**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.
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.
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.