“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing” (Romans 13:1-6 NRSV).
It is my firm opinion that Romans 13, written to Christians in the heart of the Roman Empire, has been largely misunderstood throughout history. Writer and recipients were not living under a benevolent regime. Rome conquered and then maintained control through violence and cruelty. It was all about power and domination. Given that context, it would make little sense for Paul the apostle to give carte blanche to political and military authority.
Read more carefully, in light of what we know about Rome’s extreme measures to maintain peace and security (the cross is a prime example), Romans 13 makes plain the real duty of earthly powers. The authority of state is to be used to approve of what is good and execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Unfortunately, the fallen powers have always failed to execute faithfully their God-given duty. This passage, rather than serve its original purpose to speak the truth to power, has been utilized to enshrine state abuses in the name of God.
Faced with the criminal actions of terrorist on September 11, 2001, the United States government and others around the world mobilized against a shadowy, militant Islamic group that sought to topple the western world and, truthfully, would like to impose Islam by all means, including force. It is right and correct, given this scenario, for governments to respond to protect the lives and freedoms of the people they seek to represent.
It makes no sense whatsoever, though, to engage in violations of human rights in order to protect human rights. The United States government has overstepped its Constitutional authority with regard to its citizens and the Bill of Rights, but it has gone even further in denying these same rights entirely to non-U.S. citizens located overseas. The United States government has acted as though, because Guantanamo Bay is located on what is foreign soil (albeit under U.S. control) the U.S. Constitution does not apply there. Even if this is true, and I don’t personally believe it is a sound legal position, the United States has historically agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the following articles:
Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
Article 7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Article 8. Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Article 10. Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
Article 11. (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence. (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United States Bill of Rights are not enough, then there is the higher law to be considered. In the presence of God the acts carried out by the United States government, including the human rights violations committed in Guantanamo Bay and involving possible torture and certain denial of due process, are a crime and degradation of the image of God in humanity. As such, the U.S. government as an earthly power must be called to repentance and to a pursuit of true justice. To do otherwise, to allow the course of events to continue down the same path unimpeded, is to invite divine justice. Just because we cannot see what goes on in Guantanamo Bay and in secret CIA facilities around the world does not mean that God is unable to know, judge and act.
“When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted – does the Lord not see it?” (Lamentations 3:34-36 NRSV). Visit tearitdown.org to learn more about efforts to close Guantanamo Bay and either release the prisoners or get them moving through a genuine system of justice where they can face charges for their alleged crimes.
Check out what the following Synchrobloggers have to say about Human Rights: