Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the Bible to defend the Trump administration’s new policy of separating children from their parents when families are caught trying to enter the United States. “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful,” he stated.
Mr. Sessions’s statement raises the question of how Christians should apply the Bible to law and public policy. In this case, the Attorney General seems to have engaged in proof-texting, the practice of quoting scripture out-of-context to confirm one’s own agenda.
In Romans 13:1–7, Paul indeed recommends that his readers be law-abiding. In the preceding passage, he urges the Romans to love their enemies and not seek revenge. In the following passage he states that various commandments like, “Thou shalt not kill,” and “Thou shalt not steal” can be summed up as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Also relevant to any interpretation of Romans 13 is the fact that the Christians in Rome were persecuted by the authorities from time-to-time.
In context, Paul’s command to be subject to the authorities means, “Don’t do the things that both the divine and the secular law condemn, such as murder and theft. When the state harasses you because of your faith, do not seek revenge or engage in seditious acts.” Read in context, it is hard to find a justification for the administration’s new policy in Romans 13:1–7.
Applying the scriptures to contemporary issues is not easy, but Presbyterians have guidelines for this task in our confessional standards. We believe that no interpretation is valid that undermines Christian faith or violates the rule of love. In addition, the words and deeds of Jesus ought to guide our interpretation of scripture. Finally, we are to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying throughout the scriptures when trying to understand any one verse or passage.
These guidelines do not yield a comprehensive immigration policy, but they do point in a direction other than the one the administration set out on a couple of months ago. There are many commands in both the Old and New Testaments not to oppress aliens and to show hospitality to strangers. The basis for this openness to strangers is the memory that our ancestors in faith were oppressed aliens in the land of Egypt. In addition, Jesus said that to welcome strangers is to welcome him.
It is hard to see how a policy that separates children from their parents and detains them in cages, as is the case today in McAllen, Texas, agrees with the rule of love. It is even harder to see how holding children in detention centers as a negotiating tactic with Congress, as the President characterized it, agrees with the rule of love.
Our nation needs an overhaul of its immigration laws. Christians of good faith and conscience can and will disagree over the details. The Christian contribution to the immigration debate ought to be one of keeping love and empathy at the center of the legislative debate.