Recently the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, alluded alluded to Romans 13 in his defense of the Administrations decision to use the separation of families as a deterrent to illegal immigration. Specifically Mr. Sessions was alluding to the following verses of Romans 13**:
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. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For 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; 4for 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. 5Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.
Mr. Sessions’ reference to this particular passage of scripture was meant to put those of us—specifically those of us Christians—who have been vocal in our opposition to this policy, in our place. After all, if St. Paul said it and it is in the Bible then we can’t speak out against it.
To put is succinctly—Mr. Sessions is mistaken. Not only mistaken, but mistaken in biblical proportions. To paraphrase a line from a great movie: [in poor impersonation of Inigo Montoya voice] “Mr. Sessions, you keep on quoting that book. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (1)
If Mr. Sessions had read just a bit further on in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans he would have read this:
8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
What Paul is saying in this portion of Romans is that, yes, the government is given the authority by God to govern. However, the government is also held accountable by God to govern according to the law as expressed in verses 8-10. We are told to submit to authority only so long as the authorities are operating according to God’s law. Meaning that they are enacting God’s justice? And what is God’s justice with regard to immigrants? See Deuteronomy, one of the books of the Torah—the Law:
1:1616 charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien.
6:10-1310When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.
10: 18-1918who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
14:28-2928Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
24:14, 19-2214You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns… 19When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. 20When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 21When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 22Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
26:5, 12-135you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous….12When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, 13then you shall say before the Lord your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments
27: 1919“Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
According to Deuteronomy God expects the people to remember that they were once strangers in a foreign land and in remembering that to treat all strangers in their land with dignity, respect and love. That is the law by which the civil authorities are expected to govern.
◊Disclaimer◊I understand that “love” is very difficult to put into laws that work in our society. I also understand that Deuteronomy sets a precedent for immigration policy that is, perhaps, unattainable.
And yet, we are commanded to keep God’s commandments in mind when crafting social policy. Especially if the ones in charge invoke the name of God when crafting those policies. Which they do. Repeatedly.
After all, President Trump enjoyed unprecedented support from Christian Evangelicals during his run for office. And, esteemed men (yes, only men) with the titles Rev. or Rev. Dr. or Pastor in front of their names have praised him and his policies.
After all his Vice President is a strong Christian and many members of his administration and the GOP publicly testify to how much their Christian faith influences their decision making.
And yet, our immigration policies do not leave room for an easy, understandable path to citizenship for those who are looking for a better life. “Many of whom are trying to enter the U.S. seeking asylum from gangs and criminal activities in their home countries and as such are not breaking the law. The U.S. is obligated to accept asylum-seekers under U.S. and international law if they can show a “credible fear” of persecution or torture.”(2)
We could do better to follow The Law.
The current administration is certainly doing it’s best to oppose the Law as stated by God. The very law that the Government is mandated to follow in Romans 13. It may be biblical to submit to authority—however, if we are speaking biblically, the Trump administrations policy of separating children from their parents is decidedly the opposite.
So, what is the Christian approach?
In this, we have a great cloud of witnesses to guide us. Witnesses like Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr.; dissenters who opposed the ruling authorities firmly grounded in the biblical witness of Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther, who exposed the corruption within the 16th Century Catholic Church and spoke out against its support of the more unjust policies of the ruling Monarchs.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a member of the Confessing Church which“rejected Hitler as a figure of Church authority” Members of the Confessing Church believed that there were situations in which only one position was in accordance with the the confession of Christ.
…In his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question,”…Bonhoeffer wrote that the church has the right and responsibility to ask whether the state is fulfilling its duty to preserve justice and order. He wrote that the church has the right and responsibility to aid victims of the state, even if they are not Christians. And, most famously, he wrote that the church has the right and responsibility to jam the spokes of the wheel of the state if it is creating too much or too little law. Jamming the spokes, he wrote, “is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. Such an action would be direct political action on the part of the church.”…After returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer co-authored a Lutheran catechism in which he declared that German “ethnic pride” was a sin. His reference to ethnic pride spoke to the German Völkisch tradition that the Nazis exploited with their white nationalist declarations of blood and soil. In the catechism, Bonhoeffer extended the conversation about race that became familiar to him at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He quoted from Acts: “God has arranged it so that all races of humanity of the earth come from one blood” (17:26). White nationalism is an affront to this God-given reality.(3)
And Martin Luther King Jr. who stirred the Southern Churches to act in accordance with the gospel and started a movement based on the idea that segregation and racism are against God’s law and desire for God’s people.
These men, and so many more men and women of faith, rooted in the confession of Jesus Christ and armed only with the Biblical witness, have risen up to overturn unjust systems, to speak out against cruelty and to care for the victims of such cruelty.
Siblings in Christ, we know what the Bible tells us, we teach it to our children every Sunday, in every Church, in every language:
Jesus loves me, this I know.
For the Bible tells me so…
And because of that we know that God loves.
The Bible tells us that God created us in love and was steadfast in that love, walking beside us and with us when we were messed up and difficult (Genesis). Delivered us from bondage, led us through the desert, fed us and still walked with us in our own stubbornness and refusal to listen (Exodus). Gave us a land of our own (Joshua), gave us rules and law for our own welfare (Deuteronomy), held us accountable for our actions and our sins (the rest of the Old Testament) and became human, became all of our dysfunction and rebellion, hatred and fear, despair and longing so that we may be called inheritors of the Kingdom of God (the entire New Testament).
The Bible tells us that God in Christ Jesus overturned the status quo; breaking through walls, insisting upon loving the unloveable and raising up the lowly.
And the Bible tells us that we are to do the same.
Let everybody say Amen!
**All Biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version
(1)“The Princess Bride” i.e. the best and most relevant movie ever!!
(2)“FACT CHECK: Are Democrats Responsible for DHS Separating Children from Their Parents? Brian Taylor, May 29, 2018 NPR Politics https://www.npr.org/2018/05/29/615211215/fact-check-are-democrats-responsible-for-dhs-separating-children-from-their-pare
(3)“Is This a Bonhoeffer Moment?” Lori Brandt Hale and Reggie L. Williams, Sojourners February, 2018 Sojo.net