Paul's treatise on authority. Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable passages in the New Testament. Written to the emerging Church in Rome, the centre of the Roman Empire.
I am reminded of a line from the film, The Life of Brian - "What have the Romans ever done for us?" Those of us who have seen (and enjoyed) this classic spoof, will know the answer. Rome was one of the most advanced civilisations of the ancient world. The Romans brought sanitation, irrigation, roads, education, medicine and 'peace' - by force - Pax Romana.
Yet, Roman rule was one of the most oppressive in history. Indeed they were the prototype 'fascists', the word 'fascism' deriving from the Roman fasces:
The Romans conquered the known world by brute force, enforcing their rule with the cruellest of punishments, of which one of the most fearful was crucifixion. The crucified lined the roads as a warning to anyone who might 'disturb' Pax Romana. Jesus' crucifixion was just One among many (which is its hidden message).
Yet, here in Romans 13 Paul is urging Jesus-followers in Rome to submit to the very same (fasce-ist) 'authority'. Why? Its hard to understand. And for those of us concerned about justice, it can read like an affront.
Think about the make-up of the nascent Roman Church. Some might have been Jews, like Paul (also a Roman citizen - which saved his skin on more than one occasion). Others would have been new converts and Gentile Romans, perhaps with positions of responsibility within the state apparatus. You could say that they were a 'broad church'.
Let us fast forward to late-1960's America for a modern-day parallel. As Vietnam is aflame with American bombs, America is aflame with demands for greater liberty and freedom. A Civil Rights Movement is on the march, calling for an end to racial segregation and for equality between American citizens of all races. It is a movement led by a young (some might have said, naive) Baptist minister named Martin Luther-King.
MLK would have read Romans 13: 1-6 closely. Very closely. Recordings of his sermons show that this is the case. He would also understood its words in the context of those which followed.
There are rights and wrongs, clearly. Yet, for Paul and MLK, in both exercising these rights and exorcising the wrongs, love is the measure (and the weapon). 'For whoever loves others has fulfilled the law'.
MLK's Civil Rights Movement challenged the unjust and their unjust legislation, not by hate-filled conflict, but through a higher (agápē) love, transposed into non-violent resistance. Legislatively they were victorious. At least in part.
For MLK and the broader American civil rights movement, Jesus' teaching on loving enemies (Matthew 5: 43-48) was also central, as is conveyed in this quotation:
MLK will be remembered long after the memory of many of his contemporaries has faded. History has shown that as a man he was flawed. Like the rest of us. Perhaps it was these flaws, hidden as they were at the time, which gave him such empathy, even towards the faults of his enemies. His message, as uncompromising as it was, let to his martyrdom, much like the One he followed.
If MLK had been crucified, he might have been hung, not between two thieves, but between two southern racists. To whom he may have turned and said, "Today you will be with me in paradise".