A Brief History of People Using Romans 13 to Justify White Supremacy

Graphic: Michael Harriot (The Root; photos via Getty Images, iStock)

Around A.D. 49, the Roman emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from the city of Rome. Historians argue about the exact date and the reasons, but we know that Claudius did not want them holding office or bringing in more immigrants. Instead, he wrote that the Jews (pdf) “should rest content with what belongs to them by right and enjoy an abundance of all good things in a city which is not theirs. They must not bring in or invite Jews who sail in from Syria or Egypt; this is the sort of thing which will compel me to have my suspicions redoubled.” The Jews, according to Claudius, were running in gangs, opening the borders and taking the good jobs from the true Romans.

Sound familiar?

As this was happening, one of the early Jewish leaders of a new sect called “Christianity” was composing a letter to his church. In the epistle, he told his oppressed minority of followers to avoid causing trouble with the most powerful government in the world. He wrote:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same. —A Letter to the Roman Church From the Apostle Paul, Chapter 13, Verses 1-3


If you have ever wondered why slaves adopted the religious philosophy of their slave masters, Romans 13 is your answer. If you wanted to know why slaves, who often outnumbered slave masters, rebelled so rarely, the answer lies in Romans 13. To understand why the Bible was the only book many slaves were allowed to own, read that verse again.

Christianity was adopted by people, rulers and governments all around the globe because it tells its followers to comply. It boasts of a benevolent God who knows best; even when you are the subject of brutality, the Bible tells you that this is what God wants. At the root of Romans 13 is an edict to obey authority.


The 13th chapter of Romans is white supremacy, explained.

Almost 2,000 years after Paul’s letter, the 13th chapter of Paul’s instruction to the Romans is still being used to silence, warn and squash minority populations. When U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III quoted the verse Thursday to explain the Trump administration’s gestapolike policy of ripping babies from the arms of their mothers and throwing the children into internment camps, he was simply the latest in a long line of white people who used that verse to justify white supremacy.


In 1859, a U.S. marshal named Ezekiel Cox was brought before the Market Street Church of Zanesville, Ohio, where he had been a member for more than 20 years. Cox was standing before a committee that would decide whether to kick him out of the church for returning a slave to a slave master, which the church considered a sin.


As reported at the time by the Prairie News, Cox defended himself before the tribunal by explaining himself with the Holy Scriptures:

Mr. Cox showed that this fugitive, Charley, did not escape from idolatry to join himself to God and his people but ran away from a kind and humane master, stole a horse, saddle and bridle, and committed a criminal offence besides of the most ferocious character, with a poor, weak white girl. Yet, such a wretch, Mr. Cox stated, appeared to have enlisted the deepest sympathy of many of the leading members of the church, and that he was arraigned before it for no other cause than having performed his sworn duty as an officer of the United States in arresting such a miscreant who, he stated, was not fit to run at large, or for any society, save practical amalgamationists or ultra abolitionists.

... Surely, said he, no Christian of any pretensions to Intelligence will deny that Slavery was at least recognized and tolerated when Christ was on earth, and during apostolic times as well as under the Mosaic dispensation; and referred to Paul to Col: “Servants obey in all things your masters according to the flesh,”...

... Mr. Cox also referred the committee to Paul to the Romans—“Let every soul be subjected to the higher powers For there is no power but of God Whomsoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God j and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation for rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.. Wilt thou not then be afraid of the power? Do that which is good and thou shalt have praise of the same.” See 13th chapter, 1st, 2d and 3d verses.


Cox was excommunicated by a vote of 22-12, but thank God, Charley was back in chains.

One of the reasons the Confederate South thought it was entitled to its own country where slavery was legal was Romans 13. In the buildup to the Civil War, even non-slave-owning white Christians used the verse to justify their support of the Civil War and slavery. They believed that God ordained the institution and that Romans 13 was a warning from Jesus to the North not to violate the Constitution and the law by outlawing slave owning.


During the civil rights movement, Paul’s admonition echoed through white, Southern churches, especially those that split from their larger denominations to hold on to segregation.

In the famous 1950s Presbyterian article “How to Detect a Liberal in the Pulpit,” the eventual formation of the segregationist Presbyterian Church in America was foreshadowed when the writer explained that liberal ministers “will be frequently found leading racial demonstrations, supporting workers in a strike ... supporting the right of the Communist Party to engage in its activity in this country, and in giving his approval to the decision of the Supreme Court removing the Bible and other Christian influences from the schools of the nation.”


In their opinion, sit-ins, protests and civil disobedience as a whole were explicitly against Paul’s instructions to Christians. Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders and even participants in the Children’s March were all sinners in the eyes of an angry white God, according to Romans 13.

God is even given as a reason why black people should stop resisting when they are shot by corrupt cops. Recently, Romans, chapter 13, was used to disparage the Black Lives Matter movement.


Despite the fact that Micah Johnson, who killed five Dallas police officers in 2016, was never connected to any organizations, Robert Jeffress, the head of one of the largest congregations in the area, condemned Black Lives Matter and said that he was sick of preachers disrespecting police because “the New Testament says in Romans 13:4 that law enforcement officers are ministers of God sent by God to punish evildoers.” (Coincidentally, this is the same pastor who said that NFL players should be happy they weren’t shot in the head for kneeling during the national anthem.)


White supremacists love Romans 13. They used it to justify apartheid, but surprisingly, they also used it to justify why they hated Barack Obama. Hitler used it to justify the Holocaust.

When defending this kind of justification, one should never offer other Bible verses to contradict Romans 13. That can lead to a circular argument in which no one gets his or her point across. But there is another way to make white people see the light. Aside from Jesus and Paul, who was ostensibly the first pope, there is another man whom white people love to quote.


If you are black and have ever said anything radical, instead of quoting the apostle Paul, wypipo will often contradict your pro-blackness by informing you what Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted. When white people are taking their white-privilege classes in kindergarten, this is one thing they are universally taught. “What MLK would have wanted ... ” is the Caucasian equivalent of black people’s “All the time!” response whenever anyone says, “God is good.”

Well, in 1956, King preached a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., titled: “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” (pdf). In the sermon, King imagines what he would have told Christians during his time. King told the church:

[A]s I said to the Philippian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it [emphasis mine]. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.


MLK said it. That’s that.

But the irony of Jeff Sessions’ statement and the predilection of white people for justifying white supremacy with a Bible verse is the fact that Paul was beheaded because he wouldn’t conform to the beliefs of the government.


According to most historians, the apostle Paul was executed by Nero, a crazy emperor known for his extravagance, public outbursts and fiddling like a fool while the place he ruled went down in flames.

Sound familiar?

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About the author

Michael Harriot

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.