No, Attorney General Sessions, you may not use Paul’s words in Romans 13:1 to justify the heinous separation of children from their parents. That text was abused by church officials who ordered the brutal Crusades against Muslims, by southern preachers who sought to prop-up the Confederacy’s shameful claim that slavery was consistent with God’s will, and by German Christians who cravenly legitimated Nazism.
Like them, Sessions has made the Bible a tool of propaganda. He has attempted to clothe naked cruelty with scripture, and he has failed.
Romans 13, like all biblical texts, requires interpretation, not just citation or quotation. Paul assumed that the government to which a Christian would be subject would not be a “terror to good conduct but to bad” (Romans 13:3) and that it would “serve the good” (13:4). Paul goes on to say that Christians should “owe no one anything, except to love one another” (13:8) and that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (13:10). How can we ever, except by the blunting of conscience, call ripping a child from its mother’s arms “good conduct” or “love of neighbor”?
Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans around 60 C.E. Whatever the nature of the Empire’s treatment of Christians in Rome might have been at that time, we know it had changed and become far more hostile, by the end of the first century, when the Elder John penned Book of Revelation. When John wrote about the Empire, he referred to it as a “beast” who “uttered haughty and blasphemous words” and demanded acquiescent obedience, even nationalistic worship. John urged Christians not to submit to the beast, even if it cost them their lives (see Revelation 13:5-10).
Clearly, the New Testament has more the one view of government and Christians’ relationship to it.
Most importantly, for followers of Jesus, if someone uses Scripture to contradict Jesus—to lead us away from his words, deeds, and character—we can be sure they have misused it. In his well-known parable about judgment (Matthew 25:31f.), a king rewards his “righteous” citizens for their deeds of justice and compassion. They ask:
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirst and gave you something to drink? And when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
The king replies: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
Can you imagine that Jesus, for whom active love for the least and last was a test of righteousness, treating people the way our government is now treating the strangers who appear at our borders? I cannot.
Sometimes governments commit injustices, limit freedoms and deny basic human rights. In such circumstances, Christians cannot quietly go along. We are citizens first of the rule and reign of God. Our first loyalty is to the will and way of Jesus.
We need to acknowledge that the United States, like each of its citizens, is flawed. Like all things human, our nation “sins and falls short of the glory of God.” It isn’t immune to the infections of injustice and greed or outbreaks of harshness and cruelty. For that reason, I resonate with this stanza in “America the Beautiful”; it’s a prayer for national reformation:
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
What if we sang that song at the border, along with this one?
Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow black and white
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.