Walt Disney conceived of his namesake theme park, Disneyland, as a place that he could “keep developing, keep plussing and adding to,” an idea that appealed to him in part because of the frustration of making films, which once they are “in the can,” can no longer be changed. Books, for better or worse, are much more like films than theme parks: once they’re sent off to the publisher to be printed, it’s too late to continue to develop an idea. Since co-writing Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate a few years ago, I have found a few topics which I wish my coauthor Jenny and I would have addressed more thoroughly or with more nuance. One of those areas is the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans and its relevance to a distinctly Christian discussion of immigration.
Fortunately, this blog provides a space to continue to develop these ideas. Let’s start with the passage, which we would probably all do well to re-read:
Romans 13:1-5, in the recently revised New International Version, says the following:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This passage is the first place that many evangelical Christians go when attempting to think biblically about undocumented immigrants, who by definition are present unlawfully. The problem, as my friend Daniel Carroll has argued thoughtfully, is that if we start with Romans 13—he agrees that we need to get there—we almost always stop there as well and never consider the plethora of other relevant biblical passages (Danny suggests starting the conversation at Genesis 1, with human beings being made “in the image of God,” starting from a recognition of the inherent dignity and potential in each immigrant). There is no question that undocumented immigrants are, by definition, present unlawfully—but that does not answer the question of how we, as the Church, are to respond.
As I’ve had more time to study Romans 13, reflect on it, and be sharpened by the views of others, I’ve come up with a few thoughts, which I’ll mention briefly here, that I wish we would have included in our book (maybe there will be a second edition someday, with a new chapter focused precisely on this topic):
- We need to differentiate the effect of Romans 13 on different readers. I read it as a US citizen, as do most of the people who view the immigration issue exclusively from a Romans 13-perspective. But as a US citizen, Romans 13 need not really concern me, at least as I read the text in Illinois. Under the laws of my country and my state, none of the activities that I take part in with my undocumented neighbors—sharing a meal, helping them to learn English, teaching a Bible study, helping kids with homework, providing legal advice (with the proper governmental accreditation)—are unlawful. I can minister freely and still be fully in submission to the governmental authorities. (The trick for some churches is that it is against the law to employ an undocumented immigrant, even as a pastor, but this has not been an issue for me personally).
- That said, I think it is also important to hold out the caveat that there are times when civil disobedience is appropriate: Peter and the other early apostles refused to obey the authorities when they demanded that he cease to preach the gospel, declaring that “we must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). I’m grateful that I can minister freely in my context without violating the law, but I have friends in other states—Arizona, for example, under a provision of the state’s tough new anti-illegal-immigration law that makes it illegal to transport someone who is present unlawfully—who are wrestling with this question now. My youth pastor friend in Phoenix who picks kids up for youth group in the church van is now an “illegal” himself under the law, but I think he is doing right. Almost anyone would agree that there are certain situations—think Nazi Germany or governments that make it unlawful to read the Bible—when civil disobedience is permissible and perhaps even required of the Christian. I pray it does not get to that point where I live—and I pray for my sisters and brothers who live in Arizona and other parts of the country that are much more perilous for Christian ministry to and with undocumented immigrants.
- The undocumented believer reads this passage differently than I do. They are here unlawfully. A family in my neighborhood—strong evangelical believers who have been here unlawfully for nearly twenty years—has anguished over this. They desperately want to be right with the civil authorities, but they also want to provide for their family, something they struggled to do and ultimately determined was impossible for them in the impoverished region of Mexico from which they emigrated. In fact, the father of this family views providing for his family as a divine command (1 Timothy 5:8: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”), and he feels torn between this command and the mandate in Romans 13 to submit to the governmental authorities. For the time being he has decided to stay, but he is desperate to make things right—something our current law does not make possible. I know others who have felt that God was calling them to go back to their country of origin. I am not sure what the right decision is, and I sympathize with the many pastors of undocumented immigrants who struggle with this question, but I do know that I believe we should have a better system, that does not force people to choose between providing for their families and obeying the law: those ideas need not be opposed to one another, which is why I feel so strongly that we must advocate for a better law.
- Romans 13 calls us to “be subject to the governing authorities” (v. 1), not to “obey the governing authorities.” There might be a difference. Martin Luther King Jr. argued, citing St. Augustine, that there is actually “a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” But he did so—defying unjust laws that mandated segregation—while remaining subject to the law, and non-violently accepting imprisonment and abuse. Some Christian undocumented immigrants would say that, while they are not fully obeying the law, they are still subject to it: the government (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) has decided not to enforce the law, but they can. They could start rounding up the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants if they chose to do so, but they have declined that option (at least in part because these undocumented immigrants form a vital part of our economy). “If it is the Lord’s will and I am deported,” a pastor friend told me recently, “I will go”—but for the time being it seems to be neither the Lord’s will nor that of the federal government.
- That goes to my final point, which speaks to how the “governing authorities” should read this passage. Their God-given role (v. 4) is to serve God for the good of the governed—for citizens and immigrants alike. Having become intimately acquainted with the Immigration and Nationality Act in my role as a immigration legal counselor at World Relief, I am completely convinced that our current immigration laws arenot good: they’re bad for our economy, our national security, the social cohesion of our country, and for immigrants. They also mock the ideal of the rule of law, which is held up for us in Romans 13, because they’re so unreasonable and out-of-sync with the movement of our free market economy that we—our government, employers, immigrants—mostly ignore them. In a democracy like the United States, this reflects poorly on all of us: part of submitting to the governmental authorities in a democratic context is actively engaging in democracy, advocating with our legislators to reform our immigration laws in ways that make sense for our economy and security, putting into place laws that are just, compassionate, and sensible. That means contacting your Representative, your Senators, and the President. World Relief provides an easy way to do so via email that could be a first step, but I’d encourage you to go further: write a personal letter and, in it, ask for a chance to meet with your legislators or a member of their staff. They’re more receptive to this sort of thing than you might realize, especially if you organize a group to make a visit.
Above all, to borrow again from a point that I’ve heard Danny Carroll make repeatedly, we need to read Romans 13 in its proper place: after Romans 12. The chapter designations are not divinely inspired, and Romans 13, which guides our relationship to the government, can never serve as an excuse to defy the larger commands that precede it:
Romans 12:2, 9-13
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will…
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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