A letter to my friends at the UCICC

Dear Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council,

As a former member of your steering committee, I thought it would be appropriate at this moment in history to write letter of encouragement and to thank you for the work you continue to do. Thank you! You are an inspiration!

I also wanted to take a moment to share with you my thoughts about the use of Christian scripture to justify violence. (Below is part of a draft I have been working on as part of the Social Justice Taskforce of the New Jersey Association of the United Church of Christ to send out to our clergy. They have graciously granted me permission to share a slightly modified version with you.)

Over the last few weeks, a number of faith leaders from across the country, here in New Jersey, and even there in Union County have participated in protests and civil disobedience to try to bring attention to the current state of our society. The American public is waking up to the fact that securing the freedom of innocent children is our collective responsibility.

The terms of the current debate have been particularly troubling to us as members and leaders of communities of faith, because public officials have used religious texts from our tradition to justify violent public policy. I offer this letter with the purpose of strategizing how to respond to such profane applications of scripture. As religious leaders, we should all encourage people of faith to be careful when our sacred scriptures are used to justify policy positions or political opinions based on a single verse taken out of context. Quoting from Romans 13, it has been said that one should “Obey the laws of the government, because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” But what about the overall theological trajectory of the Christian faith, the verse’s scriptural context, or the socio-historical context in which it was written?

The law of the land—the legal framework of any particular administrative territory—and the Bible have a very complicated relationship. In the Book of Exodus, Moses led an entire population to disobey the government and escape slavery to freedom. The prophets of Israel were famous for being openly critical of the laws and rulers of their day. In the book of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a furnace because they disobeyed the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. The prophet Daniel was thrown in a den of lions for disobeying the law. And the rebellious Maccabees disobeyed the law when they ignited a revolution and won their land back from oppressive, occupying governmental forces.

What was the context for Paul’s letter to the Romans? The Jesus story is the story of a refugee family trying to keep their baby safe by fleeing to another country; a friend to criminals, outcasts, and victims of religious and political authority; and a messianic figure who is arrested, tried, punished, and publicly executed. Early Christian communities mostly met in secret for fear of being found and punished as criminals by governmental authorities, and letters such as Paul’s would have been circulated underground for fear of imprisonment or worse. Many of those Epistles actually state from the beginning that they were written from prison. Then there is the letter to the Romans, that epistle which contains the very verses that are so often quoted to justify unjust governmental policy. In this letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul says that he hopes he will one day visit their congregation and their city. As the story goes, when Paul finally arrives in Rome, three years later, he is a convicted criminal.

So the notion that governmental forces necessarily have God on their side both runs counter to the overall trajectory of the Biblical concept of God’s liberation, and entirely misses the context of Paul’s theological orientation and concerns in the face of such persecution.

I would like to go just a little further, to explore the role Romans 13 has played in more recent history. It was used by the crown loyalists during the American Revolution to promote obedience to the king. It was used in the 1850s to justify the Fugitive Slave Act. It was used in South Africa to support the Apartheid ideology. It has been used recently by white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists to justify various kinds of injustice and to criticize faith leaders for their leadership and involvement in justice movements. But, of course, none of these examples are based on a reading of the whole letter of the book of Romans, or even the whole chapter. If we read the whole chapter, perhaps we would stop and notice the power of the language of Romans 13:10, which says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

When our policy makers publicly use the Bible to support any kind of violence, especially violence against children, I believe we have a responsibility to lead our faith communities to speak back: “You can’t use our sacred texts that way!” When we do so, we stand in the good company of folks like Moses, Daniel, John the Baptist, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Gandhi, and Dr. King.

For Peace and Justice,
Rev. Michael Anthony Howard
Social Justice Task Force
New Jersey Association, the United Church of Christ