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A few years ago I was in a conversation with a National Guard member. Ok, it was an argument, but before I continue please know I respect people who serve our country. My father was in Viet Nam and his father was in World War II. My grandpa often talked about his brother Ole who was in the battle for Iwo Jima. He claimed to be one of the soldiers lifting the flag, you know, the one memorialized in the statue. He complained he never got credit, but honestly, no one believed it was him. I share this to show that I come from a family of soldiers, so while I have not been in the military, I was raised by a family who took pride in serving their country. The argument had to do with responsibility, pay grade, chain of command, and whether it is a solider’s duty to think about what they’re doing, or just obey orders. This person was upset that I believe a soldier has the responsibility to think critically, and not just follow orders. To do that is to surrender responsibility, which is to cease being a human being. I understand everyone can’t be in charge, but being a foot solider or a beat cop doesn’t mean leaving moral responsibility behind.
Which brings me to the catastrophe taking place at our southern border. For the past week the Trump administration has talked about the rule of law as if these laws are not arbitrary, as if borders are an eternal degree from God before the foundation of the earth. 500 years ago these arbitrary lines in the dirt and water didn’t exist. Yet, the administration treats them as if they are eternally unchangeable. This shouldn’t be surprising given their use of Romans 13 to justify their actions.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities have been instituted by God.” Taken out of context, it supports the administrations actions. But in context, the passage suggests something else. In Romans 12 Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Paul does not want violent revolution, but he also does not want passive compliance. How else do we make sense of his death at the hands of the very governing authorities he references in Romans 13? He didn’t resist, but he didn’t comply either.
The misuse of Romans 13 by this administration makes sense in the context of a speech Vice President Pence recently gave to military graduates. He said this:
Submit yourselves, as the saying goes, to the authorities that have been placed above you. Trust your superiors, trust your orders, and you’ll serve and lead well.
I truly believe that among the most important qualities of leadership — whether it’s in the armed forces or any other endeavor — are humility, orientation to authority, and self-control. And I encourage you to cultivate these qualities as leaders in increasing measure every day from this day forward.
With humility, consider others to be more important than yourselves. Be servant leaders. Approach every challenge as a learner and a listener first. In multiple counselors there is wisdom, and the best decisions by the best leaders come from counsel and collaboration.
Next is orientation to authority. Nothing I have to explain to those of you sitting before me today. Follow the chain of command without exception. Submit yourselves, as the saying goes, to the authorities that have been placed above you. Trust your superiors, trust your orders, and you’ll serve and lead well.
“Follow the chain of command without exception”. “Obey your governing authorities”. This is how we end up with families torn apart, and no one, not even the president, willing to take responsibility. This is how otherwise good, responsible, people end up supporting destructive policies. Paul’s command that subverts every other is the command to love—love God and love neighbor. This means taking responsibility for our actions, and for the humanity of our neighbors near and far. At times, this means questioning those in authority, and questioning laws and procedures. I’m not against the military, and I’m not opposed to law enforcement. However, I believe soldiers and border agents should do their work the best they can as responsible moral agents.
Life might be easier if we follow the chain of command without exception, but I’m not sure it’s Christian.