar Wan, in an excellent article points out that we should distinguish between plural “authorities” from the singular. In a private correspondence, he summarizes his argument in this way, “The plural refers to local magistrates; the singular refers to Absolute Authority that properly belongs to God alone.The plural of Rom. 13.1c is a play on the plural of Rom. 13.1a and the singular of 13.1b & 13.2a.” What Paul wrote as a very strong monotheistic subordination of human government under God’s law. This is something that those who stress absolute obedience to government have failed to notice altogether. Now on to the consequential logic coming out of misreading Rom. 13. We shall see that any misreading of Rom. 13 makes a meal of an appetizer and dealt with no direct relationship with either mission or totalitarian government at all. We shall see what terrible consequences come out of misquoting and misinterpreting the Bible.
Consequences of Misreading
When reading this theologian, he uses Rom. 13 to talk about four basic issues close to his heart: obedience to US government (especially the constitution), capital punishment, pacifism, Native American settlement. I only use the Native American example he uses to illustrate a greater problem. If you substitute “Native Americans” with any oppressed group in any part of the world, you can reuse this example. For my Chinese readers, you can substitute this for the dockworkers or the colonized people of Hong Kong. The danger needs to raise a huge red flag, and I don’t mean the red Five Star Flag of China.
First, the basic assumption about Rom. 13 by this one author I’m reading is that it endorses the US Constitution as something representing the government’s role and should be obeyed absolutely by citizens. The book’s author fails to grasp that the “obedience” to the constitution (or perhaps one interpretation of it) had relegated black people to the back of the bus and separate toilets just some fifty years ago because simply the interpreters, especially conservative ones, tend to also advocate racist policies. The author fails to note that his understanding of obedience is also a kind of interpretation. What if (and I’m saying this hypothetically) the US Constitution has anti-biblical elements? Would the full endorsement by this author prevent him from being able to critically engage the issue rather than a blind adherence to it? What if ANY country has a constitution that has anti-biblical elements? The highly flawed presupposition of this author is that the US constitution was based on Christian principles. This “Christian nation” notion (ironically only argued by the American Religious Right) is highly debatable.
In his view of the international relations, his orientation is completely based on US imperial doctrine of manifest destiny (a highly colonial US policy from the 19th century in its dealing with the entire American continent) even though he would never admit it. Astonishingly the same author actually says that the Korean War and Vietnam War were efforts to protect the nations and preservation of freedom. This essentially implying that both Korea and Vietnam were “our nations,” never mind that lives on both sides were lost. All at once, such loss of lives surely should go against the consistently pro-life position he advocates, but he fails to grasp the logical contradiction. Does he mean protection of all lives or just American unborn children’s life and all lives form different nations are worth killing to protect American nation and preserve American freedom? This two-tier American exceptionalism plagues this book at almost every issue. The examples are too numerous to name. The problem of his hermeneutics is a failure to understand the world in front of the text, but soon enough, he will demonstrate his failure also regarding what is in the text and behind the text. By his assumption, our government can claim any nation to belong to the US, and we must say amen to that in obedience to Rom. 13. If we switch this to a totalitarian regime like China, its Christian citizens would also have to endorse (not just tolerate helplessly) its aggression in Asia and Africa.
Second, in justifying capital punishment, he simply talks about the sword the government bears as some kind of literal figure that puts people to death. He states that the sword literally means the sword that executed criminals. This is simply untrue. The Roman magistrates who wore the sword did not use the sword to kill off anyone they deemed criminal. His suggestion is based on word studies alone without taking into consideration of how the Roman society functioned. Just suppose that the sword was literally used by the governmental authority, he appears to have a case, but that appearance is only superficial even based on his own application. By rejecting the sword as a symbol of governmental power, he makes the serious mistake of not seeing his own symbolic interpretation of Paul’s passage. After all, what does he mean by the sword? Is it not as a symbolic power of the government? Does the US government now use swords to execute people?
According a consistent application of his wooden method, the most biblical case should be made by the US government going back to executing people by beheading criminals. This incomplete understanding seems to point to a lack of understanding of how symbols work and how language can function as a sign at almost every level. If so, those who see the sword as a symbol have a stronger case than a literal application of the text. While many wish to make a clear separation between exegesis and application, this interpreter demonstrates no such understanding. At the hermeneutic level, interpretation inevitably leads to some sort of contextualization even if we contextualize the text to the NT time.
Third, especially demonstrative of his reading of Rom. 13 is his discussion on pacifism. We can put aside whether pacifism is the “biblical” way or not for the time being, since such a topic is beyond the scope of this review. I do not care either way, for the purpose of this blog. In typical wooden fashion, the book quotes Rom. 13 as the proof text of divine governmental authority. He suggests that disobeying the war policies of the government, the pacifist is disobeying God. In other words, there’s no role for the conscience. So long as US wages war on any country, the citizen must subscribe to the policy without question. How about if this applies to China? What if China takes over Taiwan or Japan or the Philippines? Would the typical Hong Kong Christian still cry “obey the authorities”?
The argument against pacifism in the book is particular vulnerable to criticism not only because of the imprecise attempt at absolutist exegesis, but also his overstatement against pacifism. My criticism at this point is against his misunderstanding of pacifism in American politics. Pacifism is allowed in American politics! It has been allowed since William Penn the Quaker founded Pennsylvania. In American Christianity, pacifism has been a legitimate, though not always popular, tradition. Conscientious objectors to war have come in and out of American history and tolerance for such objection has been pretty strong lately. Due to exceptions given to pacifists in American law, it is absolutely “legal” to disobey the government’s order to go to war. If the governmental law has the provision for pacifists not to participate in the military, is the pacifist obeying or disobeying the government? The logic should follow that the pacifist is obeying the law, if the book’s logic seems to say that obedience of the law is equal to obeying God’s law. To take this a step further, if the government’s war is deemed unjust, should the Christian resist the order to go to war personally? These are questions that a simple “yes” or “no” or a straight proof text cannot answer.
Fourth and finally, as if the problem of historical manifest destiny is not severe enough, his treatment of the Native American land ownership issue takes his misplaced interpretation down to a new low. His suggestion that somehow there needs to be reform is not the diabolical part, but his insistence that his way of taking away tribal ownership and turning it into private ownership is somehow justified by the Bible AND by practicality does not square with the limitation imposed by texts he quotes. He simply states that the sovereignty of the tribes will go away.
As if that injury is not enough to insult any level-headed Native American, he goes on to say that the US government should rule because it is God’s servant “for your good” according to Rom. 13.4. At this stage I can barely contain myself without giving some parallels from other cases of Native American history. It is already commonly accepted fact that the original immigrants from Europe had not only taken over Native land but also slaughtered many of them, leading to serious genocide. These tribes had the land. They could do what they wanted with it. Their “government” was their tribe. It is like me walking into a farm one day with my gun and set up my household while running the people off. After they came back to beg to work for me, I tell them that they can be my slave. Now that I establish my household, I would tell the oppressed that I have set up my own rules about how I would use that land, based on Eph. 6.5-9. This clearly is not logically right or biblically supported in the modern civil society. However we deal with the tribal issue is a different story, but his justification via Rom. 13 is clearly criminal. He’s dealing with an issue that a simple “yes” or “no” from the biblical text cannot answer. To answer it is not only naively stupid; it is criminal.
It is time to summarize the above mistakes in light of Paul’s background. In order to appreciate the convenience of Paul’s argument, Paul was not talking about all governments in all times. He was talking about the (imperfect) government of the time he was trying to do his mission to Rome and Spain as he wrote Romans. Paul wrote in light of the imperfect government and admitted that within the imperfection, there was divine authority. Yet, the real reason was that the policy of the government was supposed to do good. Paul did not say what would happen if the policy was no good. Paul additionally did not want the church to run into trouble by not paying taxes (Rom. 13.6). The Jews had had historic trouble with paying taxes by the time Paul wrote this letter. There was a whole lot that did not get addressed with Rom. 13 simply because Paul’s concern was practical for his mission to Spain. Neither the governmental structure nor the letter situation fit the American church. The straight import of the content of Rom. 13 is completely misplaced.
What have we learned from the above mistakes? First, our understanding or misunderstanding of the world behind the text will impact our interpretation. Second, proof texts only prove that you do not know how to interpret the text. Third, our understanding of the world in front of the text with our convictions should consistently reflect the message derived from behind and within the text. The greatest mistake is not necessarily that those convictions are wrong, though the author also got some of the issues fatally wrong, but that his loose method is wrong. Everyone should be grateful to know that not every big church pro-government pastor interprets these texts inconsistently. Inconsistency is not an exclusively Chinese trait. It plagues us all. Under his hermeneutical grid, our government can 1) declare war on anyone, 2) we must support the war effort without exceptions, and 3) we should still treat the Native Americans the way we treated the Lakotas at Wounded Knee. Let’s apply it to the Chinese government (just as an example). Under that idea, China can run over Taiwan or any other little countries, can imprison anyone it wants, can persecute any minority group it wants, and can still treat dissidents the way it did at 1989, June 4th. May history never repeat itself! Amen.
 Wan, “Coded Resistance: A Proposed Rereading of Romans 13:1–7,” in The Bible in the Public Square, ed. C. B. Kittredge, E. B. Aitkin, & J. A. Draper (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress Press, 2008), 173–184. I thank Wan for pointing out his article for us. Please read his entire article for additional rationale for his imperial reading which I fully endorse.