A Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

**Update: for ways to assist families affected, see this post.

Dear Mr. Sessions,

You seem to be having a bad press week, sir.  I can imagine that is frustrating.  You are enduring a lot of criticism for what you believe is doing your job.  To make it worse, much of the criticism is coming from the Southern Christians you have counted on as a loyal base for so long.  It has been pointed out, Mr. Sessions, that you are a United Methodist.  I am a United Methodist pastor, so in this time of struggle, I feel it is incumbent on me to offer a couple of pastoral words.

You gave a speech today in Fort Wayne.  The prepared text is posted on the DoJ website. In that speech, you attempt to make a case for recent actions as right enforcement of established law.  I will leave questions about the logic and politics of your argument to those more qualified to assess them.  But, a little more than halfway through, you invoke Romans 13.  To be more specific, you seem to be referencing Romans 13:1-7

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but too bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

I understand the appeal of these verses for your argument, especially when they are taken in isolation.  However, I fear, Mr. Sessions, that you have not done the best exegetical work possible.  Three things are problematic in the way you are using these verses.

Context Matters

First, context matters, and you have not acknowledged the context of Paul’s letter.   You are attempting to justify the policies of one of the largest and arguably most powerful nations the world has ever known.  Paul is writing Romans to a marginalized, sometimes persecuted, minority trying to survive in the very capital of the largest most powerful empire the world had known to that point.  It is important to remember that is the same empire that would eventually behead Paul himself for his faith.

Paul’s comments here stand in line with the prophet Jeremiah’s call to seek the welfare of the city (even if you are an alien) and the words of Jesus.   When those in power are hostile to the people of God, we have to pick our battles.  However you, sir, are speaking for those in power about those who are the definition of powerless.  These might not be your words to borrow.

Romans 12 & 13

Secondly, if you are going to borrow Romans 13:1-7, you need to be reading it as part of the whole letter.  Stepping back just 11 verses or adding the next 3 verses into the conversation colors the meaning of your passage. For the whole of the letter, Paul has been building an argument about the character of a disciple of Christ.  In Romans 12:9-21, we get a climactic list of marks.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Disciples are marked by love.  Love shows itself in affection, zeal, patience, and hospitality.  Love approaches relationships from a stance of humility and peace, and above all, it holds to good and trusts God to overcome evil rather than taking matters into its own hands.  This emphasis on love is echoed in Romans 13: 8-10.

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Taken between these two bookends, I think it is clear that Paul does not intend respect for political authority to overrule love of neighbor.  You do Romans 13:1-7 a disservice if you read it as a justification for rule of law devoid of compassion.  Part of the reason so many Christians are reacting to the treatment of migrant people on our borders is that it feels utterly devoid of compassion.  It is also worth noting that the reason many Christian leaders are reacting badly to your speech is we’ve read  Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The German government of his day used this exact passage to rationalize many of their most heinous policies to the church.  Now, I am not calling you a Nazi, sir; there is far too much of that nowadays.  But you should be aware you are walking a thin thin line.  I would recommend Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as well as Hannah Arendt’s On Totalitarianism.  They both have excellent reflections on the risks of co-opting the church into the work of the State.

The Role of the Church

Which brings me to the last point.  In your speech, it felt like you wanted the Church’s support. I know its hard to be out on a limb alone and harder still to field attacks from a quarter you did not expect.  But here’s the thing: it is not the job of the Church to sanction the policies of rulers. It is our job to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.  At times we will do this by supporting legislation or advocating for marginalized people.  We will also do it by criticizing laws and policies that violate our principles.  The Church does not solely align with any political party because our first allegiance is to God; our work and our witness are devoted to God.  If you ask us to twist the words of the Jesus to suit the policies of any administration we are going to balk.  The God we serve ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. He welcomed gentiles, and the unclean, and children. He told us we would be judged, not by the prestige of our nation or the security of our borders, but by the way we treated the orphan, the widow, the poor, the alien, and the imprisoned.  It is not our job to concoct justifications for your actions, even if they are lawful.  Law and order, peace and security, those are your job.   It is the Church’s job to proclaim the kingdom of God.  I’m sorry that very little of what you have done lately lines up with that kingdom.

As a fellow United Methodist, I respect that you are trying to ground your moral decisions in Scripture.  I’m told you are a Sunday School teacher, so I suspect at some point you’ve walked through the Wesleyan Quadrilateral with folks.   I see what you’re trying to do here.  Taking a text and reading it with Reason.  But Tradition and Experience are also crucial parts of the process.  I think the pressure you are feeling, is the weight of the Christian traditions of hospitality and grace and brotherhood/sisterhood.  I think the outcry you hear is an echo of the Church’s experience with German concentration camps and Amercian internment camps.  The bishops of our denomination along with other faith leaders are calling to you and our Methodist understanding of community and moral reasoning ought to compel you to listen.

I understand that the policies you are implementing are lawful. (Though that does not make them good)  I understand they are a campaign promise fulfilled.  I understand that you may be acting out of the best of intentions for what you think is right for the country.  So plead your case on law, and politics, and intentions, but I would suggest leaving faith out of it.  Scripture will not support you, sir.  And if you are troubled by the outcry from the Church, then listen, heed our wisdom and relent.

You are in my prayers, Mr. Sessions, along with every family detained and separated at the border and every officer asked to enforce these policies.  I hope that you find both peace and wisdom.

In Christ,

Rev. Walker

 

PS:  Mr. Sessions, you and I both grew up in southern Methodist churches.  So I suspect that you know this truth: you do not cross the UMW.  Even today as a grown pastor I know when the UMW shows up in my office, they will walk away with what they want.  Partly because they are a powerful lobby, but mostly because for generations they have represented our tradition at its best.  They are the beating heart of our mission in the world and have often been the UMC’s voice of conscience.  There are excellent reasons you do not cross the UMW.  So I point you to their words:

We know the harm we are doing to children with this policy, which makes this deliberate separating of children from their parents for the intent of punishing the family particularly vile. This must stop now.

29 thoughts on “A Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

  1. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for your thoughtful words, Rev. Walker. I too am a United Methodist, and mother of a UMC pastor. You spoke well on our behalf.

  2. Thank you for you eloquent, and well reasoned letter. I cannot be as calm and rational about this. “Render unto Caeser” does not pardon everything the administration does. And Caeser wasn’t Christian.

  3. Very tactful reprimand, but too subtle to pierce the skulls of this administration, driven by hate, bigotry and greed.

    • This is what frightens me, and what angers me, in that Sessions will dismiss Reverend Walker’s words out of hand.

  4. Wonderfully wize and eloquently stated, Rev. Walker. Having had the privilege of hearing you preach the Word of God, I’m not at all surprised. I hope you are not disheartened by AG Sessions’ failure to understand the logic of your letter, much less comprehend your Biblically-based attempt to urge him to stop perverting the Word (although of course you are too well-mannered to accuse him of that – leave that to me). He has no interest in any of the Biblical passages that don’t support his decision. And he probably doesn’t even know, or care, about the historical context of the use of this passage. Thank you for your letter, Kate, we must never, ever give up.

  5. You’re right, Debra, we must never give up. We can’t give up fighting for good. We also can’t give in to vitriol. When we employ rhetoric that dismisses the faith or humanity of those with whom we disagree we become little more than clanging cymbals.

    The use of faith to defend the indefensible is maddeningly frustrating. But at least today, I believe we have to model the grace and gentleness we wish to call forth in others.

  6. Thank you so much for standing up to this evil and defending this misuse of the Scripture. I hope many will stand with you in speaking against these atrocities.

    • Calling All Christians to step up in faith and give witness to the love of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. We must not fail by being silent in the midst of such evil.

  7. Thank you Reverend. I am a United Methodist Woman praying for the children and their parents. I pray that Jeff Sessions will wake up and do the right thing before it’s time to meet his maker.

  8. Thanks for your excellent response to Mr. Sessions. Our nation is certainly not responding as Jesus described the Samaritan’s behavior. Please keep reminding us that our actions are to reflect love. Miss your thoughtful and thought provoking sermons.

  9. The law needs to be changed! Mr. Sessions is simply trying to carry out an outdated law of the land. His mistake was using the Bible as a source to substantiate the law instead of the law on the books of our country. As a small aside: Argument is misspelled many times even though it is the root of Mr. Sessions speech; he needs to only use the federal law as his argument and then start pushing Congress to CHANGE THE LAW, NOT BREAK IT!

  10. This is probably going to make me very very unpopular in United Methodist circles.
    A very well-thought-out and extremely well-written letter congratulations. However some parts of it trouble me for instance it seems that when we’re criticizing the United States too often the fallback position is to compare what we’re doing to what was going on in Nazi Germany in the 1930′ & 40’s. To compare that to the United States enforcement of immigration law to stanch the flow of illegal migrants across our Southern border I find just that little bit disingenuous. To me you’re comparing apples to oranges. While I have no problem with helping those who absolutely cannot do for themselves. I have a big problem with people sneaking into this country in violation of established immigration laws and policies and establishing themselves on our Public Assistance programs with no intention of assimilating into the mainstream culture. While it is right to worry about the plight of children separated from their parents why was not the Methodist Church so worried about all of these unescorted children coming across the border in droves and by the plane load under the Obama Administration?
    Where was the UMC while that was going on and where those children’s parents?
    While we’re on the subject of children and the protection thereof why is not the United Methodist Church as concerned for the rights of Unborn children as they appear to be about children being separated from their illegal alien parents at the border?
    If we are not going to protect all the children, including the Unborn, we dare not try to cherry pick the ones that we are going to protect.

  11. I went to college with Jeff Sessions at Huntington College, a Methodist College in Montgomery AL. That school and the Methodist Church both teach love, compassion, and acceptance. Mr. Sessions has forgotten his roots.

  12. Sir:
    I’m a UMM. This is an extremely sensitive social issue that the media has exploited unbelievably.
    Your implication is if one disagrees with law and or enforcement of it, ignore or rebel against it.
    As a man of conscience who loves children especially my own grandchildren I must point out that life is not this simple. Why do mothers intentionally break our laws knowing the position in which they are putting their children?
    Also, I read with first graders and it’s pitiful how many are malnourished. Many have zero male influence in their lives.
    Where are the loud voices(votes) that deal with the horrible sin of abortion? I don’t think the Apostle Paul would deal with this very kindly.
    There are many, many social issues that need loud voices to address. Many of which I feel to which I could apply scripture.

  13. Reverend Walker, your letter is well-written and is starting to make the rounds on my Facebook feed. Because I feel that what you’ve written should be read by many people, I am stepping out of my comfort zone to reply here. (I looked for a way to contact you privately.) You have a few proofreading/spelling errors that I fear will cause people to dismiss your writing. I would be honored to help you edit these to ensure that people will not be distracted and will hear your words. Also, if I have overstepped, I sincerely apologize.

    • Thank you for your concern Laura; you are not out on a limb. I’ll confess that most of this blog is things I write for myself and my congregation. This post was originally no exception. I’m surprised it had so much life but glad it is helpful for people. I have now run it through a grammar & spelling screener. If you see anything else, feel free to DM me. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Thank you, Rev. Walker for the letter. I just about cried reading it.. I hope Mr. Sessions reads it. Jesus Christ said above all, ‘LOVE” is at the top. Jesus Christ has higher authority than the great Apostle Paul.

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