Let’s talk about Jeff Sessions’ biblical defense for the policy of separating children from their parents at the US border. It’s a bait and switch game meant to confuse Christians into tolerating an utter rejection of hospitality and blatant denial of human dignity.
First, he reminds Christians of Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.” He thinks this means people should obey whatever their government says, even though this letter was written by a guy executed for not doing what his government said.
But that line comes just after these:
Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them….Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rather, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good. (Rom. 12:14, 17-21)
Paul is saying that God is in charge of whatever government is making laws, so Christians should not be in despair or waver in charity. Paul’s message to the Romans is that if the government kills you because you obey God, as it did Paul and so many others (not to mention Jesus), you can endure that in hope: submit to that treatment and God will make them answer for it.
Then Mr. Sessions claims that Trump’s wall is like Nehemiah’s wall. Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem so that there could once again be a place dedicated to the service of God, a city under God’s law that could be a light to the nations. As he is re-establishing Jerusalem, Nehemiah hears a complaint against some of the Jews who will be its citizens. Their offense?
Some said: “We are forced to pawn our sons and daughters in order to get grain to eat that we may live.” …And though these are our own kindred, and our children are as good as theirs, we have had to reduce our sons and daughters to slavery, and violence has been done to some of our daughters! Yet we can do nothing about it, for our fields and vineyards belong to others.”
I was extremely angry when I heard the reasons for their complaint. After some deliberation, I called the nobles and magistrates to account, saying to them, “You are exacting interest from your own kindred!”… Let us put an end to this usury! Return to them this very day their fields, vineyards, olive groves, and houses, together with the interest on the money, the grain, the wine, and the oil that you have lent them.” (Neh 5: 2, 6-7, 10-11)
The US is not biblical Israel, and appeals to Israel as a basis for US law reflect a legacy of supersessionism. But insofar as a just government might draw on Nehemiah as a model, it would defend families in poverty by calling out exploitation. Jerusalem was re-established to call all nations to justice. Sessions’ way of enforcing US borders– keeping people in need out by traumatizing children– is giving scandal to the world, not creating a model of justice.
Finally, Sessions says the US is a secular state, so if anybody– for example the USCCB — says the policy is immoral, it doesn’t matter: the state doesn’t have to listen to the church. Bait and switch: Christians should follow the Bible, insofar as what the Bible requires is unquestioning acceptance of the current administration’s policies.
The US has intentionally destroyed families like this before, in legal sale of enslaved children away from their parents, in forcing Native American children into schools where they would lose their culture, in separating families during the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. What Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove has dubbed “slaveholder religion” has been trotted out again and again to defend those sorts of actions.
There is a lot to be said about the causes of migration and the best way to shape US policies on migration. But there has not been and is not now any moral defense for intentionally traumatizing children as a way of achieving any policy goal. Christians must, for the good of the church and the souls of our brothers and sisters, call out this game.