“Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
If there was ever a passage of Scripture that was misused and misunderstood, it is this one. Especially today. And it’s not hard to see why. Given the state of our political culture, it’s hard to imagine a block of teaching better suited to tick off everybody. And the thing is, who exactly gets riled up about this passage changes from one political administration to another. There are churches who, during the George W. Bush administration, argued that this passage meant Christians absolutely needed to support the war effort in Iraq. Today, those same churches probably aren’t using the same passage to explain why their members need to be more supportive of the various legislative and policy efforts of the Biden administration. There are other churches, though, who have used the same passage in the exact opposite direction. This morning, I don’t want to talk about any of that. Instead, I want to focus our attention on the end of the passage and talk about a group of individuals who tend to be as overlooked as they are underappreciated by our culture. This morning I want to talk about Romans 13 and correctional officers.
This was not something I ever expected I’d be writing about in one of these posts. Of course, I’ve written about a whole lot of things I didn’t expect to cover, so that’s not such a big deal in and of itself. All the same, this is not a topic that’s really ever much been on my mind or heart. And, culturally speaking, that’s part of the challenge these folks face. But then, just this week, I had a young man who is sincerely endeavoring to reconcile how he can be a positive example for Christ in the context of his serving as correctional officer in one of our local prisons ask me for my thoughts on the matter. I had never before been asked something like that. I gave him a lot of words in response as I was working my thinking out on the matter on the fly, but it was one of those moments when the Holy Spirit stepped in to help take the jumbled mess of thoughts and put together a coherent answer that, in the end, I was pleased with, and I hope he was too. Let me share that with you.
For starters, though, can you just appreciate with me the fact that we have folks in our prison system who are even asking a question like this. I’ve said this twice, but it bears repeating again. Culturally speaking, prison guards don’t occupy a very high or prominent position. When someone has broken the law, we demand they get locked up, but we don’t give much thought to them after that point. Neither do we give much thought to the enormous, complicated, and, frankly, dangerous apparatus we have in place to care for them once we have locked them in a cell. All things considered, we are perfectly content forgetting any of that part of our society exists entirely.
On the whole, the church has been better about not forgetting than the broader culture has. But the efforts of the church when it comes to prison ministry have tended to be much more focused in the direction of caring for the prisoners than anything else. We want to speak the Gospel into the hearts and minds of these men and women in hopes it takes root there, transforms their lives, and leads to a total rehabilitation of who they were before they entered the prison system. And there’s no small amount of evidence of the worthwhileness of effective prison ministry programs.
Yet for all this focus on prisoners, the men and women who put their lives on the line to take care of them on a day-to-day basis don’t get nearly the same attention. Instead, we mostly imagine them as gruff, angry, and hard individuals who are as corrupt as the prisoners they are guarding, but who simply happen to be on the right side of the badge. We imagine sadistic individuals who delight in tormenting and abusing the men and women who are generally at their mercy. Think for just a minute about how many movies have been made in which prisoners are the heroes, prison guards are the low-level villains, and the prisoner hero finally gets the opportunity to beat the corrupt and incompetent guard senseless. Put that together with long hours and meager pay and is it any wonder that a great many of our correctional institutions are woefully and dangerously understaffed? Who wants to take a job that comes with terrible pay and little to no cultural respect?
And yet sitting before me was a remarkable young man, serving as a correctional officer, asking about how he can pursue his vocation in such a way that simultaneously maintains the safety of his own life as well as the lives of the other inmates, and which sets a positive example of the life of Christ for a group of people who are among the most lost and broken in our society. To put that another way: How do you shine with the light of Christ in a place where some of the people around you joke about rape and murder and would attack and kill you if they were given the chance?
Here’s what I said (cleaned up and in a few less words than the original, word-salad version). As a correctional officer you are the most direct and legitimate representative of God’s divinely-appointed, human institution of justice these prisoners will experience on a daily basis. You have a truly unique opportunity to represent the justice and love of Christ to these men. Because of the terrible choices they have made and for which many of them are yet entirely unrepentant, their freedom has been justly taken away. Some of them are still sufficiently unrepentant that they would seek to do you harm if given the chance. Because of this, there is a certain amount of strictness with which you absolutely must operate toward them for not only your safety, but the safety of your fellow guards and the other prisoners.
At the same time, each of these men are individuals for whom Christ died because of His great love for them. If they are to receive the Gospel, they will be your brothers in Christ even though such an internal transformation will not bring immediate change to their current physical circumstances – nor should it so that God’s justice is honored. Because of this and their creation in the image of God, you are able to show them respect and kindness. You can honor your shared humanity even as you approach them in such a way that limits the opportunity for harm to you or them to the extent of which you are capable.
To this I added one more thing: Because you are the face of God’s only, Scripturally-recognized, human institution of justice, being a prison guard is not something you do because you couldn’t do anything else. It is a divinely-given calling. Not many are up to such a difficult task as you face on a daily basis. Fewer still approach it with the kind of Spirit-minded sensitivity you are clearly bringing to it. You are doing good and necessary work to which you have been called by God for the present time. Doing it well honors Him enormously and brings the light of Christ to a place that is haunted by the darkness of sin. Yours is a calling no less important for the advancement of the Gospel into the broken places of our culture than mine as a preacher. For all of this and more you have my deepest respect and gratitude.
These folks should have yours too. You and I may not be able to affect things like the salary of the men and women who put their lives on the line to manage our enormous prison population, but we can remind them regularly of our respect and gratitude. We can refuse to buy in to negative and often unfair stereotypes. And we can support them by highlighting and honoring the service they give. Imagine just how much better our culture would be if all of our correctional officers were like this young man, intentionally bringing the light of Christ into these dark places as he does. Let’s pray that one day we do. In the meantime, thank a prison guard. They deserve it.