On Thursday, at a talk in Fort Wayne — part of a national grin-and-grip tour — Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13, a New Testament passage, to justify his department’s policy of separating asylum seeking immigrant children from parents at America’s border. The passage is an appeal by the apostle Paul to Christian Romans who he urges to obey government authority because “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Sessions used the passage to suggest that government laws, by dint of being government laws, are moral. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful,” Sessions told an audience of 100 invited guests.
In citing the passage, Session offered a familiar argument. Romans 13 was commonly cited by Nazis and members of the Third Reich. Prior to that, it was a particularly popular American justification for slavery, which most people would agree did not, as a policy, protect the weak.
During the American revolutionary war, loyalists used Roman 13 to decry the actions of American patriots. During the time of America’s enslavement of Africans, the passage was used to justify the requirement that “fugitive slaves” be returned to their owners. And in Nazi Germany, Hitler was fond of Romans 13 because he could use it to keep the church subservient to his horrific regime.
The TL;DR interpretation of the passage: Might makes right. The problems with that? Myriad.
Fascinatingly, when the passage is used, it is frequently lifted from surrounding verses that speak to loving one’s neighbor above all else. In the previous chapter Pauls writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” And in a later verse in Romans 13, Paul writes, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Those passages would seem to be a direct rebuke against not only turning away asylum seekers but also tearing kids from their families. But the new testament is chock full of passages that command Christians to welcome strangers and those who are weak and downtrodden. Most of those passages are attributed to none other than Christ, who, you know, is the reason for Christianity and all.
Most notable among Christ’s teachings is the parable of the sheep and the goats, documented in the book of Matthew, chapter 25. In this parable Christ explains to his disciples that they will be judged based on how they treated prisoners, strangers, the sick and the poor saying “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
But that’s just a drop in the bucket of the passages Session seems to ignore, the most glaring of which pertain to Christ’s love of children. In the book of Luke, chapter 9, Jesus is reported to have pulled a child from the crowd, telling his disciples “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
Those in power may or may not be empowered by God — that’s a matter of belief. The teachings of Jesus make it clear that kindness towards children is not optional. That’s a matter of fact.