When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
It’s Breonna Taylor’s birthday. She should be alive. She should be 27 years old, celebrating with family and the man she loved. Instead she is dead, killed by 8 shots fired by police in a no-knock raid. And no police have been arrested. Have any been even fired, other than the chief who was ultimately fired when his officers were not using their body cameras and killed a local restauranteur who was a bystander while trying to quell protests?
Her death was not the personal, hands-on death Floyd got. But it’s the inevitable result of bad, racialized, hyper-militarized police policy. We must engage in radical and comprehensive reform of our police system as part of this season of truth-telling, so that no more women and men die in their beds, in the streets, or in jail cells by police misconduct or mishandling.
I find a lot of my fellow Christians, though, are invested in Romans 13 theology. “Submit, submit,” they demand. No critique of the President is allowed. No critique of the governing authorities. Verses written to keep Christian zealots who were among the most marginalized in the empire of their day from foolishly avoiding their taxes or rising up in full rebellion and then getting murdered by the state are now being applied to demand submission to and compliance with the whims of the new empire.
I never see Romans 13 trotted out for the powerful who insist on their rights. When Cliven Bundy stood on federal land in armed and open revolt against the US government and endangered a number of law enforcement officers, no one told him to submit. When his son and an armed militia took over a federal building, no one told them to submit. And when the protestors in Michigan stormed the Capitol armed to the teeth, no one told them to submit.
Why is it that when the powerless or the oppressed stand up and demand justice, their methods are raked with a fine-toothed comb? Don’t think I’m talking about riots or actions that are as illegal as the ones described above. I just blocked a guy I don’t personally know on social media because he unleashed a rated-R rant on me for asking him to articulate why Colin Kaepernick knelt instead of sat during the national anthem, and answering the question simply and directly for him when he refused and deflected. We critique his defiance, his socks, his methods, but not the system that made a man who could have had an easy life so angry that he would risk his wealth, reputation, and possibly life to change it.
When men like Bryan Stevenson stir up old wounds that have not properly healed to dress them with justice, the same types of people wring their hands and complain that he’s inciting division. When women like Latasha Morrison start faith-based conversations that simply encourage us to tell the truth to ourselves and each other, she and her followers are accused of inciting division and preventing healing, as if any disease of the mind or body ever healed through neglect.
Why does Romans 13 apply only to the powerless and never the powerful? And why, when the Bible is full of calls to tend to the powerless, and when the Gospel is so full of calls to overturn systems of power that do not do justice or show mercy, are we so attracted to the lines that seem to justify the status quo? If the power-centered American interpretation of Romans 13 is the way we should conduct our lives, why bother with democracy at all, since whoever gets put in charge should have free rein? And why did the Senate not submit to President Obama, but has submitted to President Trump?
The Bible can be a good guide for how we should conduct ourselves. As much as all of us like to take clips from it for our purposes though, we must understand it as a whole document. We must understand it’s something that even with our best interpretations is seeing “through a glass, darkly” as stated in 1 Corinthians, and not an aircraft soaring on prideful winds from which we can drop verses on people’s heads like bombs and then return to our airfields of indifference, silence, and complicity. And importantly for many of us, the Bible is not a fourth person of the Trinity. God’s inspired word, however philosophically true, is not a deity to be worshipped. Our flawed and narcotic interpretations? Even less so.
In the Old Testament and the New Testament alike, God takes the side of the oppressed, the lonely, the one without a defender or a friend. Why do so many of us who call ourselves worshippers of such a deity then delight in taking the side of the enforcer, the leader, the potentate, the emperor? We are called to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn, yes, but we are also called to “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression“. Let us never forget that the term “God of justice” appears many times in the Bible, but the term “God of law and order” appears exactly zero times.