Category Archives: Brad’s Thoughts

In Defense of Romans 13

This past week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 as a defense for the government’s policy of separating parents from children in some circumstances when they’re caught crossing the border illegally. If we’re going to be a nation of laws, I see value in enforcing those laws. I want to change our immigration laws, but if enforcing our laws causes hardship for lawbreakers, that may be an unfortunate but necessary reality. I do have a big problem with Jeff Sessions citing the Bible to justify his policy however.

If the best defense of a policy is to weaponize a passage of the Bible, intentionally taking it out of context for your advantage, then what you’re defending is a bad policy.

Romans 13 was written by an oppressed racial and religious minority, to a group of oppressed minorities. It was not written to a group of people in authority so that they could lord it over those under their power. It was written to provide counsel and comfort to a group of subjugated people who were dealing with a government which enforced unjust policies designed to hurt them and their families.

Romans 13 was written for hurting people dealing with an authoritarian government.

The portion Jeff Sessions is likely cherry-picking reads: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.

The “Book of Romans,” as we know it, was written as a letter in 57 AD, by Paul to a group of new Christians in Rome. Paul didn’t sit down to write a book of the Bible, he wrote a letter to his friends. A few hundred years later, in 367 AD, this letter would be compiled with other books and letters to become the Bible.

Paul’s friends in Rome were new believers in Jesus. As such, they were subject to persecution by the Roman Empire. Paul wrote to them to advise them on how to deal with suddenly being treated like the scum of the earth.

Paul knew what it was to be in authority and he knew what it was to be oppressed. As a Jew in the Roman Empire, living in occupied Israel, he knew the oppression of the Romans for his entire life. The Romans unfairly taxed and abused the people living in Israel, as they did with people living in all of the conquered territories in their empire.

Before Paul had an encounter with Jesus, however, he was a leader among Jews, and a Roman citizen despite his Jewish heritage. He was well-respected and exercised authority within the Jewish religious system. But when he encountered Jesus his life changed radically, he gave up his position of authority and became an outcast, under constant threat of mob justice and government authorities.  For the rest of his life, he not only suffered as a Jew in the Roman Empire, but also suffered at the hands of his Jewish brothers who rejected him for his faith in Jesus. He spent the remainder of his life beaten, tortured, imprisoned and was eventually beheaded by the Roman Empire.

This is the Paul who writes this letter.  These people in Rome had voluntarily chosen to become outcasts to follow Jesus, to become subject to persecution—such is the value of their faith.

The new “Christians” in Rome have a lot of questions. Should they continue to pay taxes to a government which treats them, and others, with such injustice? If Jesus is their King and supreme authority, should they rebel against the government?

And Romans 13 doesn’t stand alone. Paul didn’t put those numbers in Romans, those chapter numbers were helpful tools added around 1551 AD. They’re helpful, but they’re not starting and stopping points.

The larger section of Romans around chapter 13 is instructions on when and how to fight with others. And the answer, according to Paul who would later die for his faith, is never. Jesus is never an excuse to hurt anyone, to treat anyone poorly, or to break the law, whether in authority or oppressed.

Paul is exhorting the recipients of his letter, an oppressed minority population, to have faith—specifically to have faith in God to fight the big battles. He’s telling them that it’s OK to follow the law, that God will be in charge of the authorities set up on the Earth. And in fact, Paul was right. God wins that battle, the Roman empire did convert miraculously to Christianity.

Jeff Sessions is not an oppressed person, he is a person in authority. He has weaponized a verse of the Bible, just as many slave owners did, that does not apply to him.

I cannot imagine how any person with a relationship with Jesus could possibly think to stand in authority and use Romans 13 as a “sit down and shut up” excuse for their authority.

On the contrary, Paul had different advice for men in authority. When he wrote a letter to his friends in Ephesus (aka The Book of Ephesians), he told them “Treat your slaves in the same way [with respect and fear, sincerity of heart, just as you would treat Christ, doing the will of God from your heart]. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.” (Ephesians 6:5-9)

I wish Paul had said “Masters, free your slaves.” But instead his message is, you live in a world of masters and slaves, but you should personally behave as if all are equal.

It is OK for our nation to have laws. If we have laws, I believe we should enforce them.  While we should make every effort to limit the fallout of the consequences of those laws on children, it is an unfortunate reality that lawbreakers, in any context, victimize their families.

But using the Bible as a weapon to justify power is wrong. We have many bad laws which do not reflect the total message of Jesus. I don’t expect my government to conform to the Bible, but as a Christian I will advocate for a government that treats people as Jesus would, a government that looks more like the Kingdom of God.

As a citizen of this republic, I will heed Paul’s advice to exercise my authority to find a better way to treat these oppressed people. While I hope the oppressed find comfort and good counsel in Romans, I will not use the Bible to justify my position of authority, nor will I stand behind anyone who does.

When we read this section of Romans (chapters 12 and 13) from the perspective of a group of oppressed people who are hurting, who want justice, who want to take action against an authoritarian government, it’s completely different (my paraphrasing from the NIV):

“I urge you brothers to offer your bodies as living sacrifices…this is a spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind….

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil, cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves…Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people 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 repay evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. Because God said ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’ Your job is different, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 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…It is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except your continuing debt to love one another…

“The night is nearly over, the day is almost here.”

Photo by Melissa Pauquette – used with permission.

Realism in Sejal

I read recently that when John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, it was criticized as being a polarizing exaggeration of the situation facing America.  In fact, Steinbeck was toning down the true stories of the dust bowl that he was basing the story on.  Today we celebrate the story as a remarkably accurate, though anecdotal portrayal of real life for many during the Great Depression.

When I wrote Sejal: The Walk for Water, I presented it to a CCC writers’ workshop and feedback that I consistently received was that I didn’t make Sejal’s life bad enough.  But when I created the character, I wanted her to seem normal, I wanted to demonstrate that the water crisis is horrible for regular people.  I wanted the reader to know that these are things that happen to normal people every day in rural India–the worst thing that could happen would be for the audience to write off Sejal’s situation as some sort of outlandish worst case scenario.

Yesterday, my friend Kirby sent me a link to an article about two teenage girls who were brutally gang raped and murdered in India.  They had left the safety of their homes at night to use the restroom in a field, that’s when they were assaulted.  Their homes had no running water or plumbing.

Just like Sejal, one of the girls was fourteen years old.

The water crisis is real, and the effects extend far beyond thirst.

It’s true that a clean, fresh water well wouldn’t have averted this particular assault and murder in India.  And no amount of indoor plumbing will address the culture of intolerance and hatred which fueled an incident like this in the first place.

But it’s a start.

It’s estimated that 5,000 children die every day around the world due to unsafe drinking water.  Many of those are in India.  And that doesn’t even begin to factor in the many, many stories like this one, or the violent confrontations spurned by competition for water resources, or the lack of productivity due to time spent collecting water, non-fatal sickness and chronic dehydration.

When Kirby sent me that article, it broke my heart.  It crossed my mind that sharing it with me might have been a vindictive act designed to ruin my night.  But I know the truth is that lots of people, including Kirby, share my despair over situations like these, and share my passion for the very real steps that we can take to improve the lives of so many.

If you haven’t read Sejal, I hope that you will.  And know that this story is the rule, not the exception.  The exceptions are so much worse.

You can download Sejal for free here, or you can buy it from Amazon.com or most other major retailers.  If you purchase it, all of the proceeds I receive as the author of the book will be donated to The Water Cycle Project.

On the Morality of the Super Bowl

This morning, I read Steve Almond’s “Is it immoral to watch the Super Bowl?” from The New York Times. It’s a well constructed, well articulated article. Almond argues that the health risks of football outweigh the value of the sport, and that we’re culturally irresponsible for continuing to passively support the enterprise.

I think he’s missing it.

Truthfully, I have no problem with a bunch of grown men deciding to ram themselves into each other until they’ve damaged their brains and internal organs. If an informed adult decides he’d rather make millions of dollars and live like a king for a while, then die a senile, miserable hero at age 50, this seems no more illogical than choosing to wile away in a cubicle for $45,000 a year to die alone, senile and miserable at the age of 90. We’re all sacrificing our lives one day at a time. There’s really no reasonable way to do it.

I agree with Almond that the NFL and the Super Bowl embody a disheartening aspect of American culture, but it has nothing to do with paying 300 pound me to learn to run faster so that they can collide with each other more effectively.

The problem is that one by one, we’re stripping away the things that were created as manifestations of healthy community. We’re refining out the honor and the good, and casting the worst elements into idols.

Football, I imagine, was created like all games are. A group of children with limited resources, namely a ball and a field, created a set of rules that would perpetuate play and incentivize excellence. An observant, creative and intuitive adult at some point formalized the rules and the field, so that the game could be used as a healthy outlet for other children to socialize, exercise and resolve underutilized emotional energy. This is the story of all sports, right?

The game grew in popularity, and some children demonstrated exceptionalism at this new, arbitrary skill set. So excellent were they that it superseded a group of unsupervised children doing God-knows and who cares what, to something that could actually be interesting and exciting to watch.

Over the course of time, the game evolved into a contest between schools, institutions and minor geographic regions, as a safe way to encourage excellence, healthy competition and as a non-violent way to resolve petty differences. The community would gather to watch and socialize, which cemented the game’s value in our society. This is still the story of virtually any team sport, right?

This is excellent. It’s an outlet for children that encourages the development of a lot of virtues, and on a larger scale, the sport becomes a central point of community life (ever been to a small town high school football game?), and the game is a responsible mechanism for healthy inter-community relations. In the case of football, there is a rugged, physical component of the game, and occasionally kids do get hurt, but it’s generally worth the risk and the societal benefit, and the benefit to a healthy local community and healthy kids far outweighs the incidental tragedy. Every good thing comes at a cost, after all.

Even though children get hurt, they’re not typically capable of inflicting the same kind of permanent damage that grown, hulking men are, and a child’s body is more resilient. They’re built for this kind of play.

But then something horrible happens. Technological capabilities increase, and now a game can be broadcast around the world live in high definition. You can see and experience more. The technology is so good, it’s actually better to watch the game at home than it is to go to the field. A player that was once important to a small community now has the capacity to be important to the entire world. The stakes are raised exponentially, and the rewards skyrocket with them. What was once a hobby now holds the promise of unimaginable riches, and boys who will become men are now incentivized to spend their lives getting bigger, stronger and faster. Most of these boys are chasing an unobtainable dream, to their own detriment.

No more does the community rally around their team. That takes second stage. No longer does the event draw the local community together at the nearest field. You can’t see the action well enough.

But football didn’t work because of the action. A group of ten-year-olds were killing time, and the game itself hasn’t moved beyond that. Football works because it brought people together.

Almond’s argument assumes that football was an activity intended for grown men, and that its intended value is for the entertainment of spectators.

Just like the 24-hour news cycle has exacerbated the worst traits of newscasting and turned our attention to trivial national affairs while we ignore the injustices outside of our back door, this obsession with national sports has stolen the very value of the game from our communities and indulged all of the negative side effects.

The answer is not to steal this tool from our communities and from our kids. Some of our kids need football, because it’s an activity and an outlet that suits them. Stealing this resource from our communities won’t solve the problem.

The answer is to turn off the TV. The answer is to apply a new standard. The answer is to create children who value people first. The answer is to create little people who want to play.

What if for every game we watched on TV, we watched one at the local high school? What if for every $100 NFL jersey we buy, we gave $10 to the local marching band? What if for every $80 Cincinnati Reds ticket, you took ten of your kid’s friends to a minor-league Columbus Clippers game?

We don’t need to be on the same team as ten million fans. But if we’re going to get better, we need real people around us that we can touch and feel and hope for.

We have to teach our kids to play again, and if that includes football, let them play.

Because you can’t play football alone.

But you can sure as hell watch the super bowl in the dark, in the silence of an empty room.