How Can We Sing the Song of the Lord on Alien Soil?

Sometimes I feel deeply estranged from the world as it is. I feel like I am living in an alien place, that I do not belong here. Sometimes I feel like we are all strangers in a strange land. On such a day, the power of death hangs heavy in the midst of hospitality.

Thaddeus Lawrence was killed last Saturday. Manna House guests shared the news with Kathleen and I at church on Sunday.

Thaddeus was a tall, slender, African American man with a loping stride that covered a lot of ground. He had been coming to Manna House for a number of years now. He wrestled with mental illness, but more he wrestled with the harshness of homelessness.

On his good days, his face would light up with a mischievous smile. On his bad days, he appeared with a very stern face, and he would say angry words, usually not to us, but to the world in general.

But whether smiling or struggling, each day that Thaddeus came to Manna House to get on the list for showers, or socks and hygiene, he would present his ID.  We do not require ID for any services at Manna House, but he would always show his ID, point to his picture, and say his name, “Thaddeus Lawrence.”

When we opened for the day, Thaddeus would come and get his coffee. Typically he would then stand off by himself. But some days he would get very close up in my face to share some secret insight. I never could understand what he was saying. I never could follow his train of thought.

Thaddeus was killed by a hit and run driver near the intersection of Claybrook and Jefferson, one block from Manna House. He had been attacked and thrown into the street, and that was when he was hit.

Guests were very shaken by his death. Some saw what had happened. Others in hearing the news reflected on the violence they know so well.

In the midst of our grief a guest asked me for the “Word of the Day.” I was moved to share Psalm 137. Originally this psalm was about the Israelites in exile.  But in Christian usage “heaven” stands in for “Zion,” and “the City of God” for “Jerusalem.” I like to think of the vision of the Beloved Community as replacing Zion and Jerusalem. In the Beloved Community, we will all come together, all will be welcome, and we will all flourish together in the presence of God. So, I paraphrased a bit as I shared the psalm,

By the rivers of Memphis there we sat and wept,

remembering the Beloved Community;

on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps.

For it was there that they asked us, our captors, for songs, our oppressors, for joy.

“Sing to us,” they said, “one of your freedom songs.”

O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil?

If I forget you, City of God, let my right hand wither!

O let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I remember you not,

if I prize not the Beloved Community as the first of my joys!

The words of the psalm hung in the humid morning air. For a while no one said a word. Then a guest responded,

“Slaves won’t sing for their masters.”

“They aren’t going to entertain those who are killing them,” said another.

“Someone might steal one of those songs, like Elvis took the black man’s music,” said yet another.

“That’s a sad Bible reading” said one more guest, “it’s bleak, but so right.”

“That’s how I feel this morning, knowing about Thaddeus’s death,” I said.

“No one deserves to go that way. Run down like a dog in the street,” a guest added.

Later that morning, after I had left Manna House to go to work, I got a phone call from a minister at a midtown church. An apparently homeless man had been found dead on their property. Could I come and see if I knew who he was? I went. I saw him lying dead. I did not know him. None of us gathered recognized him. As I walked back to my car I started to cry. Thaddeus and this unknown man, both dead. I called Kathleen and returned to Manna House. I had to grieve with her.

I thought of another phrase “vale of tears” that comes from a translation of Psalm 84:6, which describes those strengthened by God’s blessing in the midst of sorrow. Even in the valley of tears they find life-giving water. I feel the tears, but I am also feeling pretty thirsty for that life-giving water. Come Lord Jesus, come!

What About Romans 13?

What about Romans 13:1-7?   A few notes to help one’s biblical study

Does Paul endorse unquestioned Christian obedience to the law/government and participation in state violence?

First:  what is Paul’s attitude toward the Roman Empire in his other letters?

  1. 1 Thessalonians: What will happen to those who trust in the Roman Empire’s “peace and security” (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:19, 3:13, 4:31-18, 5:2-3). What is Christian armor compared to Roman armor? (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Ephesians 6:10-17)
  2. 1 Corinthians: Who does Paul hold responsible for the death of Jesus? (1 Cor 2:6-8) What will happen to the rulers of this world? (1 Cor 15:24) What is the wisdom of Christ vs. the wisdom of the world? (1 Cor 1:18-25)
  3. Philippians 3:20: Where is the citizenship of Christians?
  4. Colossians 2:12-15: What does Christ do to the rulers and their way of “justice”?
  5. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8: Does Paul trust Roman justice and encourage Christian participation in it?
  6. Acts of the Apostles 17:1-8: Of what are Paul and Silas accused? Paul also uses Roman power when necessary—appeals to Caesar (Acts 25)


Second:  Immediate Literary Context of Romans 13:1-7, Put Romans 13:1-7 in the Context of Romans 12 and 13.  Paul’s ethic for Christians is counter-imperial: no violence, no imitation of the evil that wrongdoers have done

  1. What had Paul just written in Romans 12:17-21 regarding how Christians are to live? “Beloved never avenge yourselves…” and “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
  2. What does Paul write immediately after Romans 13:8-10? “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” “Love does no wrong to the neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
  3. If Paul is endorsing state violence and/or Christian participation in or support for state violence in Romans 13:1-7 then he is contradicting his own teaching regarding love and the need to reject vengeance.


Third:  the Historical Context in which Paul Writes

  1. Christians are a minority, and the Roman Empire is not a democracy. Christians have no hope of transforming the Roman Empire through any sort of typical political activity to which we may have access to today. Paul is urging members of the Roman church community to lay low—to not disturb Roman order insofar as they can do that and remain faithful to God. They are to see God’s hand even in events contrary to God’s will for human life. God is ultimately in control of history, including the Roman state. Divine authorization of state authority is not divine approval for everything the state does. Further, the sword referred to in Romans is the judicial sign of authority, not an actual sword.
  2. So, even though Paul may realistically see that the state may have power to execute, it is clearly NOT the calling of Christians to seek vengeance through state violence or to approve of state violence. Christian calling is to live alternative life of the Kingdom of God and insofar as possible not engage with the state.


Fourth: Paul is being descriptive rather than prescriptive

  1. Paul is not offering any blessing to state power, but simply observing what it is like and making sure it is seen as UNDER God’s sovereignty and thus subject to God’s judgment. He has already made it clear that Christians who are to live as the Body of Christ in the world are to live by a very different standard.
  2. What is the evidence for the view that Paul is being descriptive rather than prescriptive?

a: Paul’s description of the Imperial rule is in opposition to Roman views which claimed that the Imperial rule simply brought peace, and no mention of HOW it brought that “peace”–through the sword and the cross.  Paul’s description unmasks Roman ideology about the “Pax Romana” as false, as a cover for the brutal realities of Roman imperial power.  (See also 1 Corinthians 2:7-10, where Paul identifies “the rulers of this age” as responsible for the execution of Jesus).

b. Why was Paul writing to the Church in Rome? Paul was urging the church in Rome to welcome back exiled Jewish Christians.  Right after Romans 13, Paul writes in Romans 14, “Welcome those weak in faith…” in reference to the Jews.  A major theme of the letter is the unity of the Church in Rome “in Christ” rather than continuing divisions between “Greek and Jew.” (See Romans 2-4, 9-11—where Paul specifically addresses relations between Jewish and Gentile Christians).

c.  In the Hebrew Scriptures (Paul’s “Bible”) those who carry out the wrath or vengeance of God are not friends of God.  Rather their use of violence will one day rebound to destroy them.  For example, see what Jeremiah the prophet says about Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 25:8-14), and what Isaiah says about Assyria as agent of Lord’s judgment (Isaiah 10:5-22).

Fifth: Paul’s Peace of Christ or “Pax Christi” versus the Peace of Rome or “Pax Romana”:

  1. Peace of God and Christ is the Peace Paul Endorses—not the Roman Peace that is enforced by the sword and cross: Romans 1:7, 16:20; Phil 4:7, 9; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2, 13:11; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2, 3:16
  2. What is the Peace of God/Christ? The path to God’s Peace is not through violence (imposing the sword and cross on others) but through obedience to the way of God. This way of God in Jesus that consists in love is exactly what the power of sin and death tries to destroy through the cross, but is prevented from doing so since God’s power brings resurrection. Freed from the power of sin and death through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, those who share in Christ’s life are to live as Christ, in loving service to others. see Romans 12:1-21


Sixth, Paul Reflects the Heart of the Biblical Faith About God:  God is a God of life, not of death. God is a God of liberation, not oppression.

  1. God in raising Jesus Christ from the dead defeats the power of sin and death, opening us to new life in Christ. Life in Christ is what we are to share with others. Romans 6:12-14.  We are to share life of Christ through a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:15-20). The state may engage in revenge, but Christians should not. Christians should live in a way that stands against/resists such an approach to justice.  See also Matthew 5:38-48
  2. God’s justice seeks the redemption of sinners, not their death. This has been a major theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans… And, in fact it is a major theme of the whole Bible…How does God deal with sinners? God holds them accountable for the sake of bringing them to repentance, reconciliation, restoration to life. See the stories of Cain, Moses, David, the people of Israel, Old Testament Prophets, i.e. Ezekial 33:11, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.”
  3. Paul calls Christians to a Ministry of Reconciliation, not a ministry of revenge! See 2 Corinthians 5:15-20, Christ’s way of life is the pattern for Christian discipleship. (Romans 14:1a, 3b; 15:7, Phil 2:5-13)