(Romans 13: 1-6)
There’s one line in Shakespeare’s Henry VI that was uttered in passing by a very minor character that has gone down as one of the most often quoted lines in history. Dick the Butcher was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade who thought if he disturbed the law and order of England that he could become king. Dick, in an effort to curry favor with his anarchist idol, stated, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I’ve heard it many times from acquaintances, usually in jest. Other times, people have quoted it in response to their frustration with a lawyer or group of lawyers. Admittedly, I’ve known a few lawyers who seem to go out of their way to give good cause for the sentiment. Sounds like a good solution to the world’s problems but for the fact that it is always quoted out of context. Shakespeare meant the comment as a compliment to attorneys and judges who instill justice in society. Dick and Jack saw the legal establishment as an entity that would get in the way of their plan to take over England. The lesson to be learned is that if you are going to quote somebody to support your position, it’s best if you understand the context in which the statement was originally made or it could blow up in your face.
This is the situation in which Jeff Sessions, Attorney General of the United States, finds himself. Last week, while trying to defend and explain the administration’s zero tolerance policy on illegal immigration he quoted Romans 13: 1. In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul states, Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. I don’t know. Maybe he thought he was being funny or cute or maybe he was serious. In any event, it set off a firestorm that has dominated all the news cycles and has taken on a life of its own.
While some hail and support the zero tolerance there is an equally vocal opposition which, includes the United Methodist Church. You see, Jeff Sessions, the most powerful attorney in the United States and maybe the world, is a Methodist. He has so enraged some United Methodists that over 600 Methodists have filed a formal church complaint against him condemning the zero-tolerance policy on immigration and his role in its enforcement. The complaint has been sent to his home church in Alabama and to the one he attends in Washington DC. Some take the position that as he’s been a Sunday School teacher and a former delegate to the General Conference, he should know better. The hope is that he will be challenged to think through the level of harm he is causing and, hopefully, have a change of heart. The article I read stated that it is very unusual to bring such a complaint against a lay person. Complaints are almost always filed against clergy for one thing or another. This complaint will set in motion a process that allows a pastor or the District Superintendent to resolve the issue with the accused pastorally. Worst case scenario for Jeff Sessions is to be removed from the membership roll of the United Methodist Church. The suit states, He is ours, and we are his. As his denomination, we have an ethical obligation to speak boldly when one of our members is engaged in causing significant harm in matters contrary to the Discipline on the global stage.
Paul continues by saying that he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. He explains that the rulers hold no terror for those who do right. It is only those who do wrong that should be afraid. If you want to be free from fear of the one in authority then do what is right and he will commend you, because he is God’s servant to do you good. If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
This poses some serious questions. Are there times when we should not submit to the government? The answer is yes, there are times when we should never allow government to force us to disobey God. Jesus and his apostles never disobeyed the government for personal reasons. When they disobeyed, it was in order to follow their higher loyalty to God. As Christians we understand Romans 13 in different ways. All Christians agree that we are to live at peace with the state as long as the state allows us to live by our religious convictions. But when the state does something that negatively impacts our religious convictions, they attempt to enforce a law that clearly requires us to violate those moral standards revealed by God, then we are obligated to rebel against or refuse to obey the unjust law.
Rather than enter into the rabid Facebook fray of pointing fingers, fixing blame or stating some prior politician did the same thing so it must, therefore, be okay, I took a different approach. I wrote the Attorney General a letter as a fellow Methodist. I reminded him that our denomination was founded by John Wesley who had an enormous amount of empathy for the poor and disenfranchised. Wesley saw that the poor were not only being ignored by the English government but also by the Church of England which was too closely aligned with the Crown. I took the opportunity to refer him to a few relevant paragraphs I found in our United Methodist Book of Discipline.
I first pointed out that Article V, Racial Justice, reads, “The United Methodist Church proclaims the value of each person as a unique child of God and commits itself to the healing and wholeness of all persons. The United Methodist Church recognizes that the sin of racism has been destructive to its unity throughout its history. Racism continues to cause painful division and marginalization. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate racism, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of racial justice at all times in all places.” I assured him that I was not implying that he, himself, was a racist, but that as the Attorney General of the United States and as a United Methodist, it should be his utmost responsibility to insure the laws of the United States are not applied in a manner based upon race.
I then pointed out that Paragraph 162, section H, Rights of Immigrants, states in part, “We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God.” “We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.” “We oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children, and we call on local churches to be in ministry with immigrant families.” I told him that this current situation taking place on our southern border is beyond comprehension, and is both unjust and inhumane and that a stance supporting this policy places him and his office on the wrong side of history and in conflict with God. I understand that the problem of illegal immigration is a complex one and that the solution lies in a multi-faceted approach and that a zero-tolerance approach does not take into account the many extenuating circumstances.
I then pointed out that in Paragraph 164, section B, Political Responsibility, stated: “The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens. The church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust.” I told him that as a former Houston Police Officer, District Attorney and criminal defense attorney in Texas for over two decades I was well aware of crimes that were committed by people who were in our country illegally and that they were the same crimes being committed by my citizen clients, with the only distinction being that they were here illegally. I told him that as a United Methodist pastor that I opposed this policy as unjust and urged him to do the same.
I also pointed out that section F of paragraph 164, Civil Obedience and Civil Disobedience, states, “Govenments and laws should be servants of God and of human beings. Citizens have a duty to abide by laws duly adopted by orderly and just process of government. But government, no less than individuals, are subject to the judgment of God.” I said that to take the position that because you are in public service and are “doing the Lord’s work” and, as such, cannot be held accountable, is folly at best.
I closed by pointing out that section F also states, “We offer our prayers for those in rightful authority who serve the public, and we support their efforts to afford justice and equal opportunity for all people.” I told the Attorney General that, as a United Methodist pastor, it was my prayer that he do all within his power to afford justice and equal opportunity to these people who are only yearning to be free and live a life of peace and love as God has intended.
If the Attorney General had just read a few more verses in the Romans passage he would have come to verse nine which states, and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up by this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Hopefully, this firestorm has awakened a sleeping giant and the United Methodist Church will take a leadership role on this issue and, once again, be a church that people look to for answers and guidance. We are not a denomination of zero tolerance. We are a denomination of enormous love, generosity and compassion. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red or yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children, and so do we.
Please pray with me.
Most loving and compassionate God, we offer our prayers for those in rightful authority who serve the public, and we support their efforts to afford justice and equal opportunity for all people. We earnestly pray that our leaders closely examine the issue before them and, with the love of neighbor in their hearts, they take action that does no harm to those who yearn to live in peace and harmony, to live free from fear, hunger and danger. To live the lives you meant for them to live as an adopted brother and sister of your son, our savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.