JESUS AT OUR BORDERS
By Dr. DAN STIVER
In April, the administration instituted a new policy of dealing with immigrants at the border, which has involved heart-wrenching scenes of forcibly taking children and babies from their parents. This policy was a dramatic change from two previous presidents of both parties, Bush and Obama, over 16 years, including this administration’s own policy for the first 15 months. It has called forth widespread bipartisan protest, even from former strong supporters of the administration such as Franklin Graham. As a political policy, it has been controversial—even a debacle—but when Attorney General Jeff Sessions on June 11 turned to the Bible as a defense, the issue entered an entirely new, perhaps desperate, dimension. The implication was that any criticism would be a rejection of the authority of Scripture, of Christianity, and of God. Due to the huge moral outcry, the policy was reversed, showing that it was neither legally necessary nor required by Scripture.
This biblical appeal, nevertheless, has been widely criticized, but hopefully we can gain some insights from the mistake. One is a historical one. Any politician venturing on such fraught terrain should at least have a good sense of Christian and American history. Unfortunately, this was an incredibly tone-deaf turn to perhaps the worst passage they could have found, Romans 13:1-7. This passage has a notorious history of misuse and abuse, being applied over and over not to the good use of government but to bad, not as a way of helping governments live up to the mission of this passage of reflecting basic godly values but as a way of evading and even dashing them to the ground.
It has been used over and over by abusive kings and dictators to call for submission to oppressive actions. In American history, it was used by pro-slavery proponents to justify slavery and to demand submission of slaves, and, to make the point even worse, whose children were being torn from their arms and even husbands and wives being torn from each other’s arms. How tone-deaf can one be as an American to bring up that verse in this context of tearing children away from their parent’s arms? The use of this passage is even more complex in American history. It was used by the British to oppose the American revolution. If this passage had been taken in the wooden way that it was used by Sessions and others, there would have been no American revolution.
Ironically, Sessions’ own beloved Alabama was a slave state that left the Union at the time of the Civil War. Sessions’ use of this passage made their act clearly an act of illegal rebellion, an affront to the Bible and to Christianity. As mentioned, the verse was used to promote slavery and also the return of runaway slaves in the North to their “lawful owners.” It was later used to justify the horrific abuses of Jim Crow laws; it was used in South Africa to support apartheid. In this light, to use these verses as a kind of blank check for any government action is preposterous. It is clearly not a verse allowing for governments to do whatever they want, remembering that governments easily can make a claim for almost anything to be “legal” and thus calling for subjection.
A second insight has to do with biblical interpretation. How does one interpret this passage? A first and ancient principle of interpreting the Bible, Biblical Interpretation 101, one might say, is that one interprets any passage in the context of the whole Bible. The Bible is not like a scattered bag of marbles, just a melange of disconnected passages. Rather, the early church took great pains, with many other choices, to select just these writings, all of which they saw as inspired. This means that one can’t cherry pick one’s favorite verses or practice what some call kangaroo interpretation, hopping from one verse to another that serves one’s interest. Any verse also has to be interpreted in its context. In the context, it is not a powerful Roman government official speaking in Romans 13; it is someone in an oppressed minority calling for those in his group not to unnecessarily offend the powers that be.
Thus the more appropriate context for Sessions would be the plethora of passages that call for leaders to govern with compassion and care for the most needy, such as, “Woe to those who make unjust laws.” (Isa. 10:1, NIV). Additionally, as soon as one looks at the whole Bible, at the very least the New Testament, one finds that there are many times when the Roman, and Jewish, rule was rejected and criticized. Jesus did this with Jewish law and arguably Roman law; Peter, Stephen, and Paul, seemingly not following his own advice, also did so. This indicates pretty clearly, therefore, that the verse does not mean that one must accept whatever a government does or that whatever a government does is right. It cannot then be used in the way Sessions used it, as carte blanche for government, dictators, or anyone in governmental authority to do whatever they want, as long as they claim legality.
What it does indicate is an “in principle” type of affirmation, namely, that government in general is ordained as a good thing. In a sense, it is a way of saying that anarchy will not work, where everyone does whatever is right in their own eyes, as the Bible says of the people at the end of the book of Judges (21:25) It is like seeing that marriage is ordained as a good thing in principle, as are families. This surely, however, does not mean that anything that goes on in a marriage or family must be accepted as good. In fact, other parts of the Bible call for resistance to abuses of marriage and family—and also of government. Government should be respected in principle, such as paying taxes, as Paul points out in the passage, but putting it in the context of the whole Bible shows that it does not rule out criticism of government (maybe even of taxes!) when it falls short of its role as supporting basic godly values such as the dignity and value of all human beings.
This point is even more striking when one follows the advice of many New Testament scholars to be sure to read Romans 13 and Revelation 13, with the notorious 666 reference, together. They are speaking of the same Roman government! Romans 13 says that government in principle is good and should be respected as far as one can. Revelation 13 says that government can betray its calling, can become evil, can become demonic. We saw this in our time when nations opposed Nazi Germany. Nazis loved this passage. Contrary to such use, the book of Revelation calls for standing up to the abuse of government, when it calls for betraying one’s faith, even if it means martyrdom.
Thus, seen in the light of the whole Bible, an aspect of the meaning of Romans 13 is that it points to good government, which fulfills its divine purpose. Part of taking this passage seriously is to work to promote good government—and to resist bad government. There’s nothing in the passage that suggests that criticism of poor government is ruled out; there’s nothing that suggests that one must support government no matter what government does, any more than one has to support what any marriage partner does, or any parent does. In fact, in a whole biblical context, a better fulfillment of the passage is to oppose ungodly laws and policies, trying to make government live up to its divine calling rather than betray it. That is not violating the passage; it is fulfilling it.
This is particularly true in the concrete case of American government. It is not people of the government, by the government, for the government. It is government of the people, by the people, for the people. In this country, citizens are not servants of government officials; government officials are servants of the people. This means that a part of a citizen’s responsibility is to be critical of government for the purpose of making it better—a responsibility that typically all parties have taken up with enthusiasm, especially if their party is out of power! Such criticism can usually be done in this country, thankfully, in perfectly lawful ways. How does one support government? One can pray for it, but one’s prayer can be for it to be better, and to pray for strength to criticize and improve it, lest it forfeit, as the Roman Empire did in the book of Revelation, and Nazi Germany did in our time, its divine purpose.
A final insight also relates to looking at the whole biblical context. What are the values that Christians should promote? Rather than taking one verse out of context, one can look at settings over and over where the Bible calls for loving one’s neighbor, caring for the poor, doing to others what one would want done to oneself, and treating others as if they were Christ. In the Old Testament, Israel was constantly reminded that they had been slaves and then immigrants. This was to humble them and to move them to treat with compassion similar needy people in their midst. In fact, the prophets stressed again and again that Israel would be judged by how they treated the most vulnerable among them; in their time, it was the orphan, the widow, and the resident alien. These are the biblical starting points. The end is that interpreting the Bible in context should make us better, not worse.
Much has to be worked out in concrete application to particular situations, of course, but a more telling appeal to Christians than the one Sessions used is Matthew 25 where Jesus refers to judgment of nations for how they cared for the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked, and the stranger as himself. “Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (25:40, NKJV) According to the biblical narrative, Jesus was an immigrant to Egypt as a child. Should Joseph and Mary have defied their government in fleeing Bethlehem? This question leads to another question and a striking picture: if Jesus, Mary, and Joseph appeared at our borders seeking entry, desperate to escape a murderous tyrant, how would we want them to be treated?
Dr. Dan Stiver is the Cook-Derrick Professor of Theology at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University
Featured Photo © Tomas Castelazo