Not In God's Name: Jeff Sessions and Romans 13

Jeff Sessions Romans 13

In a speech on Thursday, June 14, Attorney General Jeff Sessions waded into biblical interpretation in an attempt to defend the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement strategy of separating children from their parents.  “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of government,” said Mr. Sessions. “For God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

Sessions felt compelled to cite scripture in response to the widespread outcry against the administration’s approach from across the Christian community - including liberal Protestants, conservative Protestants, and Roman Catholics, among others.  Evangelical Franklin Graham called it “disgraceful.” Archbishop Joseph Tobin called it a troubling sign of “the hardening of the American heart.”

Romans 13:1-7 has frequently been cited by governmental authorities to defend their actions against moral and theological criticism.  How should we understand this defense?

First: Thoughtful interpretation of the Bible is about wisely listening for major scriptural themes and principles, and then applying them to present circumstances.  One of those major themes - clear across the Bible, from the Torah to the Prophets to Matthew 25 - is care and respect for the foreigner, the alien, the stranger (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 10:17-19). Put another way, shot through scripture is the principle that a key measure of society’s moral standing is how it treats the most vulnerable, and in particular, how it treats vulnerable people who come from elsewhere.

Second: This major theme provides the proper context for interpreting Romans 13.  Of course everyone should be in favor of obeying the law, generally speaking.  But the question is: how should the law be interpreted and enforced?  Should discretion be used - as it has been for years in U.S. immigration law enforcement - for the infirm, and for children? We should obey and enforce the law, yes, but always in the wider context of caring and respect for the stranger, the vulnerable neighbor, the least of these.  This broader moral principle gives us the frame of reference for deciding how to implement the law in practice.

Third: Even Romans 13 itself unfolds according to similar logic.  Immediately after encouraging the Christians in Rome to be law-abiding citizens, as if to remind them of the larger context of this instruction, Paul writes, “the one who has loved another has fulfilled the law…  Love does no wrong to the neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:8-10).  By stopping at verse 7 and not continuing on to verse 10, Mr. Sessions omits the larger framework within which Christian obedience to the civil law must take shape.

Fourth: Finally, even Romans 13:1-7 itself does not do the work Mr. Sessions claims it does.  Paul’s case that “all authority comes from God” cuts both ways: any actions that violate the law’s essence and fulfillment - that is, love of neighbor - are themselves departures from God’s higher law, and so would lack actual authority, since "all authority comes from God."  What Paul most definitely did not mean is that any government action, no matter how repugnant, is justified merely because it’s governmental action.  Rather, by tying together civil law and divine law, Paul simultaneously encourages his readers to be law-abiding citizens and outlines a theological basis for holding civil leaders to account.  God’s call to respect and care for the foreigner is a law from a higher authority.

For all of these reasons, the practice of separating children from their parents cannot be defended by recourse to Romans 13.  On the contrary, precisely because Paul puts obedience to law in a theological context of loving our neighbors, even that text itself points in the direction of compassion - as do countless others in the Bible’s sacred library.  And in the end, of course, the shepherd who guides Christian interpretation of scripture is the rabbi Jesus, who famously summed up the whole law as a law of love.

The intentional, tactical separation of children from their parents cannot be justified as consistent with that law of love, and so it must immediately be ended.  It is indeed “disgraceful,” as Graham puts it; it is indeed a sign of “the hardening of the American heart,” in Archbishop Tobin's powerful phrase.  To defend it at all is intolerable - and to defend it with scripture, of all things, betrays a profound and unacceptable distortion.  No, not in God’s name.  And please, we pray, not in ours.