Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

(Note: I started writing this post this morning and then had to prioritize work. Now that I’m returning to finish, I’m given to understand that the President is signing an executive order ending family separation. I thought about not finishing the post, but I figured I might as well given that the points I’m arguing below have more applicability than just this situation).

Given how much coverage, discussion and debate the crisis at our border has already had, I’ve been reluctant to write about it myself–what is there that hasn’t been said? I have realized, though, that, even if I’m rehashing the same ideas, it means something to publicly stand with my righteous brothers and sisters calling for an end to this abominable practice. So that’s what I’m doing.

Since theology is a large part of what I write about, let’s start with the theological arguments that have been made in favor of the issue. First, let me point out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a member of the United Methodist Church. I must admit embarrassment by that, but also some satisfaction with the response from at least some members of the UMC–over 600 members of the UMC, both clergy and laity, have filed a complaint against Sessions under the UMC Book of Discipline–our version of canon law. The complaint alleges that Sessions’ actions–and his use of scripture to justify them–constitutes potential child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and the teaching of doctrines contrary to those held by the church. Details can be found here.

As both a Methodist and an attorney, I am quite interested in how this plays out. I find the latter three claims to be quite straightforward under the circumstances, but the child abuse claim is an interesting one to me because it will be difficult to resolve. The major issue here is one of causation–are the AG’s actions a direct-enough cause to hold him to culpability? I see arguments on both sides, though I lean toward affirming–in part because we’re not talking about criminal culpability, but a desire to reconcile Mr. Sessions to the teachings of the UMC. The tougher question is what we mean by the term “child abuse?” Herein lies my biggest reservation with this portion of the complaint.

Is the government’s policy wrongly causing children (and parents) to suffer? Undoubtedly. Is this a violation of human rights and general decency? I believe so. Is this practice causing deep trauma, some of which will never heal? Unreservedly, yes. Should we call it child abuse? I’m not so sure.

Yes; it matters. If we expand the societal definition of child abuse, more parents will be subject to claims of abusing their children–not criminally, but giving the poisonous and often hateful nature of online forums and public denunciation in our society, great potential to harm remains. This issue concerns me not directly because of Jeff Sessions, but because of how the construct of “child abuse” might be unreasonably expanded in the future if we are quick to call Jeff Sessions a child abuser.

When we talk about child abuse, I don’t think that there is any question that physical injury, endangerment, or sexual exploitation constitutes child abuse. I think we’d all further agree that emotional abuse is real and can have lasting effects on persons of any age, but especially children. Here, though, is where we run into problems. First, where do we draw the line between negative emotional treatment that is not abusive and treatment that is? Second, how do we separate emotional trauma that results as a byproduct of particular actions from emotional trauma directly inflicted? Are they both “abuse.” I do not have answers to these questions–they require much deeper moral, spiritual and logical analysis than there is space for here. So, I leave this topic with a caution: If you believe that Jeff Sessions is complicit in the violation of human rights by needlessly separating families, fine; I can understand that. If you want to call him a child abuser, I am very hesitant to agree. Is he wrong, morally, in the general sense? Absolutely.

Is he wrong theologically? Also absolutely. Let’s spend some time on that. Sessions stated that there is Biblical support for the governments separation policy by citing Romans 13:1, which reads: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Okay, that is something that “the Bible” says. But coming to the conclusion Mr. Sessions would have us reach requires a very particular–and not very logical–approach to interpretation of scripture, one that ignores (and must ignore) much for the argument to not fall apart under its own weight. Benjamin Corey would call this the “Swiss Army Knife” approach to Biblical interpretation, where we see the Bible as intended to apply usefully and directly to any human situation whatsoever and then to pick and choose verses from the Bible, while ignoring others, to accomplish that. For Corey, and I agree, the fundamental problem of this (see what I did there?) is that it views all parts of scripture as equal in authority and status.

Let’s start local, shall we? Let’s be legalistic for a moment and invoke Rule 107 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, the “Rule of Optional Completeness.” This rule allows an adverse party to inquire into any part of a writing when the other party has introduced a portion of that writing into evidence.

If we read all of Romans 13:1-5, we get the following: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who dos o will bring judgment upon themselves. For rules hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The presumption of these verses is righteous rulership by a just ruler who sees himself as a servant of God (and presumably also the people). It does not address behavior when the authorities are acting unjustly and immorally. If we are to act as “a matter of conscience,” it is conceivable that there are situations in which resisting authority is the righteous action.

Both in Biblical history and the ancient world in which Paul lived, we have a multitude of examples of unrighteous rulers. Chronicles and Kings give us plenty of rulers of Israel who “commit the sins” of their fathers before them or who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The dominance of Rome and its rulers in Judea certainly demonstrated exploitative and unjust rulership. It is important, and perhaps ironic, that Paul writes this letter to the Romans and includes the words of 13:1-5. At the time Paul is probably writing, the Roman authorities had little interest in the nascent Christian movement, mostly because they weren’t really sure how to differentiate them from Jews. Persecution would soon ramp up, but at this point things were still relatively calm. Even so, Paul’s argument about the divine right of kings, though supported by the Old Testament stories of the early kings, was not entirely borne out by the long history of kings of Israel and Judah. That oughtn’t be ignored in evaluating Paul’s words.

Still in Romans 13 (verses 8 and 10), Paul writes: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law….Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is fulfillment of the law.”

So, even within the same chapter (remember that chapters are an artificial interpolation, so I use this term to mean “very nearby in the text”), Paul provides us with scripture stating that the government’s position is violation God’s law because it is causing harm.

As a side note, my instinctual response to a leader that cites Romans 13 in, however understated, a claim to divine right and authority is that that person doesn’t understand servant leadership and therefore cannot be the type of ruler described in this passage.

As important as the local landscape of Romans 13:1 is, we must interpret Paul’s words here by reference to the Bible as a whole–with particular attention paid to Jesus’ words and actions.

Here, let us start with other things that the Pauline epistles say of similar tone. I should preface this by saying that, although Romans is one of the epistles about which there is little doubt that Paul is indeed the author, both Ephesians and Colossians are of more disputed authorship, with many arguing that they are Deutero-Pauline, that is, in line with Pauline thought but not written by Paul himself.

Ephesians 6:5-6 reads: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Colossians 3:22 says almost exactly the same thing. This repetition leads to three primary interpretations, I think: (1) the author of Ephesians and Colossians is the same person; (2) the writer of Ephesians had access to Colossians, or vice versa; or (3) this statement is based on something Paul said or wrote that is not directly attested.

If we are comfortable that these epistles conform with Pauline thought, regardless of authorship, we need not resolve the authorship issue (which is good, because we can’t).

Modern Christianity has rejected slavery in all of its forms–we have reject Pauline thought here in favor of “doing no harm” as a truer practice of Christian love. If we have rejected this logic as flawed, we have decided that, inspired as the author(s) of the epistles might have been, they are prone to error in judgment at times. So why not conduct the same analysis of the statement in Romans 13?

For the best resolution of any ambiguity here (which I’ll admit remains somewhat speculative and incomplete), we have to look to the words and actions of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 22:15-22, when confronted by the Pharisees about whether Caesar’s tax should be paid, Jesus tells them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Here, Jesus clearly separates temporal rulership from divine rulership. What’s more, if the interpolated punctuation accurately reflects the rhetoric employed, Jesus has set temporal rule and divine rule in contrast or opposition to one another.

If we want to put a fine point on it, we might refer to Mark 9:37, where Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Or Mark 10:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Here we might also comment that Jesus Christ, as Messiah, defied messianic expectations by refusing to foment military overthrow of Roman (and generally foreign) dominance. There are several viable interpretations for this–nonviolence, a lack of interest in immediate temporal affairs over divine and eternal ones, a theological statement through choice of action that comments on how the Jews might have misunderstood God (especially those in the apocalyptic schools of thought of the time). I tend to believe that Jesus’s focus on love and mercy says everything it needs to about the evaluation of temporal power. Combined with Paul’s words on Romans 13 on love that follow the argument for obeying authority, I think there’s plenty here to support the stance that Jesus’s words (and actions) tell us not just that we ought to oppose unjust authorities of the world, but that we ought to do so peacefully whenever that is possible.

If we look to Jesus’ actions in driving out the money changers at the Temple, we see that (related in Matthew 22:12-13, but also in Mark 11:15-18 and Luke 19:45-47) Jesus does not shy away from taking action against those who abuse their position–though the extent to which there is any real “violence” in this act is highly debatable, as I’ve explored somewhat in my series, “The End of Violence.”

When we look more completely at the statements of Romans 13, comparing it to other parts of the scriptures, looking to our own traditions and to our experiences of rulership in history and even in the modern world we know, and when we apply logic to prioritize ideas that are contradictory (or at least not readily in line with one another), we see that we must take the position that Paul’s statement in Romans 13:1 needs to be read as speaking to a specific situation and time, needs to be nuanced, or needs to be rejected altogether in light of the example of Christ and our call to love our neighbors–especially when loving our neighbors requires standing against injustice.

Would that anyone who wants to support an argument using scripture would take such a broad and careful approach before relying on a single verse at face value!

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