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What Jeff Sessions Got Wrong About The Bible On Immigration

Original CBC op-ed by Grace Houghton

When he quoted the Bible to support Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions plucked a convenient verse out of Romans 13 to skew Paul’s meaning and so made a complex decision look disturbingly simple.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” Sessions said.

Sessions cherry-picked the message that would support his argument to uphold the zero-tolerance policy from the first lines of the chapter: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (Rm. 13:1, 2).

Sessions didn’t speak to the law’s justice, but justified obeying a law based only on its orderliness and status as law: “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful.”

This part of his speech cannot be traced to any verse in Romans 13.

Maybe Sessions had Matthew 2 in mind, when Herod’s soldiers consistently applied the king’s law to kill all babies under two years old and slaughtered the weak and the lawful through a ruthlessly fair application of the law.

They didn’t have recorders in those days, but if they had, we would hear “a voice in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children” (Jer. 31:15).

Orderliness is not enough for a law to be moral.

Paul acted on this understanding of law and morality himself. He obeyed civil laws until they breached a moral line he wasn’t willing to cross. For him, that line was his duty towards God.

He frequently provoked riots by preaching, and was both unorderly and unlawful when he disobeyed the authorities who told him not to preach the Gospel. He sat in jail as he wrote the passage Sessions quoted – because his moral priorities trumped the laws of the state – but not because he prioritized orderliness.

Sessions escaped the moral tension of the immigration situation by ignoring other verses that order Christians to “shelter the outcast” (Is. 16:3) and “defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless” (Ps. 82:3).

He ignores the Bible’s challenge to our moral integrity, to our commitment to justice, and to our ability to discern the best choice in a no-winners situation. If we choose to shelter the fatherless – we break the law as it currently stands. If we uphold the zero-tolerance law, we don’t welcome the outcast.

In either case, if we call on the Bible to support a position, we must reckon with both sides of the argument: responsibility to uphold the law and responsibility to the outcasts. Making moral decisions is often uncomfortable and never convenient, especially with the present issue of immigration. Sessions took the easy way out.

God doesn’t ask his people to make orderly decisions. He asks them to make tough calls. Being a Christian may set you at odds with your own family. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Matt 10:35). Your dearest loves may collide: love for God and love for the people.

The Bible resists being used as a quick-fix moral tool box, and instead forces us to wrestle with the messiness of life. “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” (Prv. 26: 4-5.)

This isn’t a contradiction; but a call for wisdom when a situation isn’t morally black and white. Wisdom is especially important when there is no good option and either alternative has bad consequences – as in the immigration problem.

We face a simultaneous challenge of integrity, morality, and legality. Are we making the right laws? Are we enforcing the laws we have? Whichever way you decide – uphold the law or shelter the outcasts – you must accept the consequences of your decision.

If we trumpet “America first!” and champion zero-tolerance and protection for American families and jobs, then we must take the video of crying children with it too. The poor and oppressed who enter illegally will be arrested and turned away.

If we want to keep all the families together and let them all in, we must sort through the human traffickers to process the true families. We must be willing to give up jobs to those willing to work for less, and must figure out housing for thousands of families.

The Bible isn’t an eject handle we yank to launch ourselves away from hard decisions. It plunges us into life’s moral messiness and tough decisions. The questions Jeff Sessions raised more by quoting the Bible are more than he answered, and the questions are possibly more challenging than we are prepared to answer.


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